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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen:  Women in Literature, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, as does much of Austen’s work, takes an approach to family that is both austere and approving.  On one level, she often exposes the political ambitions within families; power, for example, shifts from parent to child, as in the subtle ways Henry Tilney and his father interact.  Then, how a family actually behaves in Austen is very much dictated by their place in the world.  In this sense, Austen’s families echo larger, societal patterns, and Austen takes the traditional course of being skeptical of those families higher-placed.  This is evident in Catherine’s reactions to Thorpe’s carelessness and bravado as she compares her family to what she is now exposed to:  “They were not therefore in the habit of telling lies to increase their importance” (Austen  40).  Families, in Austen, are too often “organizations” in place to further social interests.

The novel never explicitly mocks Catherine’s innocence, and the only satire of it is generated by Austen to achieve a certain effect.  More exactly, Austen lets the pompous characters do the mocking for the reader.  Catherine is consistently judged by others who condescend to her, even as they are drawn to her innocence, and in this manner Austen validates human quality as being above concerns of sophistication.  Catherine makes mistakes, but they are small things, and unlike the unkindness her “betters” demonstrate.  If Catherine is a little ridiculous in Austen’s social universe, it is nonetheless understood that she rises above it.

It is interesting that Austen steps away from her distanced narration when, in Northanger Abbey, she comments on the girls’ liking for romance novels.  It is clear that the author is speaking, and that she holds a grudge against literary standards that condescend.  On one level, the reader already understands that these girls, sheltered and directed in every aspect of their lives, would naturally be attracted to extremes in fiction.  On another, Austen nearly

encourages such reading because we all need to escape into extremes.  The implication is that it frees a spirit with no other avenue to exercise its imagination, and its sense of real possibilities.  Then, sensational fiction links all in a common humanity: “Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body”  (20).  Austen here addresses her readers directly, asking them to embrace whatever is created by the human mind and accepted by it because, as with her girls, it is a kind of connection.

The circumstances of General Tilney’s dislike of his wife’s portrait go to the most compelling metaphor in the novel.  This is a portrait with great meaning because it seems to hold the key to the true nature of Tilney, which fascinates Catherine as it challenges his own family.  Clearly, Tilney is greatly concerned with the family image and standing; this is by no means a sentimental man, so his shutting away of the portrait could be interpreted as only his contempt for attachments that are no longer valid.  At the same time, and what renders the issue meaningful, is that Austen never fully explains Tilney’s feelings.  Questioned by a suspicious Catherine about the nature of the General’s marriage, Henry Tilney gives an ambiguous reply: “He loved her, I am persuaded, as well as it was possible for him to” (122).  This truly is they key because, if the depths of the General’s feeling for his wife do not match usual expectations, there can be no way of knowing just how “deep” that depth it for him.   There is, in fact, a sense that the General does not know himself why his wife’s portrait is a disappointment to him.  Given his inflexible nature, it may well be that he dislikes it, not because of who it represents, but of what.  It may pain him to see it and then speculate on the man the lady in the portrait believed she had married.  The painting is likely not only the lady, but the life and the marriage.  If anything beyond his final approval of Catherine redeems the humanity of General Tilney, it is the mysterious number of possibilities Austen allows as to his true, deepest feeling in regard to the portrait.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  Chenango Forks: Wild Dot Press, 2009.  Print.

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