I love Austen. Her wit and wry humour is something I have enjoyed immensely for a number of years. Knowing her other novels well, this one does have a slightly different atmosphere and tone at moments. For the first half of the book, it feels very much like a standard Austen, a witty comedy of social rules. Bath, Balls, and making calls.
This time our a heroine is idealistic and young and loves novels, something which was considered “women’s reading” at the time. Men were supposed to only read non-fiction! Austen names various novelists of the time who are now considered pioneers of the Gothic movement. Gothic novels are all blood, family secrets, old decaying mansions, murder and thunderstorms. When Catherine finally makes it to Northanger Abbey over halfway through the book, Austen uses the tropes of the Gothic as a prism in which to examine the heroine’s idealism and naivety. Catherine’s expectations of the Abbey are prejudiced by her love of the Gothic, as well as Henry’s flights of fancy describing the Abbey on the journey there. During her stay there, Catherine is consistently disappointed by the Abbey. It is too clean and modern. She becomes obsessed with living her own Gothic fantasies, which we as readers find increasingly irrational and absurd.
I imagine this book is used extensively on Gothic fiction modules at Universities, because in satirising the tropes of the Gothic, Austen perfectly describes them. Storms! Old Manuscripts! Ruins! Family Secrets!
There was one moment that really stood out when our heroine accuses a character of either murder, domestic violence and/or imprisonment of someone in a locked up wing of the Abbey. This excess of Gothic imagination on the heroine’s part was a step too far for me in terms of keeping the character likeable. But I do suppose this served well to remind us of the character’s youth (17!) and idealism.
This strong sense of a viewpoint and satire of the Gothic movement in this novel is unusual for Austen. Her work usually focuses more on the impossibility of human interaction, manners, social rules, and character studies. I enjoyed every aspect of this novel, but felt the especially Gothic sections were like reading a different book, which if it were meant earnestly instead of ironically, would not be as successful. Thankfully Austen always serves us with double helpings of sarcasm, irony and wit, so we know we’re not to take certain moments seriously.
There are some really wonderful moments in this novel where you feel Austen right there with you, she will announce herself as the narrator and remind you that you are the reader. She doesn’t do it often, but when she does it feels incredibly modern. You feel close to her as a person.
Loved it with all my Gothic heart!