Friday, February 21, 2014

Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey

     Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey (1960 text) I decided to read this after noticing that TVO would be showing the BBC/A&E version, and read a couple of chapters before we saw that well-done production. This is only the second of Austen’s novels that I’ve read. Though I’ve read Pride and Prejudice four or five times, I’ve never felt the urge to read the other ones. Don’t know why, perhaps I thought none would measure up to that masterwork.
     Northanger Abbey is intended both as parody of gothic romances and as a warning against taking them seriously. Catherine Morland, a naive country-bred girl, visits Bath in the company of her neighbours and god-parents, the Allens. The usual romantic contre-temps ensue, complicated by the presence of money-hunters. A couple of people believe that Catherine is the heir to the Allen fortune, of which they have an exaggerated estimate, as they do of her own family’s wealth. Henry Tilney, a second son educated as a clergyman, loves Catherine as she is, but at first resists, because his father, General Tilney, wants him to marry her for her money. When truth and clarity replace misconceptions and obscurity, the happiness of Catherine and Henry is assured. The tying-up of a few other loose ends brings happiness to Henry’s sister Isabel, too.
     The book is well done, but not to the same standard as Pride & Prejudice. The characterisation is adequate, the satire of the superficial society that “takes the waters” at Bath is nicely done, but somewhat perfunctory. Catherine, influenced by her reading of gothic romances and the atmosphere of Northanger Abbey (a partly ruined pile, filled with maze-like passages) suspects General Tilney of wife abuse (correctly) and of murder or immurement (incorrectly). Henry’s response when he discovers her suspicions does not ring true: he is altogether far too nice a chap. But I am judging by the rules of realistic fiction, which this is not. Austen began the book as satire, but she ends it as romance. Romances can get away with wish fulfillment versions of character and plot.
     The movie was, I think, better than Austen’s book. The romance was firmly placed in Catherine’s imagination, the characters were sharpened and augmented, the General’s tyranny over his children makes Henry’s mixed response to Catherine’s awful suspicions believable, and most of all Catherine’s naivete, her anxiety to please, her difficulty in resolving conflicting social demands, and her underlying good sense, kindness, and loyalty make her an appealing heroine who fully deserves the kind and loving husband that Henry will be. In this, the film makers took their cues from Austen’s other works, and gave us a movie of the book she might have produced if she had decided it was worth the revision. In any case, it has the authentic Austen touch: she shows us that marriage is a complex relationship of social demands and personal needs, and that a happy marriage is one that can meet the social demands because it satisfies the personal needs. This may be the reason Austen still makes sense today, when we have shifted the balance from the social to the personal. Book: **½, movie ***. (2011)

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