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Austen 2014: Introduction to Northanger Abbey

Below is my introduction to the first novel we'll tackle in our journey through Austen, Northanger Abbey. As will be the case with all of my entries, it is the work of a "partial, prejudiced & ignorant" scholar, so please be kind.

What's it about?

It's about a young woman meeting a man, falling love, and then becoming engaged to him near the novel's end, with an indication from the narrator that they will have a happy marriage. ...What, too vague? Fine,      

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman who is one of 10 children of a rural vicar--not too dissimilar from Austen herself. She is taken by the Allens, a wealthy, childless couple who are friends of the Morlands, to Bath, England's second city in terms of society. (Bath and its society is central to both NA and Persuasion--indeed, we will begin and end this year-long journey in Bath, so I'll be doing an extra post about Bath in the near future.) There she meets friends, potential husbands, and engages in her love for the Gothic novels that were popular at the time. Eventually, she will visit  some her new friends, the Tilneys, at their home, Northanger Abbey, where Catherine believes sinister deeds may be afoot... Catherine is certainly one of Austen's least mature heroines when we first meet her, so much of the dramatic action of the novel is centered around Catherine's, often painful, acquisition of the ability to discern true friends from false ones, good ideas for bad ones, and the evils of reality from the evils of her beloved Gothic fiction. In that sense, NA is very much a coming-of-age story, possibly the most clearly delineated one Austen wrote.

Whether you label it a pastiche, a parody, or a satire, Northanger Abbey is unique in Austen's novels in that it self-consciously takes as one its aims poking fun at a popular literary form, namely, the Gothic novel. In particular, Austen sets her sights upon the the Gothic novel as written by Anne Radcliffe, often referred to, both quaintly and patronizingly as "Mrs. Radcliffe." Far from being the only practitioner of the form, Radcliffe was, nonetheless, one of the leading lights of the genre, and her books The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian are both referenced frequently by Austen over the course of the novel, as well as parodied. As written by Radcliffe, the Gothic novel involved, well, what we now refer to as the Gothic: old, creepy European castles; counts or barons with dark secrets; secret passageways explored by candlelight; hidden cells deep within the dungeons holding unspeakable secrets: all the stuff that would later get incorporated into the Frankenstein and Dracula stories as told on stage and screen. The main difference is that, largely, while Gothic tales were lurid and "horrid" to use the word Austen's characters use, they were not supernatural stories, per se. They made claims to realism--or, at least, didn't rely on supernatural elements. While greatly exaggerated, human vice and virtue was their topic, just as it was Austen's.

What should I be looking for when I read?

Just as with Bath, NA offers many delights, a few of which I think deserve special attention. First, I would pay attention to the self-conscious nature of the work as a novel. As mentioned above, the novel is a sort of parody of a popular style, but Austen takes it several steps farther, commenting on Catherine's own unsuitability to be the heroine of a novel, and talking about the novel as a form, itself. Austen makes a strong case that, contrary to "merely" being works to entertain women and the less intelligent, as was often thought in her time, the novel, in fact, represents the highest pinnacle of literary achievement--an assessment that we've essentially adopted in modern times.

Second, pay attention to Austen's use of dialogue to delineate characters. Within a few sentences of speaking, we get very clear pictures of many of the characters, from Catherine herself to the brother/sister pairings of John and Isabella Thorpe and Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Henry Tilney, in particular, is a quotable character and his dialogue often has great wit and intelligence.

Last, I would encourage you to take a lot of the morality animating the story. Austen's lead characters are all complex moral agents, navigating many competing claims, while striving to do the right thing. This is a major component of her works, and it's well illustrated numerous times in NA, as Catherine, for the first time away from her parents, seeks to make the proper decisions without their guidance.

When was it written? Is this really Austen's first completed novel? (Only read if you're curious--it's not all that important a question.)

Yes and no. And no again.

As I mentioned in my overall intro to this project, Northanger Abbey wasn't actually published in Austen's lifetime, instead coming out in 1818 along with her last novel, Persuasion. It was written significantly earlier, and probably finished by 1803, save a few changes, with most of the the work having been done in 1798-99, when Austen was in her early/mid twenties. There are various accounts of which novels were written and completed when, with tradition stating that the three early novels, Northanger, Sense & Sensibility, and Pride & Prejudice were written one after another in the late 1790s, with various orders being given but with Northanger being the last of the three. So why read it first?

Well, some scholars have argued, I think persuasively, that, while Northanger was the last of the three earlier novels to be completed in bulk, it was the first of the three to be set aside as largely "finished" by Austen. She sold it, in what we assume was something quite like the form we have it, to a publisher in Bath in 1803, who proceeded to sit on it, as he was apparently an idiot and had no taste. Austen and a brother later bought it back after getting a bit of money from her other novels, which had also made her something of a literary celebrity, though anonymously. The Bath publisher never knew, it seems, the that lonely little novel he bought in 1803 was by the same author as the quite successful Sense & Sensibility and the even more successful Pride & Prejudice. In any case, for reasons we can only speculate on as Austen's correspondence is only spottily preserved, much of it having been burned by her sister Cassandra upon her death, Austen never found another publisher for it. So, it seems likely to me that it sat on the shelf, while Austen worked on other novels. Indeed, there is a note, written by Austen to accompany NA were it ever to be published, that strongly indicates that she felt that some of the elements in the story had gone out of fashion and might be difficult for later readers to understand. This strongly indicates, to me, that, at some point, she stopped revising and just let it stay as it was.

The other two early novels were published well after Northanger was first sold (1811 for S&S, 1813 for P&P) and one assumes she was revising them fairly constantly before publication--especially as we have evidence that both were originally written in the 1790s as epistolary novels, i.e. novels told in the form of letters. This had been the reigning novel from in the 1700s, but was already falling from favor by the time Austen was using it, so she made the very wise decision to revise them as third person narratives. So, my completely theoretical, though plausible timeline, is that she writes the bulk of the three novels, revises NA to a near-final state, sells it, continues to work on S&S and P&P, and sells and publishes them, only making minor changes to NA before her death. Of course, this could all be wrong, and NA could be the third novel in the sequence of six. I've been wrong before, so it wouldn't be an unprecedented event.

So, that's the yes and no mentioned above. As for the "no again": Austen had already completed at least one novel before setting to work on any of the three books discussed above. Well, a novella, really. Called Lady Susan and written in the epistolary style, it dates from Austen's late teens, most likely, putting it first in the pecking order, as it were. I'll be talking about it at some point over the course of his year in more detail, but suffice to say here that it's the sort of bridge between her early works written during her teens ("juvenilia" to use the literary term of art--which I'll also write about, because Austen's juvenilia is awesome), intended only to amuse various family members, and her later, mature novels, that were written with an eye toward publication.

If, gentle reader, all this doesn't really, in the end, justify Northanger Abbey's position as first in this year's rotor I'll fall back to that most subjective of things: to me, it just *feels* like her first novel. There are elements in it that seem rougher and less carefully constructed than in her later works. These elements appear to a lesser extent in S&S, and are almost entirely absent from P&P, so that's the order we're taking them.


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