Jane Austen's Little Irrelevancy: Northanger Abbey

It’s not her fault. How was Jane Austen to know she would outlast her contemporaries by more than a century?

We still read Jane Austen for her dancing wit and scathing social perception, qualities that come through in each of her works. We don’t read The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Castle of Otranto
because their melodrama is more conveniently found in daytime television. Certainly nothing other than a severely underestimated self-worth would convince Austen that she must defend herself against titles such as these.

Perhaps I am being unfair. The Gothic Novel does not require my condemnation to be fully abused; it was regarded with abundant distaste even during its zenith. If you saw Becoming Jane, you know that “novel-reading” was a hobby that you didn’t pursue in public, one that got you strange looks from the older gentlemen. For Austen to write any sort of novel put her in danger of becoming grouped under the same stigma.

We don’t mind so much the dogged tunnel-vision that possesses each of Austen’s characters in their inevitable tumble towards marriage. In fact, it is their isolation from everything but the niceties of upper society that make them so keen in insight and curious in historical reflection. Northanger Abbey's Catherine gives us the only character whose concern is outside of matrimony for much of the plot. She instead spends her time reconciling the Gothic with the real, and the swift romance at the story’s conclusion is an afterthought, a tacked on but necessary component in the protagonist’s coming of age.

Luckily, most of Austen’s stories deal with the English gentry as a general body, and their odd cavortings are the novels’ primary cultural mirror. Northanger Abbey, however, descends deeply into the realm of popular culture as it existed in its infancy, and for that reason feels much more ridiculous and much less grounded than her other stories.

It's curious that Austen chose this parody as her first novel, even if it was only published some years later. Perhaps she felt a need to separate herself from the body of novels so detestable to her society. The story is a clear statement of intent: from this story forward, Austen’s novels will not include raven haired beauties, sepulchral curses, duals on the ramparts, or ghostly prophecies. This may have disappointed certain readers of the time, but by the time Northanger Abbey appeared on the market, readers were already well acquainted with Austen’s strengths. She speaks to the mistimed nature of the publication in the introduction, warning us that "some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete." We now see her error. The farce makes perfect sense, it is simply unnecessary, a tiny snag that to Austen may have felt like a major obstacle, and to history seems the smallest of footnotes.

REF: Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Crosby and Co., 1817. Print.

Epic Fantasy by the Numbers

If you've been reading The Wheel of Time from its inception, then you've been following the same characters for twenty six years. That's longer than all but the most ancient television shows, and a couple years more than my entire life. Epic Fantasy is either a serious commitment or a gateway drug. Here's what your getting into when you pick up the first book in a series:

The Original: JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
  • Number of Books: 4 (sort of)
  • Total Number of Pages: 1,856
  • Average Pages per Volume: 464
  • Years in the making: 18

Robert Jordan's The Wheel of time
  • Number of Books: 13 (so far)
  • Total Number of Pages: 10,508
  • Average Pages per Volume: 808
  • Years in the making: 26

Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
  • Number of Books: 3
  • Total Number of Pages: 2,480
  • Average Pages per Volume: 827
  • Years in the making: 5

George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire
  • Number of Books: 4 (so far)
  • Total Number of Pages: 3,188
  • Average Pages per Volume: 797
  • Years in the making: 9

Terry Brooks Shannara Series
  • Number of Books: 14
  • Total Number of Pages: 6,486
  • Average Pages per Volume: 463
  • Years in the making: 28

Tad Williams' Otherland
  • Number of Books: 4
  • Total Number of Pages: 3,352
  • Average Pages per Volume: 838
  • Years in the making: 5

Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth
  • Number of Books: 11
  • Total Number of Pages: 6,290
  • Average Pages per Volume: 572
  • Years in the making: 13

Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Nonbeliever
  • Number of Books: 8 (so far)
  • Total Number of Pages: 4,460
  • Average Pages per Volume: 558
  • Years in the making: 23

No one beats Robert Jordan in pure text volume, or even comes close, although Tad Williams and George RR Martin are both writing some hefty volumes. If you're not into the long haul, look to Williams, who had two series complete in just ten years of work.

Cosmic Horror: At the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft is not frightening because he shocks or surprises. He won't disgust or horrify you. At least, not at first. Most of his stories are written in the first person, giving you a comfortable assurance that the narrator will make it out alright. What makes his works so compelling is that they're so dry. It's like reading a science journal, and for that reason, completely terrifying. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his longer stories, and also the best.

To understand how Lovecraft operates, let's take a look at some recent genre-defining horror: The Blair Witch Project. The film abandons the conventions of how films are constructed and approaches the audience at a level of deep believability. We've been watching home videos ever since our aunt recorded our third birthday party, and their trademark mistakes have become part of what we see as real. A shaky camera, bad lighting, unheard dialogue, green night vision; all part of something real and actual. When the Blair Witch Project tells the tale of lost college students using these techniques, the audience is already on their side. Seeing the images presented like that made it that much easier to connect with what’s happening. If you didn't buy into it, the film was a mess of confusing images and ugly shots, but if it hooked you, there was nothing to separate the horrors of the film with your own back woods. No wonder every horror film for the past ten years has duplicated the effect.

Lovecraft knew just as much about his readers and what would hoodwink them. Take this bit from the novel's buildup: "Several distinct triangular striated prints like those in Archaean slate, proving that source survived from over six hundred million years ago to Comanchian times without more than moderate morphological changes and decrease in average size." This is how Lovecraft introduces a monster, with minute technical and scientific detail. Their ancient lair is given similar treatment: "There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath." Everything is measured and codified, in the language of the archeologist. You don't see this kind of language in other horror novels, you read it in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and The American Naturalist. Each detailed description grounds the story in the realm of believability. Perhaps you are reading the dispatch of an actual arctic expedition. Perhaps those vegetables under the ice rest there even now. Perhaps the cyclopean vistas really lurk just beyond that unpassable range. Why not?

The clincher for Lovecraft's technique comes to light in the final sections, when our explorers come face to face with the living horrors. Here, all attempts to describe the monsters are flung aside, leaving the reader with descriptions like "unholy", "shapeless" and "indescribable." Characters that once brought the entirety of scientific vocabulary to bear in their observations are left speechless by the final horror. The creatures must be terrible indeed for description to escape such grounded men.

They may not keep you up with the light on, but Lovecraft's stories retain their queer realism. Years from now, when you can laugh at the zombies and vampires of modern cinema, you may recall the fated expedition of September the second, 1930 and the odd things they found.

Read Lovecraft (literally, all of Lovecraft), at Google Books or Project Gutenberg. If you don't have time for a novella, "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Colour Out of Space" are two of his more compelling short stories, but you’d be pretty safe with any of them.


Let's Read: King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Remember the 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? I don't blame you. Comic fans may recall the franchise with more warmth, but for those of you who need a recap, it concerns the banding together of Victorian England's finest pseudo-superheroes in a historic mash up that includes everyone from Captain Nemo to The Invisible Man. You might remember those characters, and you might even recall Mina Harker of Dracula fame, but you'll probably find yourself scratching your head when Sean Connery introduces himself as Alan Quartermain. Connery gave his final performance playing this character, who actually hearkens from H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel, King Solomon's Mines, a story of adventure, diamonds, elephant hunting and awkward racial stereotypes.

Though British works in the nineteenth century can be dense and stodgy, Haggard's novel feels more like a modern day Hollywood picture. It's violent, immediate, irreverent, and more than a little ridiculous. Quartermain narrates an ill-omened journey that takes him and his compatriots deep into the uncharted wilderness on an Indiana Jones roller-coaster, all while spouting the doctrine of the nineteenth century imperialist. For the uninitiated, it's a great way to catch up on the thoughts and habits of colonial Britain without any ballrooms or royal academies to get in the way.

The first thing you'll notice about King Solomon's Mines is the violence. This violence isn't the studied social commentary of A Tale of Two Cities, but the rollicking action scenes of airport novels. When Quartermain goes elephant hunting, an unfortunate guide steps in the path of a rampaging beast. The result: "the brute seized the poor Zulu, hurled him to the earth, and placing his huge foot on to his body about the middle, twined his trunk round his upper part and tore him in two." Those are Haggard's italics, not mine. This scene lets us know right away that the tale won't shy away from gruesome violence. It also tells us that Haggard doesn't mind killing native Africans in his story, and we quickly learn that he uses non-Europeans like Star Trek uses redshirts. In fact, while entire armies of resident Africans bite the dust during the novel's climactic sequences, only one European comes to mortal harm, and that years before the plot even gets going.

I suppose we don't expect novels of the era to have a right-minded approach to racial issues, but Haggard inserts a few especially egregious examples. One European character manages a romance of sorts with a native woman, though she ends that subplot with "I know that he cannot cumber his life with such as me, for the sun cannot mate with the darkness, nor the white with the black." No one contradicts the statement, and Quartermain later praises her good sense. Even the story's primary native character can't help but spread the stereotypes with his statement "The ways of black people are not as the ways of white men... nor do we value life so highly." Sure, that character goes on to become a visionary leader, but that's only with the invaluable assistance of white men. The natives can't even depose their own dictator, it takes a European wielding a battle-ax to finally behead the tyrant, in another display of gloriously graphic violence. "For a second the corpse stood upright, the blood spurting in fountains from the severed arteries; then with a dull crash it fell to the earth."

So King Solomon's Mines isn't the most forward thinking of nineteenth century texts, but it's an easy read, and you can get the whole thing for free over at Project Gutenburg. It's definitely more gripping than some modern entertainment writing, and once you've read it you're officially indoctrinated in classical literature. If nothing else, you can watch League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again just to see how horribly they messed up the character. Enjoy.
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