Sunday, April 22, 2012

Going Gothic: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
John Murray, 1817

Once upon a time when I was a high school student, I took AP Literature and as a result, YA wasn't exactly on the agenda. (I didn't actually really start reading YA regularly until I took a class on it in graduate school last spring and completely fell in love.) In that class, we read a lot of Literature of the Canonical variety which I enjoyed, but honestly, would have trouble connecting with at times. An author whose work I continually enjoyed, however, was that of the one and only Jane Austen.

Over the years I've come to love her work and really appreciate just how it was to be a woman writer and taken seriously - novelists today often still face that scrutiny that pretending isn't all that hard. These six books get a place of honor on my bookshelf and I've enjoyed them all.

Well, until recently, I only enjoyed five of them. I'm a little embarrassed that I've been saying I'm an Austen fan for so long without having read Northanger Abbey, the first book Austen completed but the last to be published. But with my resolution to reconnect with the classics and grown up books I've been neglecting, I decided it was time for that to change.

What I think I actually found, instead, was an early example of the young adult novel.

Catherine Morland is 17 years old and has led a pretty sheltered, country life. Her ideas of romance and adventure come from the novels she reads, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho. Life gets more interesting, though, when she goes to the city of Bath with some family friends. She becomes friendly with Isabella Thorpe and tolerates her older brother, John. She dances and attends events of society. And she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney, who she quickly begins to fall in love with. Eventually she is invited to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney family home, and she expects to finally encounter the kinds of magic, mystery, and horrors that fill the pages of the gothic novels she loves. (Think of it being similar to how so many people started saying they wished vampires were real after reading Twilight and wanting an Edward of their very own.)

This book has much of what appears in good YA today. Young love. A bit of mystery. A dash of humor. Gossip and the rumor mill. Jumping to conclusions. Taking sides. Making mistakes and then trying to right them. Austen has put together a very smart parody of gothic fiction

The biggest difference between this and historical fiction is that since this book really was written two centuries ago, details and dialogue are accurate. You get a tale about what it could have been like to be a teenager in the 19th century from someone who actually was.

The moral of this blog post, therefore, is a simple one: just because a book is old doesn't mean it's no longer relavant or doesn't still have an audience. Many of Austen's work continue to resonante with people today for a reason - they connect to aspects of the human condition that are unrelated to time. I love when I find a book that's been around for a long time but still has something to say. The best ones do.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

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