Northanger Abbey was my first Jane Austen novel. It won’t be my last. My previous experience with Jane Austen was limited to having once watched Pride and Prejudice while on our honeymoon.
Like most men, I always assumed that Jane Austen novels were simpering, sappy, romance novels of the victorian era. Sadly, the movie I watched did little to dispel that assessment. But this year I have been engaged in a reading challenge that has forced me out of my comfort zone a bit when selecting books. I’ll explain more of the particulars in a future post, but I had several categories that lent themselves to reading a Jane Austen novel, not the least of which was, A book written by Jane Austen.
Lauren had a large volume containing seven of Austen’s novels. I looked it over and chose Northanger Abbey for two reasons. First, I had never seen or heard anything about it. Second, it was the shortest novel in the anthology.
I fully expected to toil through it and be glad when it was over so I could move on to reading something more to my liking. How wrong my expectations were! Beyond all hope, I actually enjoyed the book. In fact, I intend to read one or two more before the end of the year. But I digress. Let me tell you about Northanger Abbey.
The story of Northanger Abbey
The book’s central character is a young woman named Catherine, who is 17 years old for the majority of the story. She goes on vacation with a neighboring family, who have no children of their own, meets a boy, falls in love, has lots of drama with friends, and, in the end, is happily married to the man of her dreams. Along the way she attends dances and dinners, has long conversations with other young women about young men, dresses, and whatnot. It sounds as bad as I’d imagined, doesn’t it? It’s not.
Jane Austen writes with wit and sarcasm. She relays much frivolous conversation and shows it to be frivolous. She makes fun of the empty-headed female characters who can’t think past how much nicer their dress is than anyone else’s. One such character is Mrs. Allen, the wife of the couple Catherine goes to live with.
Mrs Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind, were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man, like Mr Allen.
When Mrs. Allen meets an old friend who proceeds to tell all about her children, we are told,
Mrs Allen had no similar information to give, no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend, and was forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace of Mrs Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.
Austen wants her reader to see Mrs. Allen as a frivolous, empty-headed character.
She also makes fun of the male characters who are all brag and no substance. Beyond that, she shows the repulsiveness of people who are entirely selfish, concerned only with money, and other vices.
The strengths of Northanger Abbey
But what she does best is show us a main character who grows and matures over the course of the novel. Catherine becomes less frivolous, less concerned with the opinions of others, and more discerning of character in her friends and acquaintances. She learns the dangers of jumping to conclusions before having all the facts. Above all, she grows more interested in the things that really matter, like truthfulness, generosity, integrity, good friendship, and the beauty of creation.
Austen also weaves social commentary into her story. She critiques her society’s habit of arranging marriages on the basis of economic and social standing and advancement. Likewise, she critiques the popular entertainment of the day, the gothic novel. One wonders what she would have to say about entertainment in our day!
Why men should read Northanger Abbey
But the thing Austen does surprisingly well that caught my attention is to portray an admirable manly hero in Mr. Henry Tilney. Tilney makes this book worth reading. First, Austen spares us the simpering description you might expect from a romance novel, instead, she gives us this,
He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.
So, he’s a gentleman, he’s tall, pleasant, intelligent, lively, and almost handsome. That’s a breath of fresh air. No attempt to portray the hero as muscle bound or handsome to the point of making the women swoon. He’s an average man with a good personality. Interestingly, Austen knows how to write a manly hero. He teases Catherine, provokes her even, a couple times in conversation. He acts with integrity in all situations. He sees to his duties and responsibilities even when shirking them would be advantageous. He has good judgment of both people and circumstances. He takes control and acts when a situation calls for it, but sometimes he sits back and lets events play out, letting others deal with the consequences of their actions.
When his brother may be making a bad decision, Catherine pleads with him to speak to his father about it,
but he did not catch at the measure so eagerly as she had expected. ‘No,’ said he, ‘my father’s hands need not be strengthened, and Frederick’s confession of folly need not be forestalled. He must tell his own story.’
‘But he will tell only half of it.’
‘A quarter would be enough.’
When Tilney discusses dancing with Catherine, he compares it to marriage.
in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else.
There are some ideas here that might strike modern readers as old-fashioned. Regardless, his prescription for marriage would solve many of the problems with today’s divorce-ridden culture. Jane Austen, a woman who never married, teaches us a lesson on the secret to a happy marriage, and puts it in the mouth of a male character!
Later in the novel, Mr. Tilney catches Catherine in an act of snooping and quickly discerns her reasons. He rebukes her for letting her imagination and fear run away with her and cause her to think ill of someone unjustly. This rebuke, followed by his “astonishing generosity and nobleness of conduct, in never alluding in the slightest way to what had passed,” plays a major part in her maturity as a person.
And in the final chapters, he stands up to his own father, when the elder Tilney acts from greed and pride, but at the same time, submits himself to the authority of Catherine’s parents, and their wishes, as regards his desire to wed their daughter. He does so, even though this causes a delay of many months as he awaits his father’s favour on the union. Henry Tilney is the sort of hero and role model we need more of. He has quickly become one of my favourite literary characters.
I would challenge men to give Jane Austen a try. She surprised me with this first novel and I will be reading others before the year is out. This is the only Jane Austen novel I’ve read so far, but I do believe it is a good place to start.