Possibly this novel is Jane Austen at her worst. Yet, Jane Austen at her worst is quite better than most authors at their peak. Her subtlety, craft and observations are nonpareiled.
Northanger Abbey is a parody on many levels: the touted gentility of British gentry is exposed as greedy and false, living life as a fiction is exposed as ridiculous, attributing our own motives to others is exposed as naïve at best and dangerous at worst. But the parody that concerns the RIP Challenge, of course, is the parody of Gothic literature.
This element didn’t start kicking in until book 2, when Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine, is invited to Northanger Abbey. Having read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine eagerly awaits her visit to what she imagines is a place full of mystery and adventure. At this point, Jane Austen really hits her stride.
During the ride to Northanger Abbey, the owner’s son (and her romantic interest), Henry Tilney plays on Catherine’s romantic notions with a riotous parody of the Gothic novel, virtually a play-by-play account of a heroine’s stay in a Gothic castle. Here is an excerpt:
“Nothing further to alarm perhaps may occur the first night. After surmounting your unconquerable horror of the bed, you will retire to rest, and get a few hours’ unquiet slumber. But on the second, or at farthest the third night after your arrival, you will probably have a violent storm. Peals of thunder so loud as to seem to shake the edifice to its foundation will roll round the neighbouring mountains — and during the frightful gusts of wind which accompany it, you will probably think you discern (for your lamp is not extinguished) one part of the hanging more violently agitated than the rest. Unable of course to repress your curiosity in so favourable a moment for indulging it, you will instantly arise, and throwing your dressing-gown around you, proceed to examine this mystery. After a very short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear — which door, being only secured by massy bars and a padlock, you will, after a few efforts, succeed in opening — and, with your lamp in your hand, will pass through it into a small vaulted room.”
This build-up is followed by a disappointing first glimpse of Northanger Abbey:
As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey–for some time suspended by his conversation on subjects very different–returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney.
This is funny stuff. Austen goes on and on with the anticipation and disappointment, the ideals and the stripping of those ideals for the remainder of the novel. I was startled at the denouement of this novel – which I won’t spoil for you here – but it really was an Austen coup, a perfect intersection of her main themes of reality versus fiction, gentility versus greed.
Of course, it ends in typical Austen fashion, rather abruptly and neatly, with everyone happily married. But, after all, you’re on the Jane Train.