Jane Austen Week: Northanger Abbey


Hamlette is hosting a Jane Austen week, where lots of bloggers are posting on one of our favorite authors. There are discussions of her books and the various adaptations they’ve spawned in film and further. You can find all of the other posts here!

I chose to write about Northanger Abbey, one of the more overlooked Jane Austen books. It’s quite different in tone from Pride & PrejudiceEmma, or Sense & Sensibility. The heroine is a bit more naive, easily excited and frightened, and in the end learns that life isn’t like the Gothic novels she loves to read. It’s still social commentary, but in a very different way. Instead of being a novel of manners and conversation, it tends towards the meta-fictional; it’s a discussion about the nature of writing itself and how the novel and its author fit into the shape of the culture.

Northanger Abbey was the first book Jane Austen completed for publication, but it was not actually published until after she died. She sold the manuscript under a different title to the London bookseller Crosby & Co. They never published it, and eventually sold it back to Jane Austen’s brother. She ended up changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine and did some more revision, but ultimately it wasn’t published until six months after her death in 1817.

The story is a fairly simple one. Catherine is invited to stay in Bath with some friends of the family. While she is there she makes some friends, and is ultimately invited to Northanger in the days when “visits” lasted for weeks on end. She has a few anti-climatic adventures, and then is asked to leave, but this is Jane Austen so in the end everyone ends up happily.

At its core, Northanger Abbey is a satire of and confrontation with the popular Gothic novel. These novels, which had very little in them except for the macabre and the sensational, were designed to thrill and titillate. Jane Austen, through this work and her others, sees literature fulfilling a different purpose–that of entertainment and instruction. This goes against the more “serious” writing at the time, which suggested that anything written for entertainment at all was not worth the  paper it was written on and was meant for less serious people. In other words, it was meant for women. Austen pushes back against this idea to straddle the line between the two extremes, and by doing so makes her own monumental contribution to literature.

It’s also a novel about a women who learns how to read, not just the books that she so fancies, but the world around her as well. She has to see through what people say and learn to read their motivations.  It’s about a young woman learning that life isn’t as lurid as books would suggest, and that the truth or core of something is usually more mundane than it looks as well as much less good-natured. Austen suggests that this is a good thing–imagination has its place but being realistic means that you won’t be taken advantage of. This is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect that this is a lesson Austen herself had to learn as a writer and a young woman. The fact that this novel was ready for publication first suggests that it might be something of a manifesto for what Austen would attempt to do as a writer in the future.

Catherine Morland is not exactly the picture of a Gothic heroine, which Jane Austen makes clear from the opening sentence, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born an heroine.” She is missing some of the more essential attributes, namely a dark and dismal past (her family being squarely middle class and still living and her childhood pleasant), a beautiful face (hers is only so-so), and intuition or a sense of fate. In short, she’s exactly the kind of girl who might be fascinated by Gothic novels because they represent the exotic and adventure. As Mr. Tilney tells her, she’s more likely to judge people based on her own good intentions and positive motivations, leaving her unable to understand or sniff out malice or even a lack of candor.

Mr. Tilney is an interesting character who is quite clever and observant. He’s not my favorite Austen leading man because his relationship with Catherine never feels quite as equal as Emma’s and Knightley’s for example or Lizzie’s and Darcy’s. However, he does his best to try and teach Catherine about herself and the world.

Northanger Abbey itself is a particularly intriguing setting for Austen. She often uses great houses as her settings (all of her heroines, no matter their sometimes precarious financial circumstances, live in what I would term a large house and have plenty of servants), but very few of them have the kind of historical weight or Gothic atmosphere that the Abbey does. But Austen does not allow the reader to bask in the romance of the setting, instead she focuses on the prosaic details. Even if Catherine doesn’t realize it at first, Northanger is nothing more than a big house, and is nothing to be in awe of or swoon over.

Catherine Morland wants to find adventures, and surely there is no better way to do so than uncovering secret letters and ancient mysteries. She’s caught spying around the house, of course, invading Mr. Tilney’s deceased mother’s rooms, but the most iconic episode of the book is her discovery of the lists. Catherine gets herself in a tizzy one stormy night and her eyes fall on a cabinet. She simply has to explore it, and she does while the wind howls. Conveniently, the key is in the cabinet, though it takes her several attempts to open the door. She searches every cranny (leaving the locked middle drawer for last)–remembering to check for false bottoms. Then she opens the last drawer and there at the back is a rolled up piece of paper. Before she can read a single word, her candle is promptly extinguished by the wind and she hops into bed, dropping the papers to the floor in her fright. She reads it in the morning, sure that it will contain all kinds of hidden secrets, and find that it contains…a few bills for the laundry and farrier. No episode could more clearly illustrate Austen’s feelings about Gothic novels. After being so scared, after building the episode in her mind up so much, there was nothing there but the trappings of economic privilege.

While Northanger Abbey is not my favorite Jane Austen novel, I think it’s a great one–especially to learn about Austen’s place in the literature of the era and to understand her opinions on novels. Although she’s often lumped together with the Bronte sisters, her goals in writing were very different. She presents herself in this first offering as a witty and independent mind whose goal is to reflect society back to itself, showing how the world has shaped the lives of the women living in it. Catherine may be one of her sillier protagonists, but she still shows the pressures of growing up into womanhood. If you haven’t read this one before, or you haven’t read it in a while, it may be time to pick this book up.

Reading Challenge #26: A Book By an Author From a Country You’ve Never Visited


Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Author: Gabriel García Márquez

How it fulfills the challenge: Márquez is from Colombia, and I’ve never been outside of North America

Genre: Literary Fiction/Classic

Quick Description: A sweeping family saga in a small Caribbean town filled with super long lived residents and plenty of mystery and intrigue. It follows the lives of the members of the Buendía family through multiple generations. Each generation has their own triumphs and tragedies and in the end the ultimate struggle is against forgetting–oblivion.

“He dug so deeply into her sentiments that in search of interest he found love, because by trying to make her love him he ended up falling in love with her.”

Highlights: I don’t even know where to start with this book. There are parts that are a bit difficult because some of the names and generations start to bleed together, but the prose is so intriguing, so evocative that it doesn’t even matter. The tone of the book is always in keeping with the nature of the town itself, and the magical realism is so deftly done that it the magical seems prosaic, though never boring. It was difficult to choose just one quote because there is so much the book says about love, obsession, survival, and death. Márquez is a true master, and I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing it would be to read this book in Spanish.

My Goodreads Rating: 5 stars

A NaNoWriMo Retrospective

So I’m now coming down off the NaNoWriMo writing high, and I must say that it is nice to shower and get dressed before noon or leave the house without feeling like the world is ending, but in a way it’s bittersweet too. It’s so easy to fall back into not-writing. Writing comes naturally, but not writing does too, and after a month of writing 2/3 of a novel by hand, I want a little break. So I’ve cleaned my apartment. I’ve scheduled some blog posts. I’ve made a dinner that took more than half an hour to come to fruition. And it’s very nice. But it’s also nice to write for 8 hours a day, to have an almost complete first draft of a book. I’m excited for next year. I might have to do drafts like this more than once a year and then spend the rest of the year editing. I thrive under deadlines.

It’s definitely an intimidating prospect, 50,000 words in a month, but I’m good with goals. Once I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, I had no question about my ability to meet the deadline. I was determined to meet it, and I did–that’s just how I am. But it is a huge prospect, and most people are not able to spend so much time in their pursuit of it. I want to raise a glass (filled with the liquid of your choice) to anyone who participated, whether you won or not. In my opinion, you won if you chose to put writing first, if you put time and energy into what had previously been just a passing fancy, if you worked hard developing your story and your skills. You are amazing!

I think one of the most powerful lessons to take away from NaNoWriMo is the power of persistence. To meet this word count, you have to develop a forward momentum. If you look backward, you’ll be discouraged, you’ll strip away words instead of building them up. The best thing is to use that old improv adage “yes, and” because you’re looking for a number, a high number, of words. This is not the time for logic, for tight phrasing, or for editing. This is about word vomit. You’ll discover new things that are better than what you’d written before, and you have to make a note and move on. The momentum is essential, but it’s the most difficult part.

November might be over, but it’s not too late to make writing a priority. The new year is right around the corner and it’s time to make a writing resolution. If you start in December, think how much easier it’ll be to carry that momentum into the new year! My resolution is to have two novels ready to attract elusive agents by the middle of next year. What’s yours?

My Life in Books Tag

Thank you to BooksaRica for nominating me for this book tag! I think this one looks like a lot of fun, so we’ll just hop to it.

Books with Titles that Begin with Each of Your Initials

I took all of these from my Goodreads TBR (which at 425 books is unnaturally long, I know)

A                                                S                                                        M

and  stoneart

Count Your Age Along Your Bookshelf, Which Book is It?

Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances


A Book That Represents a Destination You’d Like to Travel to:

Venice, Italy: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon by Andrea di Robilant


A Book That is Your Favorite Color



A Book You Have the Fondest Memories Of:

The Harry Potter series, and also The Princess Diaries and The Wizard of Oz books

My new copy of the first Harry Potter book. I was very hard on my first two copies.

A Book You Had Difficulty Reading:

James Joyce’s Ulysses


A Book on Your TBR List that Will Give You a Strong Sense of Achievement:

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer


I Nominate:

Women Writers Reading Challenge #53: Uprooted by Naomi Novik


I have had a huge run of good luck when it comes to books. I don’t know what it is, but before I’d read the past 8 books or so, I was in a bit of a reading rut. I’d read books, and they’d be good, but not great. I’m hoping that my good book choices last all the way into the new year!

This book was, in a word, amazing. Everything about it was filled with so much wonderful magical detail. The heroine is believable and I was rooting for her the whole time. The magic world was interesting and full of mystery, and there were plenty of twists and turns to keep you occupied. The writing was really good, descriptive, full of the right kinds of details the narrator would notice, and it kept you going right along. In fact, I devoured this book, which means at some point I’ll need to read it again. And I can’t wait.

Women Writers Reading Challenge #52: The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende


Life is full of little mysteries and supernatural happenings that are, perhaps, better left unexplained. In Allende’s novel, they are simply a fabric of the universe, as true as hunger or suffering, as difficult to explain as poverty. Magic is part of the everyday in The House of Spirits, but the most magical part of the book is the way Allende weaves the stories of successive generations into a passionate and tragic, though ultimately hopeful novel. Entrancing and heart breaking, Allende’s novel will move you and challenge you to think about family, success, love, and hope.

I enjoyed this book more than Zorro, which I read at the beginning of the year. I think the writing here is tighter, more emotionally charged, and more fantastical and creative. I think part of the reason for this is that in Zorro, she had to make a legend seem believable, and in this book, she was able to make the everyday into the extraordinary.

Have you ever read a book by an author that you felt ambivalent about only to fall for another book of his or hers?

Women Writers Reading Challenge #49: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison


The only image in my mind that goes with “Rasputin” is from the animated movie, Anastasia, which features him as a (mostly) undead man read: zombie, with a talking bat and a creepy reliquary he sold his soul to. That is the beginning and the end of my knowledge of him–the “holy” man that brought down the last Tsar of Russia and ended an empire. But facts make the picture a little more complicated. For who could imagine the undead man with two daughters? Though Kathryn Harrison’s book is fiction, it’s based on an absurdly interesting fact–that the daughter of Rasputin ended up as a lion tamer. The book reimagines this legendary story with a heroine with a gift for storytelling and a devotion to her father’s memory. He becomes a much more complex person through her eyes. The book is enchanting, told with lots of imagery and plenty of stories so that you are constantly bewitched by the narrative. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the world of Anastasia and the Romanovs and who is not quite convinced by the image of a zombie Rasputin.

Has there been a figure from history who has grown more complicated in your eyes based on research or even based on different fictions?

Women Writers Reading Challenge #47: Mimi by Lucy Ellmann


I don’t know what it is about some books, but from the moment I see the cover or hear the title of the book, I’m instantly convinced that it is a book I MUST read. They are usually quiet books like The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is another book I love. I almost instinctively know that this book and I will be very good friends. Every time I see it or hear about it, the need to read it is just intensified. And that’s how it was for me and Mimi. I don’t know exactly led me to this book–destiny–I suppose. But I was in store for a book with beautiful lyricism. Ellmann has an unbelievable mastery of various literary devices like alliteration. And she gets away with exclamation points! I’ve been scared of excess punctuation since high school, but her exclamation points are so exciting and such a breath of fresh air. Her prose has a luminous, poetic quality and the story was just. so. good. It’s not a book that shouts; it’s much quieter than that. It tells one man’s story with clarity and light. It’s a book about love and growth–how one special person can change your life forever.

I know I haven’t explained this book very well. I certainly haven’t done it justice. You’ll just have to read it.

Have you read this one? I’d love to hear if you’re as crazy for this book as I am.

Are there books that haunt you? That don’t leave you alone until you read them? What were they and what were your thoughts afterwards?

Women Writers Reading Challenge #43: Speedboat by Renata Adler


I don’t typically post quotes from the books I read on the blog, but this book is filled with these simple and profound statements (never mind that they are undercut by doubt and different logic most of the time), so I thought I’d share some:

“That was a dream, of course, but many of the most important things, I find, are the ones learned in your sleep.”

“I think sanity, however, is the most profound more option of our time.”

“I have a tendency to get stuck in places.”

“You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.”

Renata Adler’s novel, published in 1988, is easily placed in the “experimental” category because it is written in small paragraphs, anecdotes, and scenes that have no chronological connection to the section above. Following a book like this is not a matter of keeping the story straight, but rather looking for how the character develops (not how they develop over the course of their life, but how the reader’s understanding develops through the revelations) and for little patterns and repetitions, for they are certainly there. It’s easy to see how carefully the text is constructed despite the chronology, and I found it entrancing. Adler has a remarkable gift for juxtaposition and association, making complex relationships out of words that have done no more than shake hands before she got to them. If you’re interested in experimental novel writing, or you just want to experience something different from the usual way of novels, I think this book will inspire you.

Women Writers Reading Challenge #41: The Group by Mary McCarthy


Published in 1963, Mary McCarthy’s novel follows eight young women following their college graduation (Vassar class of ’33). These women are educated and intelligent yet they are not immune from either the economic pressures of the Depression nor of societal pressures to be meek and fall in line. Without giving too much detail about any one woman’s life, McCarthy manages to place you into the world of the 1930s and into the lives of these women. She captures their struggles, their failures and successes. They are all unique and utterly human. They may have placed themselves on pedestals, but life sends them tumbling down again. Replete with important life events, these women are just as identifiable among groups of modern women, and though the pressures exerted on them are different than those today, it’s plain to see that not much has changed.

The book is neither particularly uplifting or particularly depressing. Instead of passing judgement on the characters, they’re allowed to simply be with all their faults. If you like literature of the 1920s and are interested in the progression of women beyond that period, I highly recommend this well-written novel.