Friday, July 17, 2009

Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey

My bff wants to start a book club, so she charged a few of us with reading Jane Austen. I have to say, I felt this was quite ambitious for a book club start out. Though, maybe it’s just me. I read Pride & Prejudice in college because my roommate at the time loved it and the women in my office raved about the Colin Firth movie. The book is good, don’t get me wrong, but it was my first introduction to Austen – or really any book written from that time – and, well, it made me feel kind of stupid. I’m not sure I understood half of what was going on. What the hell is she talking about, I kept thinking. It takes them a paragraph to say something I could say in a sentence. I’d get snippets of the story eventually, and could piece together what was happening, but it was so wordy, so involved, so old-fashioned. In the end, I enjoyed the story, but I felt it took way too much effort to get through.

So, I was apprehensive to say the least about diving into Northanger Abbey, our first Jane Austen book to read. I found the book on sale at Barnes & Noble (they have really good deals on the classics) and, luckily for me the book came with notes and an introduction by a present-day scholar. I read the introduction and got a really good idea of the story line, which helped me out quite a bit while I was reading it. He also created footnotes to explain the old-fashioned words. Those I didn’t need too much because with the context of the sentence you can figure it out, but still, helpful.

And I liked it. I didn’t love it, but I was able to get through it easier than P&P several years ago, and I felt like I comprehended more of it than I thought I would. There were still plenty of times I thought, Seriously, what are you talking about and please get on with it, but maybe that’s just another Austen trait. (Maega and I were talking about this book the other day, and mentioned how Austen tends to use her books as platforms for what she believes. She doesn’t follow the “rules” that the author should remain anonymous, but instead puts her feelings right out there in the pages. Interesting.)

Her books are also filled with misunderstanding. I think that’s her humor style. It probably sounds weird, but they remind me of episodes of Frasier. Each episode of that show revolved around some stupid misunderstanding. (Daphne hears one thing, Niles hears another, Frasier acts weird, shenanigans follow.) It frustrated me so much! Just figure it out! So, I find myself feeling that way with this book (and P&P) – a little frustrated.

The structure of the story was odd. It took quite a long while, more than half the book, to get to what the back cover said the book was actually about – and even then, it was just a minor part of the story. The book is more about the main character, Catherine’s relationship with two different sets of siblings. It’s not really about Northanger Abbey and “its secrets.” Though, maybe I’m missing some symbolism here, which is quite possible. So, I felt the ending was very abrupt. However, this book was published posthumously and Austen never actually had it properly edited. A good edit could do this book wonders. Tighten things up, fix contradictions, etc. (This is also one of the shortest of her works. I’m worried about getting through the longer ones like Emma and Mansfield Park.)

So, what Austen books have you read? Does anyone else have trouble reading books from so long ago? Or is it just me? I felt really great about myself when I read some customer reviews and the women were saying they read Jane Austen at age 10. Are you kidding?! I read a ton at age 10, but not Jane Austen.

What other classics do you enjoy?


jessi said...

I love Austen and have read all six of her novels several times. It took me some time to get use to the writing style, and I still notice something new with every re-read. Northanger is a bit unsteady, but it was her first novel, and she definitely improves! Good luck getting through Mansfield Park - it's a doozy, even for an Austen devotee. My favorite is Emma; I know a lot of people find her annoying, but I think her snobby matchmaking is endearing. Also, she reminds me of myself. :)

You should definitely watch the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, and if you like Austen there's tons of paralit out there (Amanda Grange has done some great novels from the male leads' points-of-view - Mr. Darcy's Diary, Colonel Brandon's Diary, Edmund Bertram's Diary, etc) that really adds to the original stories. Have you heard of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies? Believe it or not, it's actually pretty good!

Em said...

I remember trying to read Jane Austen for the first time when I was 13 or 14. I could not understand any of it. Since then, however, I have read all six of her novels and really enjoyed (most) them. I think Austen is actually quite funny, and I enjoy reading historical novels - either written in the past or set there.

My favorites are Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park are my least favorite. I liked Persuasion, but I am one of those people who thinks Emma is a total brat.

I think it actually helps to watch movies based on the novel before reading them, because it is easy to lose the storyline in all of Austen's wordiness.

Another favorite classic of mine is "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Charley said...

I've read P&P and Northanger Abbey, and I've seen film versions of her other works, although I'd also like to read the books.

One classic work I had trouble getting through was George Eliot's Middlemarch - it was a beast! I kept a sheet of paper tucked in the book with all the characters and their relationships to one another. I thought the plot was incredibly complex.

manda said...

I agree about the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Colin Firth is worth the price of admission!

It should be an interesting discussion I think we fall about 50/50 between readers who feel the same as you mentioned when reading Northanger, and those who were completely hooked by page 2.

I've tried several times to read Crime and Punishment. But I get lost in all the characters and then quit, frustrated.

I like a book that takes some time to get through. I like getting to know so much about the characters, and the detail of life. Although when you get so attached to the characters, coming down after the book is over is a drag. I could say that for P&P (which I read in college), and Harry Potter, even though that was over several books. Since I'm starting Twilight soon I'm guessing I'll have another bout of withdrawals.

Thanks for posting about our little endeavor, hope you'll stick through it! Although I understand if you don't want to. :)

Maega said...

I just finished this book last night so am responding now :)
I liked the book too, but I SO wanted to know more from the character in places of the story I felt were important. Jane hopped in when I wanted to hear from the character... But otherwise, I really liked the story and was interested through most of the book.
I have also ready P&P and liked that a lot. But the movie is sooooo fun to watch too.