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Long Walks Through the World Wednesday

What I've Just Finished Reading

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen! It's so good. It's a lot less intense than Persuasion -- Catherine's younger than Anne Elliot, and her anxieties and frustrations and hopes are much more youthful and less heartwrenching -- but it has the same mix of clear-eyed detachment and close emotional engagement that made Persuasion so compelling. It's not as funny as Persuasion at its funniest, but it's more light-hearted and self-referential, with a narrator who is constantly making sardonic apologies for Catherine Morland's inadequacies as a heroine, pausing to defend the novel against its detractors, and refusing to explain things she is not interested in dwelling on. Catherine is a realistic and likable teenager, and the supporting characters are wonderful, especially affectionate, selfish Bella and her spectacularly inappropriate brother John Thorpe, and the kind but ineffectual Mrs. Allen. Catherine's earnest brother and thoroughly un-tragic parents are also great, and Henry Tinley's first conversation with Catherine is a masterpiece.

Austen is really only at about the middle of her game here, but that still puts her miles ahead of everyone else in sight. She makes a huge quantity of comic hay out of the distance between Catherine's favorite novels and the ordinary fabric of her life, then makes the matter of whether the Tinleys will forgive Catherine for accidentally snubbing them two days in a row as suspensful as the Gothic intrigues in Udolpho -- then wraps the whole thing up one page from the end with a careless deus ex machina for which she pointedly declines to apologize. Even her sloppiness is magnificent.

What I'm Reading Now

The Power and the Glory is ok. Like a lot of the 99 Novels, I would probably have given it up after a few pages if left to my own devices, but I'm glad I haven't yet. The main character is sympathetically unlikeable in a way that is a little similar to the voices in The Naked and the Dead, but I haven't yet made it to the point where the wall of my irritation is breached and pity comes pouring through like sunlight. That point will probably come -- it's not a bad book; it's just not my book, not yet. He's a priest pursued by an anti-clerical governement and his own sense of worthlessness, and he's pitiable, but only in the abstract: the idea that he can't give himself up in order to save the villagers who are being taken hostage in this state-wide search for him because 1) he can't willingly break his oath to the church, and 2) he would make an embarrassing martyr anyway, is hard to sympathize with.

But his non-heroism is the point, I guess. What he thinks are his finest ideals make him small and unhappy; what he thinks of as his tempatations and failings also make him small and unhappy. It's not supposed to be pleasant; it's supposed to be Human, All Too Human. I don't know yet if I'm going to love this book or become more indifferent to it, or admire it without loving it. There are a little less than a hundred pages left, and anything could happen.

What I Plan to Read Next

All those books I started last week and haven't read any more of since -- no starting new books until I make some progress! Unless it's really important, I guess.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2015 11:02 am (UTC)
I hate novels explicitly (instead of indirectly) criticizing other types of novels or books, so even though Austen poking fun at gothic novels (and I have no real interest in gothic novels myself) seemed more affectionate than not, it sort of irritated me.
Other than that, while Northanger Abbey isn't my favourite, I liked it a lot. I thought all the characters were great, though I think Isabelle was my favourite; I've been wondering, is she completely calculating, or just opportunistic and maybe somewhat self-deluded? When she talks about how important friendship is to her, does she actually believe that about herself?
May. 20th, 2015 03:02 pm (UTC)
Isabella is such a great character. I think she's almost perfectly self-deluded and hardly consciously calculating at all. I don't get the impression she's conscious of any discrepancy between her words and her actions; I think she genuinely believes that all her friendships are important to her; I think she also believes that she is wounded deeply when they end due to the tragic misunderstandings and surprising inconstancies she seems to keep running into for some reason among the people she befriends.

She wants to be someone to whom friendship is important, and she has decided that of course she is, she always has been. And because she is so affectionate and friendship is so important to her, she can't imagine that any action of hers could be calculating -- it's all just a terrible misunderstanding, and of course dear Catherine will understand, if her heart isn't made of stone!

You could tie it to the novel-reading theme: Isabella's internal narration is constantly assuring her that she is warm, genuine, and indissolubly attached to her friends above all other considerations; her actual actions and their effects on other people are of much less consequence to her conception of herself than this character sketch, just as some authors seem to be unaware of the discrepancy between their description of the character and the character's actions.

John Thorpe's self-delusion is cruder, but seems to operate on a similar pattern. He's capable of telling random lies to convince Catherine to come on the castle trip, but as soon as they're out of his mouth, he'll defend them as the truth. I think they both have a sturdy internal mechanism that allows them to believe instantly in any convenient untruth they tell, and protects their self-concept from any damage by their actions or the opinions and feelings of other people.

In other circumstances, maybe when "advancement" is a less pressing issue, Isabella might settle into a loveable but unreliable friend, loyal as long as nothing ever comes up to test her loyalty, and she will think how nice it is to finally have people around her who appreciate the value of friendship. I'm not sure what circumstances would need to come about for John to become less than 100% an ass, but anything is possible.
May. 31st, 2015 12:56 pm (UTC)
I love this analysis! I guess to me it was less clear because a) who has this little self-awareness? and b) I guess Isabella's self-interest when she looks to marry looks obvious to me, but for her it's not so far from what's perfectly normal, so it makes sense that it wouldn't seem odd to her. I think for me it took Isabella's reaction to Catherine refusing her brother, when it appears important to her to stay friends with Catherine even if she breaks the engagement for me to lean towards "Isabella probably means all of it". Though the letter at the end made me wonder a bit again.

Anyway. I like what you say about novel-reading too. I do love how they all love these books, but still have pretty different relationships to them.
May. 22nd, 2015 04:37 pm (UTC)
The thing about Northanger Abbey is that it was actually the earliest of Jane Austen's novels to be published and you can tell the difference. (She did tweak it quite a bit, but not the same complete rewrite as she did with S&S and P&P when developing them into the forms we now know). And Persuasion, of course, is her last.

NA has much more of the tone of her juvenilia left in it. I once had the good fortune to pick up a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and while those are two things that are very much not the same things, Jane Austen's amazing teenage crack parodies she wrote for her family are quite something. (Love and Freindship is the most developed - it has two heroines who are so sensitive and noble that they have to keep stealing things and when they get upset they faint alternately into each other's arms.) And while NA has more depth, that same humour is still present - well, it is in the others, too, but less prominently.

(Btw, my reading icon here that was made by somebody talented, I forget who, but not me, is from the adorable ITV 2007 Northanger Abbey. I mention this because when and if you ever do get the time to watch all the adapatations of everything ever, a fair rule is usually to go for BBC and not ITV, but Northanger Abbey is a rare exception. :-D)
May. 22nd, 2015 04:58 pm (UTC)
It definitely feels like NA has one foot in the juvenilia! The other bookstore (sad small-town version of Barnes & Noble) has Love and Freindship bundled with some other juvenilia, but I haven't bought it yet because it's four times as expensive as these cheap novel paperbacks (Signet Classics, with excruciatingly boring cover designs).

The only Jane Austen adaptation I've seen is the 1995 miniseries with Jennifer Ehle, which my entire family loves. But one day I'll watch Northanger Abbey.

Edited at 2015-05-22 04:58 pm (UTC)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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