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7th January
2010
written by Steph
Check out my dreamy Folio society edition!

Check out my dreamy Folio Society edition (purchased with my own $$$)!

I have a confession to make: I love Jane Austen.  Ok, ok, that is no surprise to anyone who has read at least three posts (probably even the cooking ones) here at S&TI! or engaged me in about 5 minutes of conversation, but it’s such a fundamental part of who I am that I think it bears repeating.  Truth be told, however, that wasn’t my confession.  My real confession is this: I love Jane Austen, but I have always secretly felt that Northanger Abbey was one of her lesser works.  The thing is though, I’m human so, rare though it is, I do occasionally make mistakes.  Consider this prior notion of mine to be one such error. I first read Northanger Abbey during the summer of 2005 when my friend Laura and I were backpacking around Europe and the UK.  I can’t remember where I got the copy I read, only I know I didn’t bring it with me, so I must have found it at one of the hostels we stayed at and took it along for a train ride or two.  Prior to reading the book (or perhaps concurrently), Laura and I visited the Jane Austen costume exhibit that was going on in Bath and part of the exhibit involved a quote from Mr. Tilney about muslin and various other fabrics and dressmaking which caused Laura and I to turn simultaneously to one another and mouth the word “GAY!” before collapsing into a fit of giggles. True story.  So anyway, while I read the book and knew it was a spoof on the popular gothic novel of the time, I really walked away with the strong perception that Henry Tilney was a huge fop, hardly deserving of the title of Austen hero, and that was about it.  There was nothing wrong with Northanger Abbey – it wasn’t a bad book – it just got catalogued in my mind as sort of a limp, less significant Austen novel. So why pick it up again?  Pretty much I attribute this to my enjoyment of Jane Eyre.  I had so much fun with that gothic novel that I thought it might be equally fun to read some other 19th century gothic romances.  Pair this with the fact that I was feeling a tad bereft in terms of my reading choices and hadn’t read an Austen and the year was almost at an end and voila: Northanger Abbey it was! Maybe it’s because I was so underwhelmed with everything I had read before it, but this time I was delighted by Northanger Abbey.  True, Mr. Tilney is not brooding and aloof like Darcy or taciturn and reserved like Colonel Brandon, and yes, that line about the muslin is still RIDICULOUS, but I may have been mistaken in labeling him a fop.  Steph of 2010 found Henry Tilney to be your standard nice guy, and it must be said that it was actually kind of refreshing for an Austen heroine to fall for a good guy right from the get-go with neither pride nor prejudice (at least not on either of their parts) getting in the way.  Catherine Morland is still kind of bland in my opinion, but again, she’s good natured and not wholly devoid of personality since her overactive imagination plays a nice counterpart to her unfailing credulity in the good intentions of those around her (with the exception of, for whatever reason, General Tilney). Northanger Abbey still isn’t my favorite Austen, but I acknowledge that I was remiss in considering it a spiritless ghost of an Austen novel.  It’s diverting, charming, and features that classic Austen wit and sense of humor.  I haven’t read enough gothic classics to know how well Austen skewers them here, but I’d wager she does a pretty good job of satirizing that pocket of literature. Seriously, even though I say it every time I read her, at some point or another, I always put my book down in order to: 1) reaffirm my love for her to Tony; 2) marvel at how fantastically funny she was.  Reading her books, whether favorites or not, whether for the first time or not, I am always struck, as if it were the first time and I somehow never knew it, with how genius she was. Austen had this near magical gift, I feel, of writing books that never get old, no matter how many times my eyes have flicked over their pages.  I get older, I read other stuff, and yet I can always return to her books and somehow, even knowing how things will turn out, even being able to quote passages from memory, it’s like I’m rediscovering them all over again.  I love how her prose is so effortless and yet so perfect.  Every sentence sparkles with intelligence and verve.  Reading Jane Austen for the first time at 15 was like a revelation: classic novels could be funny.  Every time I pick up one now, nearly 12 years later, I’m constantly impressed by this.  She was born over 200 years before me, and yet I always feel like she’s writing just for me, channeling my thoughts and putting things on paper for me, but better than I ever could.  It sounds crazy, I know, but that's how I feel when reading Jane.  Tell me you have an author like that… everyone should have an author like that. So, a note to myself and to all of you, when the world is doing you wrong and you can’t find a book to love, just cut to the chase and read an Austen.  It’ll set everything right and remind you why you read in the first place.  Even if you pick up one that isn’t your favorite, even if we were to suppose momentarily that Jane had a bad book, said book will still be amazing, and it will still be better than 99% of the books out there.  I’m just saying. Oh, and I realize no plot synopsis, because, come on!  It’s Jane Austen!  What more do you need to know?  You’re going to have a girl meet a boy and they will fall in love, which will be clear to readers though not necessarily to said boy and girl, and there will be unwanted suitors, false friends, misunderstandings, but ultimately a happy ending.  Even if you’ve never read the book before, you know the story, plus or minus a few plot points. The twist here I suppose is that it takes place in Bath, and then at the titular abbey, and you’ve got a heroine whose imagination frequently gets the best of her because she’s been reading too many novels, to which I say: sing it, sister! Rating: 4.5 out of 5

29 Comments

  1. Eva
    01/07/2010

    Really?! I love Jane Austen, and Northanger has always been a favourite of mine. (I secretly feel S&S is her lesser work, hehe.) I lurve Henry Tileny: he has social graces! And the line about muslin cracks me up! lol

    I always have the SAME experience rereading her (except I don’t reaffirm my lofe to Tony). She’s been a part of my life for sooo long, and she’s wonderful every time!

  2. 01/07/2010

    “Austen had this near magical gift, I feel, of writing books that never get old, no matter how many times my eyes have flicked over their pages.”

    I love this sentence. I read NA as a teen and didn’t “get” it. but I intend to revisit after I’ve gone through the other Jane Austen novels!! S&S is next for Valentine’s Day.

  3. 01/07/2010

    I have a fantasy that some year I will be able to sit down and read all 6 novels consecutively. As it is now, I re-read Pride and Prejudice each year with my Brit Lit class and look forward to it. I have not yet read Emma nor Persuasion, and hope to find the time to do soon.

  4. 01/07/2010

    You know, I’ve read all Austen’s major works except this one (which I’ll be reading in the next few months), and she’s just okay for me. The only book that really thrilled me was P&P, which was the fourth book of hers I’d read. Persuasion, Emma, and S&S were just okay. A bit tedious and repetitive, but fun in places. P&P was lovely because it wasn’t tedious to read, and Mansfield Park was back to being the same as the others. I am hoping NA will be different and fun to read. I can see myself liking it more than the others.

    Ironically, I actually belong to a JA book club, even though JA is not my favorite writer…

  5. 01/07/2010

    I’ve never read this one (although I think I’ve seen a movie version). In regards to the heroine falling for a nice guy from the get go, I’ve always wondered what Mr. Bingley and Jane’s story would have been if Austin had focused on them. Of course I LOVE P&P the way it is, but still – I’m curious, especially about Bingley’s side of the story. It is definitely time for some Austin in my life. I haven’t read anything by her for several years…!

  6. 01/07/2010

    I have a huge confession: I have been an Austenphobe. (Yes, I just made that term up, but what of it?) Part of it is just that her popularity turns me off. All the Austen-themed everything–the blogs, the movies, the movies about the books about the movies, the literary mashups…enough already! But I admit, your enthusiasm is refreshing and making me rethink my prejudice. I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, so perhaps I’ll start with this one.

  7. 01/07/2010

    @ Eva: I know Northanger is your favourite, and I’m glad that I was able to better appreciate its charms this time round! I’m also glad to hear you have a similar experience to mine when reading Jane – she’s just the best! 😉
     
    @ Rebecca: In a strange way, although Catherine Morland is one of Austen’s most naive heroines and there is something a tad juvenile about this story, I think one has to be either a bit older to fully appreciate it, or a rather whimsical teen! I know I didn’t really get it when I first read it at 22 – it was too silly! – but now I think I get what Austen was trying to do just a little bit better.
     
    @ Molly: I have a friend who said she tried to read all of Austen’s works one summer but had to stop because they all started to blend together. I can’t personally imagine that ever happening, but I suppose it’s possible!
      
    @ Amanda: For me, I think Northanger Abbey feels the least like the other Austen novels – Austen is playing with format, not just satirizing society, but also the novel in general and a specific genre as well. It has all the wit you find in her other books, but it still feels like it stands apart from the others. For those reasons, you may wind up liking it more than the others you’ve read (though not more than P&P – like you, that’s my favorite too!).
     
    @ Sarah: I have a movie version of NA heading my way from Netflix; I think it’s the only Austen I’ve never seen a film version of! As for your curiosity regarding Jane & Bingley’s story, I bet you someone has written it, given the surfeit of Austen spin-offs/knock offs out there. Of course they wouldn’t be nearly as good as the real thing, but they could be interesting nonetheless!
     
    @ Priscilla: Ha ha! I like how you term yourself an Austenphobe, but you’ve still read three of her books! It cracks me up! 😉 For me, Austen in her purest form is all I need. I admit, I do enjoy many of the movies that have been done of her books, but the rest of it, I essentially tune out. All I need is her writing in front of me and all is bliss!

  8. 01/07/2010

    Funny, I had a similar experience with NA last year, after watching the latest BBC adaptation of the book. It was always one of my least favorites for the reasons you mentioned, but the actress who played Catherine made her extreme naivete appealing and JJ Feild became my latest crush. And when I re-read, I appreciated the nice guy/straightforward storyline more than I had at 15-16.

  9. 01/07/2010

    Didn’t we steal Northanger Abbey from that hostel in Manchester?…I’m not 100% sure where we got it but I do remember you reading it while we sprawled on the lawn at PEMBERLEY (aka Lyme Park). We both read it on our trip and weren’t wowed by it so maybe I should pick it up again…wait, now that I think about it, I think our stolen copy is on my bookshelf!! (Ha!, all this talk about stealing books reminds me of when you ‘borrowed’ the sparkly special edition of Harry Potter from the hostel in Belfast!)

  10. 01/07/2010

    Oh, I loved NA right from the get-go. I liked Lady Susan too…Jane Austen had a very subtle, humorous style of writing

  11. 01/07/2010

    I read this as the capstone read of a Gothic novel class, which was the perfect way to get introduced to it. After spending all semester hearing people take The Monk and Mysteries of Udolpho way too seriously, it was fun to read Austen’s take on the Gothic. So I was a fan of this one from the start, but my second read got me to enjoy the insights regarding Catherine’s misplaced trust and mistrust of others. I think she’s a character who gets more interesting as you spend more time with her.

    As for what book I’d consider lesser Austen–ack!–I couldn’t decide. Usually my favorite is P&P followed by whatever I’ve read most recently. So perhaps her lesser work is the one I’ve read least recently 🙂

  12. 01/07/2010

    So glad you changed your mind. Northanger Abbey is my favorite Austen. I really enjoy Gothic lit (especially Radcliffe), and felt that this send-up of the genre was both amusing and respectful of that which it gently spoofed.

  13. 01/07/2010

    @ Trisha: Great minds think alike, I guess! 😉 We actually just watched the movie you linked to tonight – I had high hopes as Andrew Davies adapted the novel, but I was a bit disappointed, although I think the actors portraying Catherine and Henry were fantastic. I just felt this one felt a bit heavy-handed and lacked some of the subtly/wryness that I enjoy about Austen’s writing.
     
    @ Laura: I honestly can’t remember where we picked this one up, but I think I remember having it in Edinburgh, so maybe I picked it up there? If you haven’t read an Austen in a while, give it a shot and see if you like it more this second time! It did bring back lots of good memories!
     
    @ Nish: I actually haven’t read Lady Susan (or any of Austen’s unfinished works) – I am holding off on a few of her things, because I like knowing that there is still some Austen left for me to discover! 😉
     
    @ Teresa: I think you’re about right in terms of ranking Austen’s novels – P&P is always at the top for me, but then the rest battle it out for second place!
    I’m not going to binge on gothic fiction or anything like that, but I do think that the next one in the queue will be Radcliffe’s Udolpho. I have a copy downloaded to my ipod and everything!
     
    @ Frances: As I said to Teresa, I haven’t read Udolpho which clearly inspired this, but it’ll be the next gothic that I read. I think it’ll help me appreciate this one even more!

  14. Kathleen
    01/08/2010

    This is why I love to reread books…you never know how they might hit you the second or even third time around. I’m glad you were able to enjoy this more the second time and further establish the deep affinity you have for all things Austen!

  15. I haven’t read this one yet – in fact I’m very bad at reading Austen. I really should read more of her books. Hopefully I’ll stumble across some nice copies in a charity shop soon.

  16. I love Jane Austen; I have a Jane Austen action figure but I don’t have a Jane Austen shelf, most probably because I have one volume of the six novels (a movie tie-in cover that I am not adverse too because it is the BBC Elizabeth and Darcy).

    Northanger Abbey falls in the middle for me between P&P, Emma and Persuasion as my favourites and Sense & Sensibility and Mansfield Park as my lesser-enjoyed Austens (I need to revisit them at some point). I first read it as I was also studying other literature of the period including Gothic texts so contextually it made sense; NA is very much a send-up of the hyperbolic works of Ann Radcliffe and The Monk by Matthew Lewis etc. and I appreciated it for its pastiche rather than enjoyed it at face-value. Catherine Morland is more simpering than the wilful Austen heroines that I prefer but I also find her endearing.

  17. 01/08/2010

    @ Kathleen: I think this was a great book to kick off the year as it was a re-read and I do want to try to revisit favorite books this year… but you bring up a good point that non-favorites might be well-served by revisiting as well!
     
    @ Jackie: I do hope you get around to reading some more Austen. She’s definitely my favourite author!
     
    @ Claire: I don’t have the Jane Austen figure but do have a Jane Austen shelf that includes my Folio Society box set of all of her novels (including her shorter/unfinished works), a few biographies about her, a Jane Austen mystery (!), the Jane Austen book club (by Karen Joy Fowler), and the two released monster mash-ups. I had that BBC tie-in edition of all her novels back when I was a teen and it was actually the version I first read P&P from! Great memories!

  18. mee
    01/09/2010

    This is a fun review! I’ve never read Austen, because I didn’t grow up in English speaking country, but I promise myself to read Pride and Prejudice this February, Valentine and all 😛

  19. 01/09/2010

    “I get older, I read other stuff, and yet I can always return to her books and somehow, even knowing how things will turn out, even being able to quote passages from memory, it’s like I’m rediscovering them all over again.”

    I have to confess that I’m an Austen fan as well. Jane Austen’s works have the staying power that would always call me back to her magic. Maybe this is exactly what classic is–never finishes what it starts to say. Sense and Sensibility has always had a special place in me. As to the novel in question, I get the impression that it’s less substantial than her other works, so I ended up picking up Emma as the current Austen. 🙂

  20. 01/09/2010

    I love Austen as well Steph and like you my first reading of NA was only so so but I now rate it as one of my favourite of Austens works (although Persuasion will always keep the top spot with me I think!).

  21. 01/10/2010

    @ mee: There’s nothing quite like one’s first time reading Austen (and P&P at that)! I’m kind of jealous that you get to experience it for the first time! You’re in for a real treat!
     
    @ Matt: If you haven’t read this one yet, I hope you do at some point. It’s quite different from her other books in some ways, but in the most important ways it’s quintessential Austen. Emma’s fun too, though!
     
    @ Karen: Look at all these NA fans crawling out of the woodwork! Since so many of us enjoyed it more on subsequent readings, I hope we encourage others to re-read it again soon!

  22. 01/10/2010

    NA isn’t my favourite JA either, but it improves with re-reading over the years. Spotted muslin sticks in my mind, too!

  23. 01/10/2010

    I have a really beautiful edition of the complete works of Austen, but I have only read three of the books so far. I am hoping that this year I will be able to read more of it and this one was on my radar for my next Austin read. It’s not often that you hear people discuss this book. Mainly they talk about Pride and Prejudice and Emma (both of which I have read). I am glad that even though this was not your favorite Austin book it was still such a wonderful read for you and that you are still able to find so much joy in her work. As I commented in one of your previous posts, I have been rationing the Austen, but it sounds like I should give that up and dive right in!

  24. 01/10/2010

    Wow! I just realized how many times I misspelled Austen in that last comment! I guess I got caught up in a typing frenzy!

  25. 01/11/2010

    I loved this book! I’m a bit of an Austen newbie (for the same reason as Mee – I’ve only read this, Emma and P&P so far, but I WILL read the rest soon!), but Tileny just might be my favourite hero so far. It’s sacrilege, I know, but I liked him much better than Darcy 😛 Your Folio Society editions looks amazing, btw!

  26. 01/11/2010

    @ Nicola: Many people have now remarked that this one improves on subsequent readings – I wonder if any other Austens are similar? I’m due for a re-read of both P&P and S&S so I guess only time will tell!
     
    @ zibilee: I will confess that I haven’t read all of Austen for much the same reasons as you – I like knowing that I still have some works to discover! I know that eventually I’ll read them all, but there is something comforting in knowing I haven’t discovered all of her secrets just yet!
     
    @ Nymeth: If you love Tilney, I’ll be interested to see how you respond to Colonel Brandon in S&S!
    And I love my Folio Society edition very much indeed! The little illustrations scattered throughout are lovely!

  27. 01/14/2010

    Steph! I loved it, too! Frances mentioned this as her favourite Austen. My own fave is S&S (which a lot of others like the least) but it’s because the three sisters are EXACTLY like me and my sisters (and I had the same experience as Marianne). Otherwise, P&P could be called my fave because I’ve read it a gazillion times, lol. This was the first time I’ve read NA though, and thought it the funniest of all Austens. ONly Mansfield Park is left for me to read (of the novels).. can’t wait!!

    I also think Catherine bland, but an Austen is an Austen, right? 😀

  28. 01/14/2010

    @ Claire: Yay! So glad to hear you loved it! But then, as you say, an Austen is an Austen, so I think we’d be hard pressed NOT to love any of her works! 😀
    My favourite is definitely P&P – it’s the first Austen I ever read, and for that reason alone I think it will have a special place in my heart. But I’m also very fond of S&S, even if many others don’t! Really, choosing amongst Austen novels must be like choosing amongst one’s children (or dogs, in my case! 😉 )! Practically impossible!

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