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.
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.
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!