Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jane Austen's nod to Gothic Romance

1897 version book cover
“It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”    Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. 

Jane Austen's works usually conjure up images sunny drawing rooms and brightly lit ballrooms. Or a well maintained estate like Pemberly.  Few people think of a remote castle, a dark mystery, and a young heroine alone in a remote place where danger lurks.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen's nod to the Gothic Romances that were so popular in her time. Gothic romances were contemporary romances in Jane's time.  Jane met the famous Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, who you have likely never heard of.  Jane admired Radcliffe's work, and her one Gothic story is a compliment to a writer she admired. Some say it is a spoof of Radcliffe's works, I disagree.

If you're hungry for Austen, and have read Pride & Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma until the pages are worn and the ink is fading, try this work as a taste of something different, yet so classically Jane Austen.

The basic story: Plain looking Catherine Moorland is 17 years old. She lives with her parents and numerous siblings in the country.  They are not well off.  Wealthy, childless friends of her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Allen, decide to take Catherine to Bath with them for a holiday. This is a boon for her as her family is not out about in society and Catherine will not have a season in London. At Bath, Mrs. Allen will introduce her to the society there. Off she goes to Bath with her patrons.

At Bath, Isabella Thorpe befriends her. Isabella also loves Gothic romances, so the girls bond over their shared joy in dark romance. Isabella's brother, John Thorpe, flirts with Catherine. She's never had a beau before, so she is a little flattered by his attention. But Thorpe is not well educated and is often quite rude and condescending. Catherine also meets a very handsome, quiet, intelligent man, Mr. Henry Tilney.  Henry dances with Catherine at a ball and then invites her to go out walking with him and his sister.  Catherine likes him a lot, as any 17 year old girl would when being courted by a handsome man in society. So, she has two suitors, one conniving, the other sunny and cheerful.

Her new friends, the Thorpe siblings, manipulate Catherine while she's in Bath. John is under the mistaken impression that Catherine is the Allen's heir, so he wants her for her money. Isabella is mischievous and vain. She uses Catherine to get closer to Catherine's older brother, James, by pretending friendship with her for her own reasons.

Sounds like high school, doesn't it? Well, for these young ladies, it sort of is. They adolescent girls out in society, young and hopeful, some of them very hopeful of making a good match so they can leave home and become mistress of their own home through marriage. Catherine is the dreamy, bookish type. She's always reading Gothic novels, which are all the rage at the time. She has an active imagination and her reading choices only fan the flames for trouble.

1968 cover
After several mishaps in Bath, and learning that Isabella and John are not her real friends, she accepts an invitation to visit Northanger Abbey from Eleanor, Henry Tilney's shy, quiet sister. Henry Tilney and his father have decided to leave Bath, and as the daughter is lonely, she asks to have Catherine accompany them to their isolated estate for an extended visit.
Once Catherine arrives at the castle, her imagination goes into overdrive. She suspects Mr. Tilney murdered his wife years ago, and thus indulges herself in some amateur sleuthing activities and some heavy snooping about the castle. She is frightened by her surroundings as the castle appears to be haunted.  So there you have it, romance with Henry, intrigue and dark suspicions, a girl alone, away from family in an isolated castle, and a dark, sinister host as once Mr. Tilney Sr. returns to his home he becomes a different man than the one she knew in Bath.

It's suspenseful, and it's Jane Austen. You can't miss. I've read the story several times, and watched a movie version several times. It is highly entertaining, and very Austen!

There are a couple of movie versions out if you are looking for a quick fix.  I've only watched one of them, an older version from 1995. Unlike her more popular works, there aren't a bazillion film versions of this one.  As far as I could find, there is only this one (photo below), and one made for TV by Masterpiece in 2008 which I have not watched. The best way is to read the book! Or listen to it in audio. I downloaded a free audio version from iTunes a few years ago and listened to it at bedtime on my Ipod....ah, how times change, now you can download it to your smart phone and listen or read!

1995 BBC version

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