The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.

The Classics Reclamation Project

Last night I finished Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. It’s kind of an exciting classic for me, for two reasons. First, after starting and abandoning Pride and Prejudice at least three separate times, I finally got through a Jane Austen novel. I even enjoyed it! And second, it was the first classic I read on my Sony Reader. Project Gutenberg is a wonderful resource.

One thing that surprised me, and that probably caused me to abandon Pride and Prejudice several times, was the vocabulary in Northanger Abbey. The best thing about reading Austen on my Reader was the dictionary function. Just double-tap on any word, and the Reader automatically looks it up. I learned to correctly use a few words whose meanings I’d never quite pinned down, thanks to Austen. I also had to slow down and make sure I followed Austen’s long and complex sentence structure. It was delightful when I took the time to understand it but quite confusing if I stopped paying attention for a moment. Reading this sort of book requires a skill I’ve allowed to atrophy, and it seems it’ll take some practice to get it back into shape.

I’d also heard that Austen was funny, but I could never quite imagine how that would work. Turns out she is, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Her word choice is exquisite, her phrasing just right. For instance, I loved this moment, which made me smile:

“Catherine’s silent appeal to her friend, meanwhile, was entirely thrown away, for Mrs. Allen, not being at all in the habit of conveying any expression herself by a look, was not aware of its being ever intended by anybody else.” (p. 34)

Austen speaks directly to the reader at times, so that she is present at certain points throughout the novel as a narrator or storyteller. It felt to me somewhat conspiratorial, while at the same time distancing me from her characters. She also has a few things to say about novels and their importance, which I quite enjoyed. In these examples, the first quote is in reference to Catherine and the second is spoken by Henry:

“[F]or, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all.” (p. 3)

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” (p. 64)

Catherine herself is a fan of Gothic novels, sometimes letting the line between life and fiction blur a bit too much. This interest is something she and Henry share, and much of their banter (all of which is fun) centers around it. I have a feeling it would be interesting to read Northanger Abbey again after having read some of the novels the pair reference in their conversations about the genre.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (cover)I liked Catherine as the heroine. She’s young, which makes her a little oblivious to a lot of things, but in an endearing sort of way. She’s not your typical sighing damsel or plucky tomboy. She’s somewhat of an underdog, an ordinary girl trying to be the heroine of her own story. She reminded me somewhat of Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, though I’m still puzzling out exactly how. Something about how both are candid, genuine characters caught up in maddening situations. The other characters were clearly distinguished: annoying, flirty Isabella; honest James; witty, kind Henry; sweet Eleanor; egotistical, insufferable John. I always felt like I could imagine the characters Austen described, because I’d met at least one of each in my own life.

As for the story itself, it wasn’t my favorite, but I didn’t dislike it. It gives an interesting look into society in Austen’s time, with lots of social maneuvering and required decorum. It didn’t move especially quickly, and at times I wondered where it was going. I liked the characters, but I was not so invested in their fates that I was unable to tear myself from the page. I don’t know if that’s a characteristic of Austen in general or Northanger Abbey in particular.

Back in October, Clare from the Literary Omnivore wrote a wonderful review of Northanger Abbey (including a plot summary, which I haven’t included) and suggested it as a good starting point for readers new to Austen. As someone who took Clare’s suggestion, I can say I did find Northanger Abbey to be a good Austen intro. If nothing else, it’s short! Now that I feel I have a taste for what Austen is like, I think I’ll do better next time I pick up Pride and Prejudice!

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  1. We read ‘Northanger Abbey’ last year in our Book Group. For most of us it was a re-read, but for the person who chose it it was her first ever Austen. We all enjoyed it but in very different ways. I think if you come to NA as a teenager, as I did you read Catherine very differently to the way you see her a couple of decades on. Didn’t you just want to slap Isabella and John? They really are despicable characters.

    1. I can definitely see where different ages would experience Northanger Abbey differently. As for the Thorpe children…ugh! John just got a lot of eye rolls, but Isabella…ooh, she made me mad! At least Catherine eventually seemed to figure them out. I didn’t want her getting caught up in their nonsense.

  2. Yes, that’s just a characteristic of Austen, I think. There’s always that distance between the reader and the characters. I’ve read all six of her major novels now, and this one & P&P are the two fastest-reading and by far the most interesting in my mind…

    1. Thanks for clarifying. I’m quite happy with it being a characteristic; it’s kind of fun to feel like the whole story is being told with you, the reader, very clearly in mind. I just won’t expect to get completely caught up in Austen’s novels, even if I do enjoy them. I’m curious now to see what will happen when I try one of her others.

  3. One of my favorite things about Northanger Abbey is the narrator, since she’s a character unto herself and, while similiar to Austen, isn’t Austen (since she’s a Gothic narrator stuck in a decidedly not Gothic story)β€”this isn’t something that pops up in other Austens, however, so it’s unique to this book.

    1. I’d like to reread NA after familiarizing myself more with Gothic literature. I think I’d have gotten more out of NA if I’d known more about features of Gothic lit, though even without such knowledge NA was a fun little story.

  4. I love this book, along with all Austen. If you haven’t seen the recent BBC adaptation, I highly recommend it. It was so funny that my 11yo son rushed to pull Jane Austen off the bookshelves right after it ended!

    1. I’ve not seen it! I tend to like the first way I experience something (book, movie, audiobook) and not subsequent versions, but I think the classics might be different. I’ll see if I can find a copy. Thanks for the suggestion!

  5. I have a very nice collection of Austen’s works, but I try to parcel them out one year at a time, because there are so few to be had. So far, I have read Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, and I am looking forward to reading Sense and Sensibility this year. Sometimes I just want to go on an Austen binge and read them all, but I have to stop myself and ration them out. I am glad to hear that this was such a good read for you, and I like that you provided quotes in your review. I hope that you are able to enjoy more Austen, and would have to recommend Emma to you, it’s a great read!

    1. What restraint you have! I’m impressed. I was surprised to realize Austen only has six novels; in my mind, she had many more, somehow. Pride and Prejudice and Emma seem to be recommended to me most often, so I’ll most likely try one of those next. I have them all in eBook form, which is still so cool to me. I hope you enjoy your slow savoring of the rest of Austen’s novels!

  6. So glad to hear that you had better luck with Jane Austen this time around (she is one of my favorite authors!). I reread Northanger Abbey last year and really loved it, though the first time I read it, I though it was one of Austen’s lesser novels… definitely not the case! I do think that Austen’s sense of humor is more apparent in this novel since it is a satire of the Gothic novels that Catherine loves and that were so popular at the time, but I think that if you liked what she did here, you’ll certainly like her other novels too.

    1. I’m not so fussy about the particulars. I feel like NA gave me a decent sense of Jane Austen, and from that sense, I think I’ll be able to read and probably enjoy her others. I don’t have much Gothic novel background, so I’m sure I missed much of the humor anyway! I really liked Austen’s style, which I’m guessing is more or less consistent throughout. I’m inspired by my success with NA and am looking forward to my next Austen. Thanks for your advice regarding how NA compares to Austen’s other works!

  7. This is the only Jane Austen I have left to read, and your review makes me think I will enjoy it. And don’t you love the dictionary function? I have a Kindle but it has a similar function, and it is so helpful to learn words that ordinarily I would just skip over. Sometimes when I am reading physical books I keep my Kindle with me so I will be less lazy about looking up the words I am not familiar with.

    1. The dictionary function is a lifesaver! I make myself look up any word I can’t really define, even if I have a sense of what it means, and it’s so much faster to use an eReader than a paper dictionary. I love your idea of reading paper books with an eReader handy, just for the dictionary function — I’ll have to try that!

  8. Northanger Abbey is the only Austen book I never read. It’s sitting on top of my TBR pile so I expect I’ll be reading it in the next week or so! It doesn’t get the attention that Pride & Prejudice and Emma do – maybe that’s because the story isn’t her best – but I enjoy how Austen writes and her sense of humor so I’m looking forward to it. I really enjoyed your review. I guess I better have my dictionary available when I start Northanger Abbey!

    ~ Amy

    1. I hope you like NA! I’ll look forward to your thoughts on it. I’m happy I’m not scared of Jane Austen any more and hope to enjoy her other novels over the course of the next few years. I don’t know how NA’s vocabulary compares with the rest of Austen’s novels; you may not need your dictionary! I found myself looking up a lot of words I had a sense of but couldn’t actually define.

  9. I’ve only read three of her books but this one felt the roughest to me–just not quite as polished as the others. I do like Austen’s tongue-in-cheek humor–I found a lot of it in Emma. Hope you continue to enjoy her stuff!

    Hmmm-testing out the new comment subscription!

    1. From what people are saying, it sounds like NA isn’t maybe the best overall representative of Austen’s writing. I did enjoy it, though, and I feel like it was at least a taste of Austen’s overall style, which I liked. More polished is always good, so I’m glad I have that to look forward to! I’m guessing Pride and Prejudice or Emma will be my next read, though not for a while. Don’t want to overdose on Austen!

      I hope the new comment subscription works!!

  10. I never knew Austen could be laugh-out-loud funny until I read Northanger Abbey… it’s high time for a reread! That dictionary function sounds great. I hope to get an ereader within the next month or two.

    1. Yes, I agree — I was shocked to find myself giggling at several points! I hope your potential ereader works out for you. I love mine so far!

  11. I haven’t read a lot of Austen, but do fine her quite funny. But only when I’m reading slowly and carefully, otherwise the slyness of it tends to go over my head.

    Also, not related, which plugin did you add so that people can just get e-mail replies to their comment? I want to add it to my blog too πŸ™‚

    1. I agree, Kim, I really had to slow down to appreciate Austen’s humor. Hers doesn’t seem to be a style that lends itself well to skimming.

      Regarding the comment plug-in, I’m sorry I’m only just now replying! Jackie from Farm Lane Books turned me on to Comment Reply Notification, and so far, it seems to be working. I hope it works for you!

  12. Having ONLY read Pride and Prejudice, I would agree that Austen is funny but only in a “this cleverly phrased comment could mean two things and could be taken as an insult” funny. She isn’t HAHA funny. At least not in my limited experience. That is why I liked the zombie version better. I like my laughs big, broad and obvious.

    1. I think Pride and Prejudice will be my next Austen, especially now that you’ve given me the idea of reading the zombie follow-up as well! Northanger Abbey certainly wasn’t funny in a “big, broad, and obvious” sort of way, but I did actually giggle out loud a couple of times. I can only imagine what will happen when I get to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

  13. I read Prode and Prejudice last year and it was my first Austen. I read it on my reader too and used the dictionary function a lot. πŸ™‚ I just LOVE Jane Austen’s way of being funny. Her way with words is really amazing. I want to read everything of hers now and you’ve made me want to read this one, sounds like fun!

    1. I agree, Austen really has a way with words! Though the dictionary is key to really enjoying her wit, I think, at least for me. I’m looking forward to Pride and Prejudice, which I think will be my next one.

  14. I have Northanger Abbey on my TBR list as well, but I’ve only ever read Emma and Pride & Predjudice. My mom and I share a love for Jane Austen, so I’m looking forward to reading her other stories. πŸ™‚ I’m like you; I have a huge list of classics that I want to read someday. And I will! *raises fist in determination*

    1. One of those two will be my next Austen! That’s really cool you and your mom both love Jane Austen. Here’s to reading more classics! πŸ™‚

  15. I read this as a teen and it was blah. Can’t remember any details at all, really. But I LOVED P&P (age 16 or 17 first read). I still love P&P. I’m waiting until I’ve read some of those gothic novels before I reread Northanger Abbey.

    1. I’m not sure I’d have liked Jane Austen as a teen — I’m glad I waited until now to tackle her novels in earnest. I definitely think I’d like to read Northanger Abbey again after familiarizing myself with those Gothic novels.

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