The Wit and Wisdom of “Northanger Abbey”

Before 2012, “Northanger Abbey” was the only Jane Austen classic I had not read. Upon remedying this shocking lapse (I mean, she only wrote six completed novels – how hard it is to read her whole canon?), I decided it was my favorite Austen novel. Though I’m skeptical that we can trust these judgments…

At any rate, I reread this sparkling classic novel recently for a book group and fell in love with it all over again. What makes it so special, to me at least, is that it’s both a witty send-up of gothic novels and a serious defense of novels as an art form. In the process, Austen reminds us that the issue isn’t form as much as it is substance. It’s what we do with what we have that counts.

This annotated edition is chock full of fascinating historical and literary bits and bobs
This annotated edition is chock full of fascinating historical and literary bits and bobs

The novel’s heroine is Catherine Morland, the 17-year old daughter of a country clergyman and an avid reader of gothic novels. Catherine is invited to join her wealthier neighbors for the winter season in Bath, where she makes new friends, attends balls, flirts with romantic interests, and has her moral mettle tested in the form of figuring out whose judgment and actions she can trust (her own included).

Austen is absolutely brilliant at revealing character through narration and seems to trust her readers to know what’s what, even when her heroine sometimes tends to lose the plot (so to speak). This is part of what makes reading her novels so satisfying: Austen makes us feel savvy and in on the joke. She doesn’t need to tell us anything other than the story because we will get it. Also, the narrator seems to be having an absolute ball telling this story and to have great affection for the good-hearted Catherine, even if she is a bit dim at times.

My favorite moment has to be in Volume 1, Chapter V, when the narrator veers slightly off topic (but not really) to engage in an entertaining and substantive rant about the value of novels (and, one might extrapolate, literature as a whole). It goes on for a few pages, all of them fabulous. Since I can’t very well reproduce them all, here is my favorite moment of all:

“‘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 humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

Just what I would say about “Northanger Abbey“!