A Jane Austen novel that enlightened me as to the curious joys of the non-masterpiece

As I’ve alluded to before, one of my greatest reading experiences of 2009 was staying up until 4 AM (on a Monday) reading Jane Austen’s Emma. It was all the more surprising to me because back in 10th grade, Pride & Prejudice was the very first school-assigned book that I didn’t read. I mean, I got about a third of the way through it and then I literally flung it across the room and read the plot summary in Cliff’s Notes instead (as I recall, I even found the plot summary dreadfully boring).

Since then, I’ve been unable to approach Pride & Prejudice. Time and again I consider it, only to quail as a wave of boredom rears up out of my past and fills my limbs with a dreadful languor. However, I have been systematically making my way through the rest of Jane Austen’s ouvre.

I read Sense & Sensibility, which was pretty good, except that I had a hard time following the plot and who was who (it might have been the high fever I was running at the time).

Then I read Persuasion, which was okay, except it was…how can I put this delicately…quite humorless. I don’t know, it was good though. It’s the only Jane Austen novel I’ve read that devotes any time to the actual “falling in love”. Most of her novels seem to pretty much elide it and focus on confusions and previous engagements and the obstacles of being penniless (which is just the way I like it, don’t get me wrong).

But you know what Jane Austen is completely and totally the bomb? Northanger Abbey. I just finished reading it a few days ago. It’s definitely the lightest one of her works that I’ve read. Nothing serious happens. It’s just clever authorial asides, witty exchanges and send-ups of Gothic-novel tropes (the heroine is a girl who loves herself some 18th century Gothic romances). I found it delightful. Northanger Abbey dismisses the details of this “falling in love” stuff with one paragraph and a wry grin:

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

Sometimes I am quite torn about the merits of exploring an author’s backlist. Usually authors have one, or two, or at most three real masterpieces. Given that there is only a limited number of works I’m going to read in my life, I wonder whether it might not make sense to read more of the masterpieces and fewer of the trial runs.

But as this novel proves, sometimes the trial runs can make us realize exactly what we loved about the masterpieces. Northanger Abbey has none of the structural complexity or plotting of Emma. I mean, really, it barely has characters. But it has the same sort of sparkle. And when that sparkle isn’t being overshadowed by the overbearing presence of Emma Wodehouse, it can be appreciated all the more.

You should read Northanger Abbey because it doesn’t need any reason to bust out with stuff like this:

“I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—”I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”

“My journal!”

“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”

“Indeed I shall say no such thing.”

“Shall I tell you what you ought to say?”

“If you please.”

“I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.”

“But, perhaps, I keep no journal.”

“Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.”

2 thoughts on “A Jane Austen novel that enlightened me as to the curious joys of the non-masterpiece

  1. Becca

    Northanger Abbey isn’t the best Jane Austen, but it is still absolutely my favorite – Austen is clearly just having such a blast making fun of EVERYTHING.

    (Also, Henry Tilney reads trashy novels! A man after my own heart.)

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      The only thing that made me sad was that I have never read any of the novels that this is mocking! I kind of want to go out and read The Mysteries of Udolpho.

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