Thursday, February 11, 2010

Northanger Abbey and its Petulant Patriarch

Catherine Morland and Northanger Abbey are usually struggling with Fanny Price and Mansfield Park for the dubious honor for least favorite heroine and novel amongst the Austen Six. This is a pity because whenever I reread NA I'm reminded of how much I enjoy it and how much I like and admire silly, impressionable but wiser-than-she-gives-herself-credit-for Catherine ("Rounders") Morland.

Yes, she is duped by Isabella Thorpe into thinking that they are truly friends, and yes, she fawns on Henry Tilney something fierce, but the little voices that tell her from the start that all is not right with Isabella and General Tilney, in particular, prove that she does have sense should she chose to use it.

I find Catherine fresh, funny, sympathetic, and endearing, and I find Austen in Northanger Abbey the same.

I reread one Austen novel a year, and this year I read Northanger Abbey. Whenever I read Northanger Abbey, I also read a marvelous paper that was published in Persuasions, The Jane Austen Journal, No. 20 (1998), a publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America. It's titled "The Case of the Petulant Patriarch" and its author is Kenneth W. Graham, a professor at the University of Guelph. Several years ago, I asked Dr. Graham if I could have his permission to scan and post his article, since JASNA didn't include it in their online collection. He granted that permission, provided that JASNA approved. After obtaining approval from JASNA, I moved on to other projects and never got around to posting the paper.

After reading it again last night, I decided that my Austen friends would enjoy Dr. Graham's article, so I scanned it and here it is.

"The Case of the Petulant Patriarch" is a speculative look at General Tilney's military career and how it shaped him. In his paper, Graham sets out to "shadow General Tilney, the petulant patriarch."
He is a puzzling figure, not only in what he is but in what he represents: we meet a man, overconfident, stubborn, selfish, petulant, who in his accomplishments and influence represents the upper levels of British authority. Shadowing General Tilney through his army career and his life as a husband, father, and landowner will bring us into contact with the tensions of his times and with what may well be the real mystery to be solved, the mystery of Jane Austen's position in the ideologically uneasy epoch of the 1790s that engendered Northanger Abbey. The novel's attitude to its times and to the social and political hegemony of a particular patriarchal class is the mystery to be unraveled.

I found Graham's assumptions about the campaigns that General Tilney participated in to be interesting reading in their own right--from the Seven Years War (1756-63) to one of the ten thousand British troops that joined Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick in Westphalia in 1759 to joining General Howe at Staten Island. After outlining the possible military career of General Tilney as well as his son, Captain Frederick Tilney, Graham moves on to show how the "Campaign to Capture Catherine" is executed as a military campaign. Graham also has a terrific discussion of the death of chivalry and how the social tensions of the time are reflected and commented upon in the novel.

It's a wonderful article and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

After I reread NA I treated myself to rewatching the latest BBC adaptation, courtesy of Netflix. It also happens to be next in the queue at Masterpiece Classic, if you're so inclined to watch it this Valentine's Day.

The first time I watched it, I was in a wonderfully expansive mood and loved everything about it except its extreme brevity--only an hour and 30 minutes!

This time I was more critical--while I still think the casting is marvelous, I didn't care for some of the changes that Andrew Davies introduced into the script. I didn't think Mr. Allen needed to be portrayed as a penny-pincher, and I especially didn't like the way Davies had Henry be truly angry with Catherine for her confession that she thought the General might have murdered his wife. Henry scolds Catherine in the book, but he is never angry with her. Unlike so many other Janeites, I have no problem believing that Isabella gave away the farm to Captain Tilney in the hopes of getting him to engage himself to her, so THAT scene doesn't bother me. I was disappointed with the abbey, which looks more like a castle than my idea of an abbey, even one with modern apartments. I haven't yet purchased the DVD yet, but will because what Austen collection would be complete without it, but I'm still holding out for the definitive NA adaptation.


  1. How interesting, Jane!Thank you. I'm re-reading NA for my JA Book Club. We are discussing it on the 27th and this post of yours + article come perfectly in time! "The petulant patriarch" sounds a real an in-depth into this novel which is usually underestimated. I personally love it. I think it is one of the most original among Austen's achievements.Then, as I wrote, I found Catherine a very interesting experiment of juxtaposition of fiction on reality. She's the parody of the flat perfect melodramatic beauties in the Gothic novels of Austen's time. She's imperfect and human!

  2. Thank you foe this post and for the scan of the paper, it was very informative. Northanger Abbey is my favorite of Jane Austen's novels not so much because I love Catherine (though she is a dear) but because I just adore Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. I enjoy the satire and I always get something new out of it when I reread the book.
    I agree about the movie adaptation, I enjoy it but for me it's mostly the casting of JJ Field who although it totally cute is still not quite my idea of Henry. It didn't help either that he wasn't given as many witty lines as he has in the book! Thanks for this post and for just a lovely blog! :)

  3. Excellent post, Jane. I'm looking forward to watching the new adaption tonight, as I only caught the last half hour of it last year.

  4. Thanks for posting that excellent article! I'm going to print it out for when I reread NA this year. (I also plan to read Udolpho beforehand.) Like you, I really enjoyed that NA adaptation, mainly because, if I'm remembering correctly, they do a really excellent and hilarious set up of Catherine's vivid imagination by having cheesy gothic scenes played as dream-like sequences. That cracked me up.

  5. The first time I read NA I was one of the naysayers and wondered what Austen was thinking. That was in high school, and I read it without any knowledge of it or gothic literature. Then I went to college and had to read it for a class, and learned what Jane was trying to do and knew what what a gothic novel was, I thought it was hilarious! I agree with Maire, I think that part comes across well in the movie. It always makes me wonder what other books would be worth a reread.

  6. I've only read this one once, and that's a shame! I liked it and would enjoy reading it as often as I've read the other ones, which is to say, many times. I'll have to check out the BBC adaptation you mention here.

  7. Hi Jane:

    I really think NA has gotten a bad rap from JA fans. I think it is one of most enjoyable works. One of the things that make it so fun is it's theme of gothic literature. In the late 18th century when Austen wrote NA, novels were sort of the "National Enquirers" of the day, meaning they were on the same level as the 21st century supermarket tabloid. Not to mention a good portion of them were written by women, and this was really frowned upon. Barbara Benedict writes in her JASNA article "Reading by the Book in Northanger Abby," that Austen's intent in writing this novel was to target the "cheap use of literature for profit for the mere sake of fashion. To put it in our terms, if you could go around quoting novels, you were "cool."

    But I think you could argue this another way. I believe this novel was Austen's attempt to legitimize the novel, and at the same time, legitimize her own work. That probably sounds crazy, since clearly these novels are made fun of through the entire work. But while they are being made fun of, they are clearly being enjoyed, so much so that our heroine Catherine can't get them out of her head, dreaming of them constantly, and even attempting to bring them to life at the Tilney's home. While they may be silly, important people are taking notice. In NA, Austen says the time of the novel has come, and the novel is an important genre.

    As far as the movie goes, I was so please when this one was made, because the only other one had been made by the BBC in the late 70's, and it was a real dog. This one was lively and the characters were vivacious. You like Catherine, and Tilney, and even nasty Isabel. Great adaptation!!!

  8. I did quite enjoy the BBC adaptation last night but didn't think the abbey was "cast" well. And I was upset that it was so short, too. They did a perfectly adequate job of condensing the book but why did they choose to?

  9. Northanger Abbey isn't my favorite Austen but I do like it for it's gothic fun-making and classic Austen irony. I'll have to look up the adaptation on Netflix one of these days!

  10. I am also holding out for a true adaptation of Northanger Abbey, although I like this one well enough.

    Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed it.

  11. Hi Emma - thanks for the stopping by--I'm following you on Twitter as well :)

  12. I've never understood why people bash NA they way they do (though I get Fanny, she frustrates me). NA is lively, and Catherine just feels very young. There's nothing wring with having a naive narrator who wakes up and grows; that's a good thing. And you can just feel the fun she had writing this one. She was playing, and I enjoy that.