December 19, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Northanger Abbey," by Jane Austen

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey (1818)
By Jane Austen
Book #24 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Although not published until after her death in 1818 (but more on that in a bit), Northanger Abbey was actually the first book written by infamous "chick-lit forerunner" Jane Austen, with most scholars agreeing that she originally penned it in 1798 when barely out of her teens; so it makes sense, then, that the novel centers around the 17-year-old Catherine Morland, and of all the issues important to a typical late teen. A delightful yet melodramatic young woman, Catherine has a way of naturally charming almost everyone she meets, even while being a hopeless devotee of trashy "gothic novels" (think beach-read for the Georgian Era), and of letting them unduly influence her already fanciful and curious mind. When middle-aged friends of the Morlands, then, invite the sheltered rural-living Catherine to join them for six weeks in the cosmopolitan resort town of Bath, she can't help but to be thrilled; and indeed, the bulk of this novel's prose is devoted to capturing the ins-and-outs of youth culture in such a period, the subtle and ultra-complicated flirtation rituals that took place each evening among such communal settings as recital halls and the boardwalk.

Things get even more interesting, though, when one of the friends she makes in Bath invites Catherine to continue her holiday by joining her family at their country home, an old Medieval religious fortress called Northanger Abbey that they've converted into a contemporary living space, with Catherine's goth-filled head going nuts over visions of crumbling cobwebby back hallways and dark family secrets. But alas, the abbey turns out to be quite modern and well-maintained, and all of Catherine's attempts to dream up spooky conspiracy theories are met with perfectly blasé rational explanations; that forces her instead to have to pay attention to the messy romantic entanglements going on between her friends, as well as the constant wooing by her own various would-be suitors that she is constantly trying to brush off. Add a mysterious Napoleonic ship captain, some misunderstandings over money, a couple of messy public breakups; and by the end, we leave our hero a little wiser about the world if not a little more jaded, understanding now as a young adult that it's the consistent behavior of a person through good times and bad that determines their character, not their endowment or war record or any other surface-level statistic you can mention.

The argument for it being a classic:
Fans of Northanger Abbey argue that it is Austen distilled into its most essential form -- laser-precise observations about the human condition and the fallacies of so-called "civilized society," but without the obsessive preoccupation over landing a man that marks so much of her later and more well-known work. And that's important, they say, because we should actually be celebrating Austen for the perceptive insights into the human psyche she was capable of, not for the bonnet-wearing eyelash-fluttering romantic elements that seem to so dominate any discussion about her anymore. The reason Austen continues to be so popular, they argue, is precisely because her stories are so timeless at their core; although ostensibly dealing with the fussy aristocratic issues of the day, in reality they say things about the way young women see the world that are still exactly and utterly true of young women 200 years later. It's easy to lose sight of this within the epic frippery of such later masterpieces as Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility, fans argue; Northanger Abbey cuts through all this filler, leaving a slim and artistically muscular volume that ironically stands the test of time much better than her bigger projects.

The argument against:
Of course, let's not forget that there's a reason Austen's later work is so much better known and loved, say this book's critics -- and that's because those books are simply better, according to any criteria you wish to name, the result of an older and wiser woman with not only better writing skills but a much more complex outlook on the world. Although there's not much debate anymore over whether this is a historically important and well-done story, many critics argue that Northanger Abbey simply doesn't rise to the level of "classic," as is the similar case with so many other first novels by authors who eventually become famous.

My verdict:
Okay, I admit it; after years of making fun of people for their obsessive Austen fandom, now that I've finally read my first novel of hers myself, I have to confess that I'm awfully impressed, and can easily see why people still go so crazy for her work in the first place. Because I gotta tell you, it's positively freaky how much like a modern 17-year-old girl in the early 2000s that Catherine actually sounds like here, of just how many of the details Austen chose to focus on turn out to be universal observations about teenage female personas in general, and not simply observations about that particular age's popular culture and societal norms. I love, for example, how Catherine simply accepts in this quiet way the realization of how much more important it is in the eyes of men to appear smart in public than in the eyes of women; how gold-digging for a husband is simply wrong no matter what the circumstances; that you understand a lot more about a person when observing them in a bad mood than a good one. I love that Catherine automatically assumes the craziest explanation for any situations that occur in her life, because she's a bored teen and this is what bored teens do to entertain themselves. I love how she is constantly worrying about saying the wrong thing in front of others; how she is constantly running off in embarrassment over various impolitic confessions blurted out during enjoyable conversations; how the people older than her accept all this from her with a charmed sense of bemusement, while her fellow teenage girls react with catty bitchiness. I love how their entire social circles revolve around these tiny, barely perceptible actions, stuff completely inconsequential to grown-ups but so important to the young; how entire romantic relationships can be started simply by two people glancing at each other across a room for a little too long, entire friendships destroyed simply because of not sitting at a certain table during a public meal. Sheesh, if that's not a teenage girl's life in a nutshell, I don't know what is.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say this; that at least here in Northanger Abbey, Austen turns out to be a much smarter, much more bitter author than I was expecting, given that her most diehard fans concentrate so much on the historical-finery and antiquated-courtship elements of it all. And indeed, if I wanted to be really controversial, I'd argue that if Austen were alive and writing in our modern times, she wouldn't write about relationships at all, but was instead forced to during her own times because of this being the only stuff female authors could get published back then. I mean, don't get me wrong, this book contains an unbelievable amount of the same tropes as so-called modern "chick-lit," which is why so many people call her the forerunner of the genre*; but if you pay attention, you'll see that Catherine herself is really not that interested in the subject at all, other than to the extent that it's expected of her by the rest of society, and indeed you could argue that Austen's bigger point here is to examine the growing dark maturity and evermore complex understanding of the world that all young women go through, and the sometimes ugly experiences that must occur for this to happen. It's for all these reasons that I confidently label Northanger Abbey today a classic, a surprisingly still-relevant tale that even to this day is almost impossible not to be thoroughly charmed by.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
In two Fridays: Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
In three Fridays: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
In four Fridays: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And speaking of chick-lit, no review of Northanger Abbey is complete without an acknowledgment of its absolutely most delightful aspect, an examination of what at the time was the first-ever rise in popularity of the "novel" format, especially as it manifested itself in the form of trashy supernatural romantic thrillers designed specifically for middle-class women. Let's not forget, before the late 1700s, full-length fictional stories barely even existed; when people sat down to read a book back then, it was mostly essays or poems or plays they were picking up, with full-length made-up narrative stories treated by the intelligentsia with the same disdain we currently treat, say, first-person-shooter videogames. It was during this same period, though, that women suddenly became literate in the millions for the first time in history; and these women all needed something to read, which is what led to the rise of "gothic" literature in the first place, a combination of supernatural thriller and over-the-top romance that was generally perceived at the time as "silly woman stuff." This novel is just as enjoyable and important for its examination of all these issues as it is for the usual Austenesque stuff; and this is yet another reason to call Austen a forerunner of modern so-called chick-lit, in that all these issues are still being debated in the publishing industry to this day, of whether it's ethically right to "ghettoize" the interests of middle-class women into these narrow channels of overmarketed gooey supernatural love stories designed for the intellectually-challenged.

And by the way, a little trivia for you Janeheads; the "goth-novel must-read list" laid out by one of the characters in this book was for a century thought to be a fictional list simply made up by Austen, but recent academic research has shown that this is a real list of the most popular actual gothic novels of the late 1700s, and in fact efforts are underway as we speak to get as many of these titles as possible back into print and bookstores. In fact, many scholars believe that this entire novel came about in the first place as a silly little pop-culture exercise Austen would essentially make up each night off the top of her head, as a way of entertaining her fellow young-female siblings using the exact issues actually happening in their lives, and that it was the surprising popularity of the story amongst their friends that convinced her to be a full-time writer in the first place. It's always something to keep in mind when reading Northanger Abbey, that it was meant as an ultra-contemporary story despite it not getting published until twenty years after it was originally written, and of course now 210 years later in our own modern eyes.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:32 PM, December 19, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |