“Poor Catherine is thrown from ecstasies to despair on a moment-to-moment basis”
I first read Jane Austen when I was fourteen. I was pretty smug about it, I have to admit. Not a lot of my friends were bothering with Jane Austen. Most of them were reading Stephen King and James Herbert or Shirley Conran and Virginia Andrews. It was a long time ago, and there were only a trickle of books around that were specifically aimed at Young Adults – and no army of book bloggers to chat about them.
The thing is though, when I first read Jane Austen, I did not find it particularly funny. The caustic remarks about the getting of husbands and how to behave properly in society went whooshing right over my head. It didn’t stop me ploughing my way happily through the entire works, but I suspect there was a certain amount of grim determination to be the girl who had read all of Jane Austen rather than the desperate anxiety for story which gets today’s teens queuing up for the latest instalment of whatever series is lighting their fire today. I’m sorry I didn’t read Jane Austen carefully enough to get the humour, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy each and every book. I loved them for their peep into the past, for the domesticity of the stories, for the families and the love…
For Paisley Piranha’s Classic YA Month, Pride and Prejudice would perhaps be the obvious JA choice. If you’re going to read just one Jane Austen, I suspect that’s the one most people would go for. And you absolutely should read it. It’s funny (!) and it’s full of marvellous characters and spot-on observations about people. And, of course, there’s the love story…
Instead, I’ve gone for Northanger Abbey. There are several reasons for this. First, if you don’t know much about Jane Austen, you might miss this, which would be a shame. Second, it’s pretty short, so not a bad introduction. Third, if you are a ‘Young Adult’ reading this review, chances are you’re crazy about books, and Northanger Abbey is about a seventeen-year-old girl who is crazy about books, specifically the gothic horror that was all the rage at the time (think crazy old black and white movies with cobweb-strewn castles, creaking doors and mysterious deaths).
At the start of the novel, Catherine Morland has led a sheltered life with her large family in the country. She gets the chance to go with some family friends for an extended visit to Bath, the city where wealthy people take their holidays, visiting the Roman spa and attending balls, the theatre and the like. Poor Catherine expects so much from her experience; she’s thrown from ecstasies to despair on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s so exactly like being in a modern teen’s head it’s scary at times to think that this was written two hundred years ago. What is different from what you’d expect from a modern novel though is that Jane Austen is a little more distant from Catherine than a author would be today. Yes, we are invited to sympathise with Catherine, but at the same time we’re laughing at her in what I have to describe as a slightly patronising way. Oh poor, silly Catherine.
The first part of the book involves Catherine getting in with the wrong crowd in Bath and having the wrong person fall in love with her. It goes on far longer than it should, in my opinion, but I suspect JA’s original readers weren’t fussy about pace, with the whole novel thing still being pretty new in the early nineteenth century. The second half moves to Northanger Abbey, home to the family of the man Catherine’s fallen in love with. Here, obsessed with gothic tales as she is, Catherine makes a series of wild assumptions about the house and its inhabitants while missing glaringly obvious truths. There’s romance too, but, as often happens in JA, the business side of arranging a marriage comes into play as well as the lurve.
I think I may have damned Northanger Abbey with faint praise, but that wasn’t really my intention. It’s difficult to review something so old and so very different from most of the brand-new material we generally review on this blog. Give it a go, I’d say. It’s not a difficult read, and if there are bits that you find dull or tricky, just skip them. After all, I read all of Jane Austen without realising it was funny. Northanger Abbey is a window on another world, as the best books should be.
More to Read!
If you love Northanger Abbey, give Pride and Prejudice a go. There are loads of modern spins on Jane Austen. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick is based on a vlog spin-off of Pride and Prejudice. And one of my all-time favourite movies, Clueless is a modern version of Emma.