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.


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