Underrated Classics: Northanger Abbey

414332Very often we recommend new books in this space (in terms of the long, long history of books being published, anyway). I want to recommend what some would call a “classic” in a series of posts I like to think of as “underrated classics.” Today, my recommendation is for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Of course, for all you Austen enthusiasts out there, this book is no surprise to you, but for folks who haven’t read Austen’s work so many times their books are worn out, this one’s for you.

Austen is known for her biting wit and criticism of a class system that excluded women from most of the rights men valued and forced their adult interests to focus almost solely on marriage. As such, her stunning novels Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are widely known and loved. Persuasion, Emma and Mansfield Park all deal with similar issues and characters, though they are slightly less loved than P&P and S&S, largely due I think to the completely excellent film adaptations of both books (Matthew Macfadyen is my Mr. Darcy. Come at me Colin Firth lovers… Come at me).

Northanger Abbey is perhaps slightly less well known because though at its core there is a story of our heroine finding the right match, the novel’s tone is much different than Austen’s other published work. Some have argued that this may be due to its posthumous publication and have surmised that the book was largely meant for family entertainment, rather than public consumption. Make no mistake, Northanger Abbey has all the classic Austen-esque traits you have always loved, but it is lighter in places and outright funny at times.

The book’s main character, Catherine Morland is a girl of 17 with a very active imagination. She loves to read sensational Gothic thrillers and they influence her perception of the world a great deal. When she is invited to spend time with friends, the Tilney’s, at their estate called Northanger Abbey, she hopes, with a thrill of excitement to be thrown into the midst of a real-life Gothic novel. She is sorely disappointed to find that the Abbey is a pleasant estate, nothing like the dark castle she hoped for.

Still, Catherine ferrets out a mystery. There is a mysterious set of rooms that piques her interest and upon finding out they were her host’s late wife’s, her active imagination goes into overdrive. She becomes obsessed with the idea that Mrs. Tilney might have been murdered. Along the way, her love interest (Henry Tilney) becomes the object of her affections, but also her suspicions. I’ll let you find out what happens next, but rest assured, you’ll be entertained.

What I like most about Northanger Abbey is its humor. Though it is meant to be read as a parody of the Gothic novel, Austen’s core values are there and as an avid reader it’s hard not to love Catherine, despite the fact that her imagination does run away with her. I think those of us who have lived other lives in books know what it’s like to want to disappear into a story, especially if our real lives are feeling a bit mundane.

If you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and maybe even Emma and liked them, I think you’ll enjoy Catherine Morland’s story. She’s got a bit of Lizzie’s readerly charm, a bit of Marianne’s wild romanticism and a good dose of the kind of humor we see in Emma. It’s all packaged into what I can only describe as a light lesson on letting books tell us how real life should be and a short bundle of laughs.

Allison Carr Waechter is FINALLY done with summer school and is so, so glad. She’s going to nap for at least a week, so don’t look for her on Twitter.


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