Completist author reading, Old School

3. Northanger Abbey – 1/10

What an unpleasant change from Mansfield Park. This was much shorter, with underdeveloped characters and heavy-handed satire. The writing was stodgy until the last minute, at which point so many details had to be crammed in for the various plot twists to make sense that it became impenetrably dense. According to the introduction, Austen’s first novel is a satire of a number of popular novels at the time. This may be true, and maybe if I knew the novels in question, I would appreciate the humour more. As it is, the book seems like a string of convoluted inside jokes.

The heroine is (as is stated, restated, emphasised and reiterated in the first chapter) a most unlikely sort of heroine – plain, mischievous, from a large family not devastated by sicknesses and early deaths, not talented in her studies of history, art, music or anything else. Her domestic surroundings being tediously devoid of suitable young men, she is removed to Bath with a childless neighbouring couple. There she encounters the overly affectionate female friend, the suspiciously dashing aspiring suitor, and the obvious eventual Prince Charming. A member of her family is wronged in love, she makes a new friend… I’d said we’ve seen it all before except that this was Austen’s first novel – so more accurately put, we will see it all again.

Austen touches on a few lighter topics than usual, but with a less deft hand than in her later works. Men in general come in for some bad coverage, there are amusing descriptions of a cocky young self-important man and a vacuous older woman – again, stock Austen characters. The respectability of novels, women’s education, fashion and financial impediments to marriage also make token appearances.

In summary, very disappointing after Mansfield Park. I’ll wait until I’ve read Persuasion before I pass comment on Austen’s works in general.


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