Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Northanger Abbey

I own (funny how the Austen turn of phrase is catching) myself unimpressed by the writings of Miss Austen.  I was given a copy of Pride and Prejudice for Christmas when I was thirteen, and I did not like it.  Too much dialogue, too many words, and girls talking in ways I do not think girls ever talk.  "Why, Mr Darcy, I own myself disinclined, &c".  And nothing ever happens except girls getting married, because that is what girls are supposed to do, in fact all they can do.  Which is frankly depressing.  Although true.  And of course Miss Austen herself did not do it.  Get married that is.

Anyway, turns out my son is playing Captain Tilney (the bad brother, cad and bounder, seducer etc) Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in Highgate, London, first night 19th April, in a new production of this work, done I am told with musical interludes.  Well.  So I had to read the bugger before attending this essential evening.  The first night I mean.  Thanks to Norm for helpful advice.  I have read the book.  It is about the Sentimental Education of Catherine Morland.  Except, and I am not spoiling the book by saying this, it gets cut a bit short because she, er, gets married.  Not saying who to.  But it is true that Miss Austen apparently gets a bit bored 
with the story and ends everything really quickly.  Anyway, I think you wanted to know what happens.

Shan't tell you.  Because that is not the point.  Catherine is a seventeen year old, the fourth of ten children of a clergyman of independent means, and she is sent out to Meet Chaps.  First in Bath, then in the mysterious Northanger Abbey.  Her brother is much taken with her best friend, Isabella the slapper, and Isabella's brother is much taken with Catherine, who does not much like him, finding him dull.  But the Tllneys, ah, they are different.  Eleanor, gentle and sympathetic, brother Henry, nice but not sexy, Captain Tilney (Frederick, the heir to the family fortune) and once Isabella lays eyes on Freddie-babes brother of Catherine is out of the window and has his heart duly broken.

Anyway, the General (Tilney senior) takes a dim view of all this, suspecting various people of being after various other people's fortunes, and throws a big sulk.

But - it is a cracker of a read.  Did not expect it to be.  A teenage girl having her sexual awakening (sort of) "danced in her chair all the way home".  Those of us who have ever been teenage girls know what that is like, and it has never been put better outside of certain key issues of Jackie magazine.  It is witty in a good way: Tilney on reading history: "The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all - it is vey tiresome.". Note the Austen use of the semicolon.  Also: "A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.". I like her almost childlike joking, which she never equalled later, when she sounded wordy and mannered, such as "He is a happy man!" said the general, with a look of very happy contempt."

Now we get to the house.  Northanger Abbey.  Because all English novels are about houses and money.  Lots of rooms and lots of furniture.  Lots of creeping about on stairways and lots of unexpected encounters in doorways

Overwrought teenage girl decides her host, father of her intended,(who she does not know is such at this point) has murdered his wife.  He has not, as she subsequently discovers.  She is mortified: she tells herself that in England, among Christians, potions and poisons are not to be "procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist".  Did they get rhubarb from druggists in those days?  If so, for what purpose?

Ah, yes.

Anyway, against my own expectations I say, have a read of this.  It was bought by a bookseller but not published, and then was published 13 years later.


Anonymous said...

rhubarb was (and still is) a laxative. Of which they were mighty fond in those days. Glad you have finally discovered the wit of JA. To truly appreciate her brilliance try reading the novels of only 10 or 20 years before such as those of Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth.Good, but rarely read for pleasure by a modern audience, where as Austen is still very accessible and hugely entertaining. She virtually invented the modern novel.

Augustus Carp said...

Rhubarb in powdered form is a laxative. Alexander of Tralles (6th century) first championed the use of rhubarb in his Twelve Books on Medicine; he was from Lydia (Turkey) where it grew freely, but it was unknown in Europe. By the late Renaissance, rhubarb seed from Bulgaria and Turkey was a valuable cargo imported through Venice, and Mattioli’s Commentary on Dioscorides’ Materia Medica encouraged merchants to travel far into Asia to try to find the “true” rhubarb described by Marco Polo.
So, what we have here is Ms Austen doing a gag about bodily functions; or as close as she could get to one, at any rate. And yes, it would have been obtained from a druggist or apothecary.

Anonymous said...

Unlike you, I do like Jane Austen -- but I don't think this Gothic romp is anything other than a Gothic romp. And I don't like Snese and Sensibility - regardless of the ridiculous Emma Thompson film. And I dislike Persuasion - Ann Elliot is so prissy.

P&P is a bit of a tour de force - and, as JA said of it herself -- 'It is too light and bright and sparkling'. Yes. It is. Its charm and its fault. We can have too much of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine. And Mrs Bennett and Wickham. And I remain quite calm about Elizabeth Bennett. A bit of a Lizzy.

I am very fond of Mansfield Park -- but not for Fanny Price who is a PAIN IN THE BONNETT. I like it for naughty Mary Crawford and wicked Henry Crawford. And ridiculous Mrs Bertram and her pug dog.And Mr Yates and his 36 speeches.

BUT: I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will very much like.... said Jane Austen about 'Emma Wodehouse, handsome, clever, rich who seemed to unite some of the very best blessings of existence and had lived for almost 23 years with little to trouble or vex her...' Now that is a novel and a half -- and if I were on the famed desert island and had to choose just one book - it would be that.
Emma, trapped in the coach from the Weston's Christmas party with the odious Mr Elton who seemed 'to have drunk too much of Mr Weston's very good wine' and the 'little zigzags of enmbarasment' as they are, literally, stuck together in silence until the coach alights at Hartfield after Emma has told Mr Eltron that he could not have proferred his addresses in ANY way that would have made her accept them.

The amazing errors of judgement about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax -- the terrible error in taking up with Harriet Smith and then not being able to shake her off -- the whole business with the angry and resentful Elton and his wife turning into very Salters to hound and dog Emma with their spiteful dog in the manger-ness ---- oh it is wonderful and so fantastic! The way Emma humiliates Miss Bates at the party to Box Hill because she is cross and fed up and trying to impress Frank Chruchill and really jealous about Mr Knightley. It is the best book in the worldf. I re-read it about once a year. It is far beyond the easy reach of P&P. Unsurpassed.


Jane Griffiths said...

well, quite. I didn't have JA down as one for poo gags until I read this.

Jonny said...

Anon 01:04, Northanger Abbey is a parody of a Gothic romp. Go to Horace Walpole for the full gargoylic shiver.

Jane Griffiths said...

Whch makes perfect sense, ta Jonny.

Anonymous said...

Agree, Johnny - it is a parody of one -- but it still doesn't make the book any other than an early 'try out' of themes pursued more successfully in her later novels.

The same applies to the epistolary unfinished novel, Lady Susan and the fragment, The Watsons.

Some of her best comments come in the letters - such as her reaction on hearing that somebody had been 'delivered of a dead child'.

'I suppose she happened, unawares, to look upon her husband.......'

Anonymous said...

Didn't initially know what to make of Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White.

I do now. It is very good. That initial hesitation is often the sign that a book is good. In my experience............
Steer clear of the early and easy wowsers. They leave a sickly after-taste.