Friday, 28 June 2013

Neglected Review #6: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”

It may have been over two years since I last read Northanger Abbey, in which several of the plot details are a little fuzzy but this novel still resonates with me today because it completely altered my opinion of Jane Austen as a writer. I struggled to read Pride and Prejudice for many years (I quickly lost interest or it put me to sleep) and after finally finishing the novel, it did not exactly change my nonchalant disposition towards Austen. Sure, I found the social critique of gender, class and power to be compelling enough to keep me reading but the narrative and style of writing did not exactly bowl me over. It was not until I decided to give Austen another chance with Northanger Abbey and about half-way through the novel something in my brain just "clicked"--one of those Aha! moments that much to my surprise, turned me into a huge fan of her work.

The scene where the female protagonist of the story Catherine Morland and her love interest Henry Tilney take a trip into the country to admire the picturesque landscape, completely convinced me that Jane Austen is indeed a great writer. In what appears to be a simple romantic excursion between the two main characters, Austen drops subtle indicators that allude to much more going on beneath the surface. She craftily highlights the division between male and female gender roles in which women's lives are being constructed by a higher power. As the highly educated male, Henry goes on to instruct Catherine on a wide variety of subjects, corrects her use of language and claims her taste as "natural"--a chauvinistic label that subtly alludes to Austen's way of criticizing the construction of female identity that is shaped by a male hegemonic society. Catherine does not know how to "see" without Henry and he creates a lens in which for her perceive the world. He represents male culture, upholds patriarchy by claiming women to be inferior to men, constructs what history is and dictates the dominant ideology. Thus, the role of women is socially constructed but Austen also seems to be deconstructing the ideological framework of civility through parody. Henry Tilney is playing the role of a perfect "gentleman" and he places Catherine in the form of a "lady." Ironically, Tilney adopts the role of Catherine in various ways (ex: he keeps a diary and yet makes fun of women's love for letter writing) and as he tries to fix Catherine's identity, he quickly slides between roles. Even though he mocks her, he is also trying to build himself up in her favor. 

The fact that Austen is capable of packing so much subtext into one scene is absolutely remarkable. This is a common trend in her writing, which makes her novels so thematically rich, allowing many interpretations. She is so clever in her aesthetic approach to narrative and there exists a tremendous amount of intelligent discourse that is not always discernible. To simply approach her novels as entertaining romances would be a serious blunder because there is far too much going on underneath the surface that deserves attention. Furthermore, other striking aspects of the novel include its excellent use of parody towards the Gothic genre and Austen's interest in blurring the line between truth and fiction. She plays with the readers expectations in terms of genre and gender roles. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that she attempts to redefine the conventional Gothic heroine. She challenges patriarchy by writing "a history of the domestic woman" and champions the novel form as being more truthful than history. Go feminism!

It was not long after finishing this wonderful novel that I went back to read Pride and Prejudice for a second time and absolutely loved it. By approaching the text more critically, paying more attention to the use of irony and contradiction, I was now able to fully appreciate Austen's craft as a gifted writer. I have not come across many authors who are able to incorporate so much wit, style and social critique so effortlessly into their writing. 


  1. Hence, why I revisit Jane Austen every few years because, as much as I dislike romance novels, hers are so much more intelligent and interesting. I'm baffled by contemporary women who sigh over how much better things were back then. easier because they were limiting but not better by any means.

  2. I am also not the biggest fan of romance novels, but I'll make the exception when it comes to Austen!

    Huh? I am confused. How was it better when women had no rights at all? Yes gender inequality still exists today (regardless of democracy) but female autonomy has come a looooooong way since Austen's day.