Friday 4 July 2008

Nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain

I would say that I don't read enough Jane Austen, for I always so enjoy her novels when I do, but I'm quickly running out of options and therefore have to seriously ration what's left. I don't believe she's produced anything new in quite some time.

Northanger Abbey is a parody of the gothic novel popular at the end of the 18th century, but as with Austen's work generally, it is also a harsh critique of the social mores of the time. This is what I love about Austen: I've read very few gothic novels myself (not that I haven't tried; every year during my undergraduate years at Dalhousie I ached for them to offer the Gothic Novel course in the calendar and they never did - not, at least, until the year after I graduated. Le sigh), but Austen gave enough of a (usually incredibly funny) run-down of the characteristics of the gothic novel for me to easily see what she was mocking.

I have to say that while gothic novels do, indeed, seem mock-worthy, Northanger Abbey also made me want to read more of them. I am extremely well-equipped for suspending disbelief with genres that are so obviously not trying to replicate reality. I took an 18th-century drama course at Dal for which we read a play by Matthew "Monk" Lewis - it literally had the hair on the back of my neck standing up. Good times!!

As well, I know relatively little about the late 18th/early 19th century social history-wise and yet, I still felt myself half having a heart attack while reading all the incredibly tense and claustrophobic social situations in which the protagonist, Catherine, found herself. I personally would have no trouble dealing with idiots like Isabella and John Thorpe and yet I found myself feeling as entirely powerless and guilty as Catherine did in the face of their gilded social aggressions. Not many writers are good enough to affect me to the point of physical reaction, but I was definitely chewing my nails and folding myself up into a little ball during these awkward moments.

What I like best of all about Northanger Abbey is the cagey game Austen plays with all the controversy (too strong a word, perhaps?) at the time surrounding novel-reading. Novels were, it seems, generally considered a lesser textual form than, say, history; this denigration of the novel was associated with it being a popular reading choice among women. Catherine loves gothic novels (and her notion of them as realistic gets her into some tight corners socially) and assumes most men think them silly. Her beau, Henry, however, surprises her by proclaiming that "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who had not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" (p. 103).

I tend to agree with attractive Henry Tilney and thought Austen was going for a defense of the novel here, but then she makes Catherine blunder in horrifyingly embarrassing ways precisely for her love of and investment in (gothic) novels - so, here we have a little send-up if not of novels, then of gothic novels, and then if not of gothic novels, then of the credulity that seems to attend the reading of gothic novels. In any case, Catherine seems at points "intolerably stupid" for taking too much pleasure in novels. Austen: cagey. I like it.

What I also like is the story of my copy of Northanger Abbey. Published in 1934, I picked it up at the University College Book Sale at the University of Toronto last Fall for $2. It's old but in very good shape and was signed by the first owner: one Jeanne L. Orr, of Havergal College. Havergal College is a girl's school established in Toronto in 1894 or thereabouts and it's still going strong. I like to think Jeanne kept this book from her school days throughout her adult life and it was passed on to UC when she (or, sadly, someone else) decided to give her bookshelves a good clean-out. Thank you, Jeanne, for taking such good care of your lovely books; I'll take good care of this one too.

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