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Northanger Abbey / Lady Susan / Sanditon /…
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Northanger Abbey / Lady Susan / Sanditon / The Watsons

by Jane Austen

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“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.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey.

Before embarking on a discussion of this novel it’s worth our while to consider the titles of Jane Austen novels and the three main groups they neatly fall into. The first is a group typified by abstractions: titles such as Persuasion and the two with alliterative pairings, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. (The latter of course was originally called First Impressions and then apparently re-named following publication of another novel with the same title.) The second group takes on the names of personages, Emma, for example, or Elinor and Marianne (as the first draft of Sense and Sensibility was called) or Susan, which was later revised as Catherine due to the appearance of another novel of the same name, and published posthumously as Northanger Abbey.

And then we have the group which reflects significant place-names, most famously Mansfield Park and, of course, Northanger Abbey (which, as noted above, Austen originally intended to be published as Catherine).

The chief reasons for changes of name are either another novel pre-empting the title or a posthumous re-naming by Austen’s family. In the case of Northanger Abbey we can see that it began life as Susan, then was revised so that the young heroine was re-named Catherine, and finally published after Austen’s death under the title we know today. It’s worth noting this evolution to gain an inkling of how Northanger Abbey is sometimes misjudged for what it is not rather than what it is. Can we judge a book by its cover or can the title misdirect us? I suspect the name change, plus the frequently cited label ‘Gothic parody’, has led many readers (me included) to expect a full-blown melodrama, only to be disappointed; whereas in truth it appears to be another take on Austen’s usual comedy of manners.

The plot concerns a young ingénue, Catherine Morland, who leaves her home in Wiltshire with the older Allens as chaperones to spend time in Bath, then a popular venue for English society. Gauche at first, she meets first the Thorpe family and then the Tilneys, becoming friends with her contemporary Isabella Thorpe and then enamoured of Henry Tilney. Partly to escape the tedium of the Bath season, partly because of her partiality to gothic novels, she accepts an invitation to the Tilney home of Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, believing it to be the very stuff of romance. Once there she falls victim to her overheated imagination before the modern world intrudes, at first painfully, and then with an Austen-esque happy ending. The novelist Joan Aiken suggested (in Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America) that the plot of Northanger Abbey is, as conceived at the close of the 18th century, “much less complex than any of the three later novels. There is a simple chain of events: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” Aiken gamely speculated on how Jane may have later tried to revise the narrative before finding herself defeated, but mostly we will have to make do with what we find.

However, the apparent simplicity of the plot is for us made more confusing by the fact that we don’t get to the much vaunted abbey till well after the second half of the novel (Volume II as it was first published) has started. The first volume of Northanger Abbey is largely set in Bath (the city, incidentally, where Jane’s parents were married) and reflects the fashionable streets and meeting places that can still be seen today, two centuries and more later. Jane Austen produced, we're told, her first draft of Susan somewhere between 1798 and 1799, at a time when she apparently first visited Bath. The social events and rituals that the young Catherine Morland takes part in will have been based on Jane’s own experiences in her early twenties, long before the Austens’ residency in Bath in 1801 to 1806, during which Susan was revised and placed with a publisher. The second volume, however, is set in a fictional country house, where perhaps we as much as the first readers (let alone Catherine) are led to expect dark goings-on.

As her own Advertisement in Northanger Abbey makes clear, “this little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication”. We don’t know why the bookseller never did issue it, but Austen apologises that her treatment of “places, manners, books, and opinions” are now, thirteen years later, “comparatively obsolete”. (As it was, Northanger Abbey was published, not in 1816, but after her death at the tail end of 1817.) However, the public’s appetite for gothick horror hadn’t actually disappeared: 1818 was to see the appearance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein followed by Polidori’s The Vampyre a year later. So, if we don’t get to visit Northanger Abbey till the second volume, why did Jane’s family not publish the novel as Catherine, her own choice? Did Catherine sound a bit tame as a title? Were they trying to, as it were, cash in on the public’s taste for the supernatural? Or was this Jane’s own ironic choice? Did she see a place-name title such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as a magnet to draw in a readership that today might be attracted to teenage vampire romances or zombie horror stories? Did it suggest, to quote a frisson-filled Catherine Morland, something horrid?

I mentioned that Northanger Abbey is a novel of dualities: two titles (if we discount the earlier Susan); two main settings, one real, one imaginary; two suitors, one boorish, one heroic; two female friends, one false and one steadfast; two views of the owner of Northanger Abbey, one mistakenly as a murderer in the best Gothick tradition, the other more truly as an ungentlemanly father seeking status in the profitable marriage of his eligible son. There is also the contrast between what is plausible reality and what is romantic fantasy, though of course the novel, as is the way with all metafiction (my favourite word at present), is fantasy, pure and simple.

Is this truly parody? The attempt by Isabelle and John Thorpe to force Catherine into a carriage to drive to Blaize Castle certainly borders on parody, echoing the frequent abductions in gothick literature. Catherine’s imaginings of the father of the honourable Henry as a wicked murderer, though as it turns out he is merely pecuniary, seems more like pastiche. Does Northanger Abbey celebrate rather than mock the work it imitates? I confess I’m in two minds about it. Referential but not reverential is how I prefer to think of it in relation to the standards of the genre.

Since we’re stuck with the novel’s title we now have, let’s consider how Austen means us to picture the Abbey. Is it like the imposing residential folly built by William Beckford, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire? Or a more modest but still impressive remodelling as at Lacock Abbey in the same county? It may be, as with the misdirection Austen gives in her description of Blaize Castle, that like Catherine we may be imagining the towering edifice of Fonthill, while the reality is that we should be expecting the more edifying Lacock. Either way, Northanger Abbey is a witty subversion of many of our expectations while, conversely, giving us much of what we hope from an Austen novel.

http://wp.me/p2oNj1-or ( )
1 vote ed.pendragon | Jun 15, 2013 |
This is not the best Austen, you can tell it is an early work. The characters are rather one-dimensional, the storyline thin. The wonderful portrayal of society and of relationships that we have come to expect from her later works, is lacking: the critical eye is already there, but there is very little compassion for human frailty. The satirical voice of the narrator does not seem to come naturally, and the characters remain cardboard figures. Still, if you like Austen, it is no hardship to finish this one. ( )
  mojacobs | Feb 15, 2011 |
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the novel that almost wasn’t. We know from Cassandra Austen’s notes that her sister Jane wrote it during 1798-1799, prepared it for publication in 1803, and sold it to publishers Crosby & Company of London only to never see it in print. It languished on the publisher’s shelf for six years until Austen, as perplexed as any authoress who was paid for a manuscript, saw it not published, and then made an ironical inquiry, supposing that by some “extraordinary circumstance” that it had been carelessly lost, offering a replacement. In reply, the publisher claimed no obligation to publish it and sarcastically offered it back if repaid his 10 pounds.

Seven more years pass during which Pride and Prejudice is published in 1813 to much acclaim, followed by Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815, all anonymously ‘by a lady’. With the help of her brother Henry, Austen then buys back the manuscript from Crosby & Company for the same sum, for Crosby could not know this manuscript was written by a now successfully published and respected author and thus worth quite a bit more. Ha! Imagine the manuscript that would later be titled Northanger Abbey and published posthumously in 1818 might never have been available to us today. If its precarious publishing history suggests it lacks merit, I remind readers that ironically in the early 1800’s most viewed it as “only a novel“, whose premise its author and narrator in turn heartily defend.

“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.” The Narrator, Chapter 5

If this statement seems a bit over the top, then you have discovered one of the many ironies in Northanger Abbey as Austen pokes fun at the critics who oppose novel writing by cleverly writing a novel, defending writing a novel. Phew! In its simplest form, Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic fiction so popular in Austen’s day but considered lowbrow reading and shunned by the literati and critics. In a more expanded view it is so much more than I should attempt to describe in this limited space, but will reveal that it can be read on many different levels of enjoyment; — for its coming of age story, social observations, historical context, allusions to Gothic novels and literature, beautiful language and satisfying love story.

Some critics consider Northanger Abbey to be Jane Austen’s best work revealing both her comedic and intellectual talents at its best. I always enjoy reading it for the shear joy of exuberant young heroine Catherine Morland, charmingly witty hero Henry Tilney and the comedy and social satire of the supporting characters. At times, I do find it a challenge because so much of the plot is based on allusions to other novels, and much of the story is tongue in cheek. Explanatory notes and further study have helped me understand so much more than just the surface story and I would like to recommend that all readers purchase annotated versions of the text for better appreciation.

Oxford World’s Classic’s has just released their new edition of Northanger Abbey which is worthy of consideration among the other editions in print that include a medium amount of supplemental material to support the text. Also included in this edition are three minor works, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition. Updated and revised in 2003, it has an newly designed cover and contains a short biography of Jane Austen, notes on the text, explanatory notes which are numbered within the text and referenced in the back, chronology, two appendixes of Rank and Social Class and Dancing and a 28 page introduction by Claudia L. Johnson, Prof. of English Literature at Princeton University and well known Austen scholar. Of the five introductions I have read so far in the Oxford Austen series I have enjoyed this one the most as Prof. Johnson style is so entertaining and accessible. She writes with authority and an elegant casualness that does not intimidate this everyman reader. The essay is broken down into a general Introduction, Gothic or Anti-Gothic?, Jane Austen, Irony, and Gothic Style, and Northanger Abbey in Relation to Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sandition. Here is an excerpt that I thought fitting to support my previous mention of publishing history and tone.

“Northanger Abbey is a sophisticated and densely literary novel, mimicking a great variety of print forms common in Austen’s day - conduct of books, miscellanies, sermons, literary reviews, and, of course, novels. Its ambition is fitting, because it was to have marked Austen’s entrance into the ranks of print culture. After Austen’s earlier attempt to publish a version of Pride and Prejudice failed, Northanger Abbey (then called Susan) seemed to have succeeded, for it sold for a grand total of 10 to Crosby & Company in 1803. We have seen that Austen’s entrance into the printed world, unlike Catherine’s entrée into the wide world outside Fullerton, was energetically confident: when the narrator declares that novels ‘have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them’ (p. 23), she is clearly referring to her own novel too. This seems an audacious claim when we consider that Austen had yet to publish a novel, and a painful one when we consider that the novel, though bought, paid for, and even advertised, never actually appeared.” Page xxv

What I found most enlightening about this edition were the explanatory notes to the text which were also written by Prof. Johnson. Not only do they call attention to words, phrases, places, allusions, and historical meanings, they explain them in context to the character or situation allowing us further inside the though process or action.

115 ponderous chest: the chest is a site of spine-tingling terror and curiosity in novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forrest (1791), where it holds a skeleton (vol, I , ch. iv), and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), where it holds evidence of Falkland’s diabolical crime. p. 369.

In addition to being an amusing parody and light hearted romance, I recommend Northanger Abbey for young adult readers who will connect with the heroine Catherine Morland whose first experiences outside her home environment place her in a position to make decisions, judge for herself who is a good or bad friend, and many other life lesson’s that we discover again through her eyes. Henry Tilney is considered by many to be Austen’s most witty and charming hero and is given some the best dialogue of any of her characters.

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Henry Tilney, Chapter 14

Luckily for Henry Tilney there was one woman who used all that nature had given her with her writing when she created him. We are so fortunate that Northanger Abbey is not languishing and forgotten on a shelf at Crosby & Company in London, and available in this valuable edition by Oxford Press ( )
1 vote Austenprose | Nov 14, 2008 |
This is actually the first Jane Austen book that I have ever read - which I suppose is fairly strange in that I was a literature major. I was assigned "Pride and Prejudice" in 9th or 10th grade I think and shirked the responsibility. At the time, I was a bit rebellious and couldn't see how a book about Society and marriage had anything to do with me.

I very much enjoyed this one; I thought it was a very "nice" novel. The parody aspect of it was good - though it was sometimes fairly overt parody and other times it was more subtle. The satirical nature seemed to be slipping away towards the end of the first part, but it rebounded very well in the second part with the actual arrival at Northanger Abbey. ( )
  zip_000 | Jun 11, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jane Austenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Davie, JohnEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, Claudia L.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kinsley, JamesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192840827, Paperback)

Northanger Abbey depicts the misadventures of Catherine Morland, young, ingenuous, and mettlesome, and an indefatigable reader of gothic novels. Their romantic excess and dark overstatement feed her imagination, as tyrannical fathers and diabolical villains work their evil on forlorn heroines in isolated settings. What could be more remote from the uneventful securities of life in the midland counties of England? Yet as Austen brilliantly contrasts fiction with reality, ordinary life takes a more sinister turn, and edginess and circumspection are reaffirmed alongside comedy and literary burlesque.
Also including Austen's other short fictions, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon, this valuable new edition shows her to be as innovative at the start of her career as at its close.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:11 -0400)

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This edition brings together 'Northanger Abbey' along with three of Jane Austen's minor works which show her originality across the full range of her literary career.

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