London: Collins Classic, 2012
XIV + 258 pp.
At the risk of suffering from the curse of Morris Zapp, I did not read Jane Austen while pursuing my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature – it is necessary to choose which courses to take on the basis that one person cannot read everything and I preferred Old English, Medieval literature and so forth. I have tried to catch up with some of the things I missed over the years since but there are so many other books and, besides, I have to spend a fair amount of time reading things for work. Anyway, the point of this preamble is that Northanger Abbey was new to me and, one afternoon having popped I to Sanmin (sanmin.com.tw) I thought it was about time to change that situation and I am glad that I did.
The plot follows Catherine Morland, a young woman from a family at the lowest possible level of ‘quality’ and her adventures in exotic Bath and beyond. Her life appears to be a crushingly boring round of household chores and she has aimed to avoid the worst effects by allowing her mind to become filled with various notions. Her understanding of the world and the people who live in it is challenged after she gratefully accepts an invitation from the neighbouring Allen family to spend a fortnight in Bath, where people go to take the air or the cure or somesuch thing on an annual basis. She must then navigate the issues of what to wear, what to talk about with other people and, over and above all, how to get an introduction to someone else, almost anyone else. Without such an introduction, one must be passed over in silence even in the height of one of Bath’s notorious balls, so full of a violent press of people it seems like it might literally be dangerous.
Fortunately, such introductions are eventually secured and Catherine faces new challenges, including how to evaluate the intentions and impressions formed upon certain young men around whom she now orbits and is orbited. She finds on the one hand that opinions can differ (even in the case of profound issues such as preferences for novels and novelists) but that it is the nature of polite society that such differences might be managed without the need for unpleasantness. She is subsequently invited to spend time at the Tilney Estate, which is the eponymous Abbey and there, too, certain other of her notions are disabused, albeit that the essential and sturdy carapace of the emerging bourgeois social system must not be seriously threatened. Sinister events are shown to have perfectly respectable motivations and the need for heroic individual acts are, like Adam at the end of Paradise Lost, no longer required.
We have been living in the age of the veneration of Auntie Jane for some time now and her cultural footprint may now be found not just on the screen and the stage but also in the contemporary video game and the mash-up horror parody, among other places. In addition to the pleasure of reading her work, therefore, it is appropriate to note that she really was a very good writer. The critical eye most commonly focuses, of course, on the nature of the relationship within small households which may be considered in isolation, as if the rest of the world did not exist. However, although the proletariat does not raise its head, it does seem to be present, around the edges and the margins, keeping the whole thing going by virtue of slow accumulation and endless sacrifice. Her work needs no recommendation from me, of course but she may have one anyway.