The following guest post comes from Courtney of Adventures In My Petticoat; she's dropping in to chat about one of my favorite Austen works (and the one I think most underrated) Northanger Abbey, and the things that make Catherine Morland adorkably cool.
Who wouldn't want to be Elizabeth Bennet? What Austen fan hasn't spent a few hours of her life staring in the mirror and repeating Lizzie's most delightful zingers? (If it's just me, let me live in blissful ignorance.) Elizabeth Bennet has it together, for sure. She's so cool, so composed, so sure of herself.
I love Pride and Prejudice, but it isn't my favorite Austen.
All those hours I've spent checking out Austen-themed merchandise online, waiting for my new Jane Austen calendar to arrive in the mail, and playing Pride and Prejudice: The Board Game tell me that I'm much more like Catherine Morland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey.
Simon Pegg famously said, "Being a geek means never having to play it cool about how much you like something." I've never been able to play it cool about how much I like Jane Austen--or for that matter, books in general. Catherine never manages to play it cool about anything, whether it's her love for gothic novels, her suspicion that General Tilney murdered his wife, or her feelings for Henry Tilney.
Here's the thing about Catherine Morland: as delusional and daydreamy as she might appear, she's rarely wrong.
A hundred scholars have pointed out that General Tilney really is a jerk, and his kids really are afraid of him. Maybe he did murder his wife: Austen leaves that one hanging. Maybe all those hours reading gothic novels didn't teach Catherine to see things that aren't there. Maybe they just taught her to recognize things others don't.
Catherine gets other things right, too. At the end of the novel, readers have every reason to believe that, despite Austen's sly jabs at fairytale endings, Catherine and Henry will be reasonably happy together.
But above everything else, Catherine gets the importance of the novel right. Though she is occasionally abashed by public opinion, which at the time did not hold the novel in high regard, she keeps reading. She imagines and immerses herself in the worlds of the books she loves. She totally geeks out over novels.
When Austen was composing Northanger Abbey (completed in 1803), there was no guarantee that the novel was here to stay. It had been slowly gaining ground on poetry and drama throughout the eighteenth century, but it was still viewed askance by the literary elite and the social establishment alike. It was the kind of thing people who considered themselves paragons of intellect rolled their eyes at and people who considered themselves guardians of morality narrowed their eyes at.
Austen had been drafting novels for years. The rough manuscripts that would become Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were already stuffed away in a drawer. She had already chosen how she would spend her life
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid," perhaps Northanger Abbey's most famous line, is as much a defense of Austen's life's work as an indication that Henry Tilney, its deliverer, is worthy of Catherine's love.
Northanger Abbey is often described as a parody of the gothic novels that were popular at the time, but it's much more than that. It's funny enough even if you've never read any of the novels it references, and if you've read The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine's current obsession, it's hilarious.
Catherine Morland is a total geek about novels, boys, and creepy old houses, but in regarding Northanger Abbey only as a parody of gothic novels, it's easy to miss its true brilliance. Northanger Abbey is a defense of liking, and even devoting yourself to, something that's not quite mainstream yet.
Over two hundred years after Catherine Morland went to Bath, both The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey were on the reading list in one of my graduate seminars. Catherine Morland got the novel right. Jane Austen bet on the right horse.
Geek girls win.
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