"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."
-Henry Tilney, in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey
When Henry Tilney speaks these words in Austen's funny and touching novel, Northanger Abbey, the story's heroine, Catherine Morland, gets a serious crush. (Truth is, Henry had her at hello.) Still, Henry's declaration is a bold one, for in Austen's day novels were considered low art, especially if they were penned by a woman and consumed by women. Catherine favors the lowest of the low--scary Gothic novels written by women and featuring abduction, seduction, supernatural horror, and/or murder—the kind of novels that teens (and many an adult) could not get enough of.
Every era likes to marginalize certain forms of art. In Austen's day, it was the novel (and not just the Gothic ones). Today, it might be graphic novels or romance or so-called "women's fiction" or "chick lit" or science fiction or horror. Take your pick. Despite the snobbery, Jane Austen and her whole family were, in her own words, "great Novel-readers, & not ashamed of being so." Nevertheless, Northanger Abbey is a hilarious send-up of just the kind of horror-and-romance-fest that Catherine Morland—and Jane Austen—liked to read. The difference between the heroine and her creator is that Catherine Morland kept expecting real life to play out like one of her favorite novels, while Jane Austen thought real life had its own set of fascinating stories to tell.
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland's story unfolds as she leaves home for the first time, bound for the fascinating city of Bath. She falls in love, is whisked off to the romantic-sounding estate of Northanger Abbey, witnesses betrayal and deception, suspects murder, and takes a dangerous journey alone. Ultimately, Catherine learns self-reliance in more ways than one. Not only does she cease to be, in her mother’s words, "a sad little shatter-brained creature," she also learns to distinguish between her own wild imaginings and her intuition, between fantasy and reality, between false friends and true.
Northanger Abbey is the perfect coming-of-age story, for it is in no way about giving up our youthful fancies and zest for living. Quite the opposite. Through Catherine's innocent, exuberant embrace of what is fresh and novel (no pun intended), we the readers remember the first time we traveled to a new city, danced with the person who made us feel valued for who we are, or "learnt to love a hyacinth."
I can't wait to see the latest adaptation of Northanger Abbey that airs on Masterpiece Theatre's Complete Jane Austen Sunday, January 20.