I knew nothing about Northanger Abbey
before picking it up. Well, not quite nothing. Since I read the book along with The Gothic Novel Book Club, I knew it had something to do with the Gothic lit genre. So, I expected a dash of Uncle Silas
, a hint of Wuthering Heights
. What Austen actually gave me was a witty, humorous parody of the Gothic novel. Northanger Abbey
is to the Gothic novel what The Colbert Report
is to tv punditry. I loved it.
Austen taught me important lessons as a reader of Gothic literature. For example, if I ever encounter a grumpy, wealthy widower called "The General" who lives in an ancient monastic dwelling with a number of mysterious nooks and crannies, I should not assume automatically that he either murdered his wife or keeps her still-living-but-insane self locked away in a hidden chamber. Also, if I ever come across a random stack of papers in a strange cabinet drawer, I should not assume automatically that it's an ancient manuscript revealing another's dirty secrets. (It could simply be a stack of old laundry bills, after all.) Finally, if I ever find myself idealizing the high society, manners, courtship rituals, and other aspects of life in Austen's day, I should remember that fictional accounts can't even remotely do justice to the infinitely complex stuff of real life. Austen's parody of the Gothic novel works well as social commentary, showing the danger and absurdity inherent in some of our most entrenched customs. She's really good.
Here are samples of the humor and social commentary I'm talking about:
“To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.”
“No man is offended by another man's admiration of the woman he loves, it is the woman only who can make it a torment.”
“She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance - a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”
“A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number.”
I could have included a score of other worthy quotes. Highly recommended!