Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Nutshell: Catherine Morland does not have any of the hallmarks of a heroine. She is not an orphan, nor a ward, nor even a dead parent. She does not have incomparable beauty or strength of character to suffer trials that would break a person’s spirit. She is barely above plain in looks and has an uncomplicated, straighforward character. Indeed, nobody would suspect her of being the leading lady in a novel. Yet she is one.
A childless couple from her neighborhood are staying in Bath for a time and invite her to go with them. Bath is nothing like her plain home. The people are unlike anything she has ever met, and as she makes friends, it begins to be obvious (but not to her) that the people who profess their admiration for her are trying to use her. Her family friend, in charge of her care, is happy to let her get into whatever trouble she likes. Will Catherine be taken advantage of because of her virtues, or will she escape with her reputation intact?
Read-alikes: If you wanted, you could try Anthony Trollope, or Charles Dickens, or the Brontë sisters. Frankly, though, these are from a later era of literature, and have a very different tone. You could get ahold of Ann Radcliffe, but only if you want to roll your eyes a great deal. To find that dry humour and sense of a bygone era, you’ll have to find Georgette Heyer. For similar style applied to a very different genre, try The Princess Bride. For a modern book with a somewhat similar theme, the Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.
Jane Austen is generally an author that needs no introduction, but perhaps that is only because of the circles I run in. I remember when I was young and “classics” to me meant books like Dickens and Melville and Hemingway and Twain, and as I disliked these books, I must perforce dislike all classics, including Austen. (Never mind how much I liked Louisa Alcott.) Oh, what fools are young persons!
Jane Austen is a master, most of all, of the dry humor with subtle social commentary. After that, her artistry runs to sketching characters with the pen of that humor, always gently applying common sense to the melodramatic tendencies of humankind.
Northanger Abbey is her send-up of the gothic horror novels of her day. One of her contemporaries said of her that her novels contained no “romance.” I was shocked, since “romance” is pretty much how to define her, until I realized that the definition of romance in the 19th century was what we would call “sensationalism” or “fantasy.” The writer went on to say that there were no pirates or damsels in distress or sword fights. Just regular people having a very interesting year.
But she isn’t merely mocking. Even while her heroine is being carried away by her fancies, Mrs. Austen pens an impassioned defense of novels, sillinesses and all. Her heroine might see vampires in the corners of old houses, but at least she has read.
Along with the dry wit and the common sense, it’s such a relief to take a break from ordinary, blue jeans and plastic today and be in the loveliness and lace of the past.