Ah, Jane Austen. We know her, we love her, and we totally misrepresent her.
It seems like the popular perception of Jane Austen is “That girl who wrote Pride and Prejudice and also some other stuff.” Pride and Prejudice itself is usually treated as a simplistic romance if we’re lucky, and a meaningless pop-culture element to be mashed into various hackneyed memes if we’re not.
We’ve totally lost sight that Jane Austen was, first and foremost, a satirist. Pride and Prejudice has become a foundational romance work and itself fodder for parody and derivative works, but it was originally a satire, specifically a comedy of manners. (The comedy of manners first arose in the late 18th century, but it’s better known to modern readers thanks to its resurgence in the late 19th century, most notably with The Importance of Being Earnest.)
The satire aspect of Austen’s work is never more apparent than in the underappreciated Northanger Abbey. Written in 1798/1799 but only published posthumously, this one isn’t a comedy of manners, but rather a parody of the Gothic romances that were popular at the time. It’s refreshingly different and, unlike the comedy of manners, this humor translates very well to the modern audience. The protagonist, Catherine, has read a lot of Gothic novels, so when she gets invited to stay at an old abbey, she expects skeletons around every corner. The lead man, Mr. Tilney, exacerbates this with a lot of teasing:
“But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this?”
It’s hard not to see a bit of geek girl in the bookish, overly imaginative Catherine, with her tomboyish childhood:
She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.
Mr. Tilney, meanwhile, is one of my favorite Austin leading men. There isn’t a hint of the dark, brooding, tortured archetype that show up in other literature of the era (I’m looking at you, Brontës); he’s mostly silly and snarky and feels like someone who would be fun to hang out with, unlike, say, Mr. Darcy, who feels more suited to be an object of adoration than an actual friend. There aren’t as many of Austen’s famous character studies here as in her other books, but there are a few that are spot on, especially the mansplainy James Thorpe:
“Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?”
“Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.”
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t’other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation.”
“I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting.”
“Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe’s; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them.”
“Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe,” said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
Northanger Abbey being one of Austen’s first novels, its problems are mostly technical. The plotting isn’t very precise; the story feels completely lost at the beginning and requires a couple of coincidental meetings to get going. Austen seems at a loss for decent impediments to put in the way of Catherine and Mr. Tilney’s relationship; instead she just delays it until later in the book. We don’t even arrive at the titular abbey until more than halfway through. But these are generally minor complaints that don’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the book.
You can get it for free from Project Gutenberg here.
Hark, A Vagrant is by Kate Beaton. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies cover from Wikipedia.