Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jane Austen’s Horrid Novel

Northanger Abbey. If I hadn’t read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I wouldn’t have minded letting this one climb up to the first spot of my best reads of 2014. Read in the same intense binge that found me devouring the Nabokov novel, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’ La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, and Cervante’s Don Quixote, Austen’s novel forms one of the faces of an unplanned polyptych (screw you, word corrector! The word exists!) of meta-fictional novels. The novel is a satisfying, if predictable, narrative about growing up, falling in love, discovering autonomy and learning to separate fantasy from reality, which for someone like the heroine, Catherine Morland, a young lady, it meant marrying a man with a firm income, with the added benefit that he’s the man she actually loves. In less capable hands, in a less twisted mind, this would have been a corny novel, full of sickening sentimentality and odious Romantic excesses, but Austen looked at things from a prism all her own and infused everything a decidedly bizarre aura. I think her trick is that this is a very ironic, very self-conscious novel. If I wished to simplify, and I do!, I could say that Northanger Abbey does for the Gothic novel what Don Quixote did for the chivalric romance. Austen uses the Gothic genre as her novel’s skeleton (a not unintended pun) in order to mock that very same genre. If Don Quixote endures the physical travails of knight errantry, Catherine faces the dangers of ruining her perfect match when her hyperactive imagination, engorged on Anne Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, suspects her beau’s father of being a murderer.

One day someone will explain (or I’ll bother looking it up for it probably exists) why comedy and meta-fiction go hand in hand so often – the theatre of Aristophanes and Luigi Pirandello (and Tom at Wuthering Expectations has unearthed the Danish missing link between the two), Don Quixote and the ghastly Tristram Shandy, the movie Airplane. I presume it’s because comedy subverts reality and authority, and meta-fiction is fiction aware of its unreality. Tragedy and drama thrive on the illusion of verisimilitude. That’s why it’s common for comedy to break the fourth wall in movies; if The Wolf of Wall Street were a tragedy, Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t spend the whole movie talking to the viewer, to gloat about his greed and perversions; that self-aware smug tone just doesn’t fit tragedy. You want a tragic Wall Street movie, you watch Wall Street. A seriousness of tone depends on the permanence of values and the fact that sacred ideas and concepts exist, made sacred by the inscrutable authority of tradition. But comedy is acid thought corroding assumptions and emptying ideas and concepts of the splendour of their traditions. I like how Milan Kundera somewhere argues that the “grandeur of tragedy” is a “consolation” for tragic protagonists: to be overwhelmed by Fate, to become noble through suffering; there is something beautiful about succumbing to tragedy, because it shows man failing under something stronger than him, something that permeates the cosmos and is like an order unto itself.

That’s not Northanger Abbey. Austen’s novel is inconsequential insofar as it concerns the human condition. It’s a novel of small problems for which the solutions are always just around the corner. It’s a novel about a 17-year-old girl who goes to Bath with Mrs. Allen in what becomes her adventure of maturation. She attends balls, sort of debuts into society, makes friends with vapid people and falls in love with a nice, handsome boy who reciprocates. Now, the important thing is the way these mundane events are told. This novel is, first and foremost, a triumph of style. Jane Austen is a master of comedy and the humour in Northanger Abbey never subsides. Austen owes a huge debt to Cervantes. I read Don Quixote after this novel and that helped me put into perspective its influence, but it also showed me the great strides the novel had taken since his time. Yes, Austen’s parody comes straight from Cervantes, but she has more material to mock since his time: in the two centuries separating the two lots of novels showed, and she’s not just aware of Gothic clichés, she’s also conscious of the tropes of the respectable novel (insofar as the novel was respectable at the time), that is, the more serious, more realistic novels of Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding. In fact the book opens with Austen collecting tropes as if she were a scalp-hunter. In order to prove that, I want to transcribe the entire first paragraph (with my italics), a masterpiece of comedy: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy's plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief—at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. Such were her propensities—her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the "Beggar's Petition"; and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of "The Hare and Many Friends" as quickly as any girl in England. Her mother wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet; so, at eight years old she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it; and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's life. Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another. Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could. What a strange, unaccountable character!—for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.”

Catherine is not very pretty, she’s not very feminine, she’s not interested in boys save to play their games. Hardly made from the same cloth as the sassy but angelic Sophia Western from Tom Jones, the ideal heroine. Austen is writing against type, fully aware of the codes that a type of character as such. Then there are the jabs at conventions: the mother who does not die at birth (heroines always seem brought up by fathers and governesses, don’t they?), the father who does not lock her up (Squire Western from Tom Jones?). But Austen is aware of her readership and she adapts accordingly; Catherine starts falling into character at the age of fifteen, but by seventeen she’s still lacking an amorous affair, having no luck to live next to a male protagonist. “She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.” No mysterious waifs, no Tom Jones, no Heathcliff (who was created some forty years later, that’s how persistent this convention was). This fiction refuses to play by the rules. Beautiful. And then comes the bow to Cervantes: “from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.” Catherine does not grow up thinking she’s a heroine in a Gothic novel, but she does grow awfully fond of them, building her expectations of the world on how things would pan out in Ann Radcliffe’s shockers.

Fortunately for her initiation into heroism, Mr Allen must go to Bath for his gout and so Mrs Allen “probably aware that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad, invited her to go with them.” And so departs Catherine to find the world, or at least Bath, “her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” The jokes on tropes continue for more pages, but we can stop here. In their own good time – and the novel is quick on action and change of settings – Catherine and Mrs Allen find themselves navigating the unknown waters of Bath society, utterly alone, as the novel turns into a comedy of manners:

"How uncomfortable it is," whispered Catherine, "not to have a single acquaintance here!"
"Yes, my dear," replied Mrs. Allen, with perfect serenity, "it is very uncomfortable indeed."
"What shall we do? The gentlemen and ladies at this table look as if they wondered why we came here—we seem forcing ourselves into their party."
"Aye, so we do. That is very disagreeable. I wish we had a large acquaintance here."
"I wish we had any—it would be somebody to go to."

And also a novel about growing up, and in this case about Catherine learning to be a lady, that is, learning to enjoy being looked at by men and praised for her beauty. And like a girl at her age she just wants to hear praise. When two young man call her a pretty girl, she’s riveted. “Such words had their due effect; she immediately thought the evening pleasanter than she had found it before—her humble vanity was contented—she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true-quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms, and went to her chair in good humour with everybody, and perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention.” Of course the self-consciousness never stops; when she meets a gallant young man, Mr. Tilney, their dialogue turns upside down the rules of romantic meetings:

“Were you never here before, madam?"
"Never, sir."
"Indeed! Have you yet honoured the Upper Rooms?"
"Yes, sir, I was there last Monday."
"Have you been to the theatre?"
"Yes, sir, I was at the play on Tuesday."
"To the concert?"
"Yes, sir, on Wednesday."
"And are you altogether pleased with Bath?"
"Yes—I like it very well."
"Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again." Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. "I see what you think of me," said he gravely—"I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow."
"My journal!"
"Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense."
"Indeed I shall say no such thing."
"Shall I tell you what you ought to say?"
"If you please."
"I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say."
"But, perhaps, I keep no journal."
"Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies' ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal."

Mr. Tilney is a charming, eccentric, kind-hearted man and in due time he’ll marry Catherine. In the meantime she must escape a few trolls that threaten to turn her into a disagreeable, false person. Mrs. Allen meets Mrs. Thorpe and Catherine meets her children, Isabella and John. She immediately strikes a friendship with Isabella, a fatuous young lady who’s looking for a rich suitor. Catherine, a poor judge of character, strikes a friendship with because they both share the pleasures of shutting themselves up to read novels, not just Gothic novels, but novels in general. And this prompts another meta-fictional moment, a passionate defence of the novel against its evil detractors: “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

One of the trolls Catherine must triumph against is precisely one of these novel-haters, Isabella’s brother (incidentally, is there anything to the fact that Isabella is an Italian name and several of Radcliffe’s novels take place in Italy? There has to be!) But for now let us witness the young ladies’ love for Gothic novels in another extended dialogue. And I have to add that I love Austen’s dialogues, they’re sublime in a surreal sort of way:

 “Have you gone on with Udolpho?"
"Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil."
"Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?"
"Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina's skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world."
"Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you."
"Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?"
"I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time."
"Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?"

Austen forms lines I never expected were logically or sensibly possible in a novel. But she keeps disproving me. Let’s have another example:

“While I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! The dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina's skeleton behind it."
"It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels."
"No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way."
"Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume."
"It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining."
"Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.”

The downside of Isabella’s friendship (the first anyway) is the fact that Catherine meets her bully of a brother, John Thorpe, a vulgar rack with designs on her. And he ridicules novel reading. For that reason he’s the closest thing to a villain:

"Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?"
"Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."
"I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."
"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them."
"Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe," said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
"No sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant."
"I suppose you mean Camilla?"
"Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it."
"I have never read it."
"You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not."

Once again I have to emphasize the surreal qualities of the dialogue. Honestly, what are they talking about? This sounds like a Monty Python script. Mr. Tilney has the excellent quality of being a friend of novels, which endears him both to Catherine and to me:

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time."
"Yes," added Miss Tilney, "and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it."
"Thank you, Eleanor—a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion."
"I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly."
"It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do—for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of 'Have you read this?' and 'Have you read that?' I shall soon leave you as far behind me as—what shall I say?—I want an appropriate simile.—as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!"
"Not very good, I am afraid. But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?"
"The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding."
"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word 'nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."
"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?"

But amusing as a novel full of obscure references to novels no one reads anymore may be, Northanger Abbey dares to be more than that! At the heart of this tangle of relationships is Catherine’s losing her innocence and maturing. She wants to live in a Gothic world, but at the same time she’s growing up and discovering boys. She’s torn, even though it’s not a choice of Sartrean complexity to make. At Bath she continues to see Mr. Tilney and his sister, Eleanor, realizing she likes to be with them. They even arrange to have a little walk together. Unfortunately this occurs on the same day Mr. Thorpe is planning a trip to Blaize Castle. Oh no, what will Catherine do?

"Blaize Castle!" cried Catherine. "What is that?"
"The finest place in England—worth going fifty miles at any time to see."
"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"
"The oldest in the kingdom."
"But is it like what one reads of?"
"Exactly—the very same."
"But now really—are there towers and long galleries?"
"By dozens."
"Then I should like to see it; but I cannot—I cannot go."

She cannot go in order to hold her earlier commitment with the Tilneys; but vile Thorpe tricks her into going, much to her vexation and to her feelings, for she begins to realize she prefers Tilney to Thorpe, learning that important lesson that it’s better to be with those we care for. Everyone around her is expecting, and forcing, her to end up in Thorpe’s arms, bur she’ll have none of that and starts thinking for herself, fighting for her independence, showing the feistiness of Fielding’s Sophia. In modern parlance she’s what we call a strong female character, strong of spirit rather than physique. Catherine’s bid for freedom culminates with her voyage to Northanger Abbey, far from Mrs. Allen and the Thorpes, although she has one final obstacle to overcome: her fascination with Gothic novels. At the thought of spending a few days in an actual old abbey, she goes hoping for an adventure, but gets another one instead. “Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun.” Yes, yes, but it’s at the abbey that she discovers that social standing, money and breeding are more important than novels, sadly. Mr. Tilney’s father, General Tilney, is perhaps a villain (although that’s too harsh a word) but not of the sort she thinks. Her naivety starts simply. A cabinet piques her curiosity and she hopes to find a manuscript in it: “Catherine's heart beat quick, but her courage did not fail her. With a cheek flushed by hope, and an eye straining with curiosity, her fingers grasped the handle of a drawer and drew it forth. It was entirely empty. With less alarm and greater eagerness she seized a second, a third, a fourth; each was equally empty. Not one was left unsearched, and in not one was anything found.” She’s not to be discouraged, a place like that invites certain ideas and she believes that General Tilney murdered his wife. When she learns that her mother’s portrait hangs in Tilney’s bedroom, not wanted by his father, that only excites her imagination. “Here was another proof. A portrait—very like—of a departed wife, not valued by the husband! He must have been dreadfully cruel to her!” The fact that she hears him walking about at night makes her conjure even more sinister theories. “There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed.” After all, faking a corpse is easy. “Were she even to descend into the family vault where her ashes were supposed to slumber, were she to behold the coffin in which they were said to be enclosed—what could it avail in such a case? Catherine had read too much not to be perfectly aware of the ease with which a waxen figure might be introduced, and a supposititious funeral carried on.” You can’t beat genre logic. Catherine is a fool, and Austen is not generous to her; she shows just how foolish she is. In the end there’s no mystery, but nevertheless General Tilney is not a nice person and she discovers that he doesn’t want Tilney marrying Catherine because she’s not as rich as he thought. But love conquers everything and the two lovers marry. About the ending I can only add that this is one of those novels where I wanted a happy ending, where a happy ending was a necessity, even a natural extension of the spirit of the novel and perfectly fitting in tone. Essentially Austen has written about a character undergoing a genre transfer, from Gothic to novel of manners. I’ve been very lucky to read many good novels this year: Don Quixote, Pale Fire, Middle C, La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, but none was as special as this one. This one has an aura of joyous hilarity that is unique and must be savoured and treasured. 

 Read for the 2014 Women Challenge.


  1. Great post. I must reread Austen sometime soon. For some reason I keep passing over her but this post makes me want to pick up Northanger Abbey straight away.

    1. Séamus, good to know; I want to read more Austen; my fear is that this is such a great book I don't see how see can top it.

  2. Superb commentary on this one.

    I have just discovered Jane Austen my self. I have not read this one though.

    You make so many interesting points. As to comedy and Metafiction - when I think about it they ARE often paired. Perhaps it is because meta - fiction, in relation to the story, is in a way so absurd, as is much of good comedy. At any rate, meta - fiction, when handled correctly, can be very funny.

    1. Yes, Brian, meta-fiction stimulates a comical relationship with the text and the story and its effects are unpredictable and hilarious.

  3. I've only read excerpts of this, long ago, as part of a class on the romantic/gothic novel, but I remember finding it hilarious, and quite a different creature from the other Austen novels. I hope you'll forgive me for having skipped large portions of your post for the moment. I want to read the novel first, especially after having re-read Anne Radcliffe earlier this year.

    1. Oh, you have the added bonus of having read Radcliffe; I fear my knowledge of the Gothic extends only to Horace Walpole's truly horrid The Castle of Otranto. It is possible Radcliffe is better than him, though.

  4. I actually think this book is more of a piece with some other Austen novels than it first seems. Sense and Sensibility is also a kind of parody novel, but unfortunately it parodies books that no one but 18th century specialists have read and that did not pass on so strongly into the culture like all of the Gothic nonsense did.

    Even in later novels, Austen is an innovator, undermining or commenting on the rules, although the rules are more likely to be the ones she created herself in previous novels.

    Somewhere in her letters Austen identifies the horrid Sir Charles Grandison as her favorite novel, an admirably perverse choice.

    1. Tom, that's interesting; I shall try to see if I can spot those parodies in her other novels. Where do you think I should start?

    2. For this line of attack, I guess read them chronologically - in the order written, not published, so Northanger Abbey first, then in the published order. It is helpful to remember that NA, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are really 18th century novels, written long before they were published. Mansfield Park, the first book written after Austen's decade-long pause, is a whole new thing.

      I do not understand the parodistic side of Sense and Sensibility at all, really. Even when I have read the relevant books, I have not understood them in a way that is helpful here, or in the way many contemporary readers clearly read them. It is common find accounts of men weeping copiously while reading The Man of Feeling or Julie, or the New Heloise. It would take some serious immersion for me to have a clue what was going on.

    3. Tom, thanks for your suggestions. And the sentimental novels - yes, that's something I have to try too.

  5. I have yet to pick up an Austen novel and looking forward to immersing myself in one. I have the impression that among Austen novels this was considered 'minor'. Clearly the play on genre novels makes this a good place to investigate her comic powers.

    1. Rise, if this is minor, then her major novels must be amazing! I don't know much about the novel's history, but it was her first novel, so it's understandable it's not her best work. But she already showed a talent for scene setting, dialogue and comedy.