I've talked smack about Jane Austen before, not so much to discount her ability as a writer—if you question that, then oh, we will throw down—but to compare her unfavourably to George Eliot. What can I say? I was young and stupid two years ago!
Today I would like to apologize to Miss Austen. Since Middlemarch I've come a long way and read a lot more of Austen's works, and while Eliot's novel remains uneclipsed by Austen's novels, my awe and appreciation of Austen's abilities has only increased. Though I considered Sense and Sensibility somewhat disappointing, Emma more than made up for it, and now Northanger Abbey has only confirmed this opinion.
Reading four of Austen's works, two of which are unfinished drafts, all in one volume was very interesting. It provides a breadth to the Austen experience unavailable from a single novel, and unlike some editions of her work, I actually found the critical opinions in this edition helpful. The introduction provides something that we modern readers sorely lack, context. In particular, it explains the relationship between Northanger Abbey and gothic novels, a genre with which I am entirely unfamiliar. There is also a delightful set of explanatory notes at the back of the book that explain particular social references and literary allusions through these four works that otherwise would have gone right past me. Not only have I read more Austen, but I've had an educated and enlightening glimpse into the rural English society of that time.
I'm going to review each work separately, proceeding backward from the order in the text, since I'm saving the best for last.
Review of Sandition
It's difficult to review an unfinished work. I empathize with the editors for the difficult choices they made in typesetting Sandition and The Watsons. There are no paragraphs in Sandition, and paragraphs are one structural item in modern writing that I find indispensable. I have rejected books that I'm sure are otherwise amazing as a result of this very personal prejudice, so I am proud that I managed to slog through Sandition and give it a fair hearing. Because it's mostly very good.
Sandition stands out from Austen's other work because its setting is quite different from the villages and estates present in Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, etc. The eponymous coastal town is undergoing a renewal in the form of health tourism, an industry vigorously promoted by Mr. Parker. The protagonist is apparently Charlotte Heywood, daughter of an innkeeper who befriends the Parkers when they travel in search for a physician for their venture. Austen spends a considerable amount of time on the setting, the intricacies of Parker's real estate plans, and the zeitgeist in a town that is trying to make the transition from a rural habitation to a commercial resort. She's exploring her usual topics of money, status, social mobility, etc., but she does so from a different angle. Charlotte doesn't attend a dance or, so far, start courting suitors; she is more of a witness to Sandition's attempts to attract affluent tourists.
The stylistic, editorial problems with Sandition made it a chore to read. However, it is very short, and it is a shame that Austen did not complete it. Good or bad, it was definitely quite promising.
Review of The Watsons
Compared to Sandition, The Watsons is even rougher in plot and narrative. It is also more traditional, in the sense that we have a female heroine who struggles to find a suitable, likeable husband while dealing with family issues. Notably, the Watsons are one of Austen's poorer families; though they do not quite live off the charity of a relative like the Dashwoods do, Emma's return to the family after the death of the aunt with whom she was living signifies an increased burden. Best to get her married right quick!
The bulk of the extant text consists of a ball that Emma attends as a guest of a richer family. Her sister Elizabeth usually attends this annual affair, and Emma's unfamiliarity with the people and the event are a source of tension. Emma attracts attention to herself when she dances with a young child, Charles, whose sister reneged on a promise to dance with him in favour of dancing with an eligible young man. In particular, the Watsons later receive a visit from none other than Lord Osborne himself, and we know what that means.
Like Sandition, The Watsons is promising, but I'm very hesitant to judge it as is. It is an obviously unfinished, unpolished work, and not something I would be likely to read were it not for the author and her status.
Review of Lady Susan
An actual finished work from Jane Austen, Lady Susan is the epistolary account of the manipulations of the eponymous flirty widow, Susan Vernon. And it is amusing, almost laugh-out-loud funny.
The short length of the letters, combined with their shifting points of view, presents a very different experience from Austen's other work. While a narrator shows up at the very end, the bulk of the novel consists of the first-person accounts of Lady Susan and various other correspondents. Each of these characters have a delightfully distinct voice, and I love watching Austen switch between them. From the schemes of Lady Susan and her low opinions of her own daughter we quickly jump to her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, complaining to her mother about Susan's behaviour.
Despite the intensity of her wit and humour here, Lady Susan does manage to make me care about its characters and the conflict. Susan is a duplicitous bitch who schemes to get her own way and neglects her daughter. I don't want to see Frederica marry Reginald any more than Frederica does! Yet there's also something intriguing about Susan. She has twin roles: widow and flirtatious woman. She can marry again, but she doesn't want to give up that freedom. Susan is a very different character from Austen's other heroines, who are mostly young and somewhat innocent. Susan is neither, and even though she is not a nice person per se, she is a very interesting one.
I'll go so far as to call Lady Susan a hidden gem. It's something you might miss if you focus only on Austen's better-known works, and that would be a shame.
Review of Northanger Abbey
Though not published until after he death, Northanger Abbey is the first novel Austen sold to a publisher. The editors of this edition call it both a parody of and an homage to the gothic novel. I find it the most obviously self-aware of Austen's works. Austen's narrator vehemently defends the novel as a literary form from its detractors:
… they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels;—for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.
That is a small snippet from a much longer diatribe on the infidelity of other novelists to their own form. I love it; it's Austen with attitude.
I found it easy to identify with Catherine. Like her, I've often wondered what my life would be like with elements of favourite fictions included. Austen creates moments of suspense as Catherine pokes around Northanger Abbey that are absent from her other stories. There's plenty of tension in Emma and Pride and Prejudice, but the emulation of the gothic form lends a different atmosphere to this book.
Of course, central to the book are the relationships of the main characters, particularly Catherine's friendship with Isabella Thorpe and her budding romance with Henry Tilney. Isabella and her brother, John, are obviously bad influences on Catherine; the scenes in which they inveigle her "with gentle violence" to accompany them on a country carriage ride at the expense of an engagement with Eleanor Tilney are delightfully awkward. Poor Catherine is unsure of how to extricate herself from what she sees as terrible rudeness, especially when her current "best friend" and her own brother are among those encouraging her! It's like high school peer pressure, albeit everyone is better dressed and there are no drugs involved.
Once Catherine goes to Northanger Abbey, her relationship with Isabella becomes entirely epistolary. We learn about Isabella's infidelity and flirtatiousness at the expense of Catherine's brother. As with Lady Susan, the letters from different people allow us a rare glimpse at another person's perspective on the matter. Despite Isabella's entreaties, Catherine remains constant once she learns from her brother of what Isabella did, which is something I found interesting. I thought for sure there would have to be an attempt at reconciliation by the both of them, but I was wrong; Catherine is stronger than that. Good for her! That is, naturally, the point: Austen sets the stage for Catherine to choose between friends, Eleanor or Isabella. Eleanor is the obvious better choice, but it takes a while for Catherine, who is a little naive, to understand the depth of Isabella's shallowness.
I don't know if "the most uncomplicated" of Austen's leading males is the right phrase to describe Henry Tilney, but I think it captures the gist of what I want to say about him. He is not dark and brooding like Mr. Darcy, and the dynamic between Catherine and Henry is quite different from the one established between Emma and Mr. Knightley, mostly owing to the differences in maturity between the two heroines. Henry is Catherine's first love and her first real exposure to a potential husband. She conflates his true personality with those of heroes from her gothic novels, conjuring up a fantastic backstory of betrayal and murder for his father, the General. This is the most serious obstacle to their union, aside from General Tilney's short-lived objections.
The abruptness of the conclusion to Northanger Abbey is its weakest part. Austen lampshades this, mentioning, "the anxiety … as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity." I still don't like it. The Morlands just happen to improve enough in their financial situation to obviate the General's objections to the marriage; Austen invokes a narrative fiat to create a happy ending and remove the conflict. It's effective but crude and a little undermining for the rest of the story.
As always, I've read and reviewed this book with an emphasis on how it compares to Austen's other stories. Northanger Abbey is not my favourite Austen novel, nor is it my least favourite. It exhibits the best and worst of Austen's traits as a writer, a humourist, and a careful descriptor of the relationships of her chosen demographic. I especially liked the insight it provides into how Austen viewed the novel form and gothic novels, something I admit was emphasized by the editors to the benefit of my historical edification.