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Northanger Abbey Ch. 6: Girls’ obsessions — boys versus books?

6 Jan

Chapter 6 brings us back to reading. The gals delight over the Gothic novels of their time, and I’ve always wanted to read Mysteries of Udolpho. I own another Ann Radcliffe book or two, but I haven’t read them, actually. I know Jane is tipping her hat, but is she making fun of Radcliffe, too? Tell me below.

Does the fascination with the Gothic show the twisted side of these girls? Is it merely a fad at that time (as is Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight now), or is Jane also trying to make a commentary about girls’ imaginations in general? Is there a reason why we become so engaged in these books? Is that good or bad? Is that how Jane hopes we will become engrossed in her novels?

If anything, this chapter certainly sets up our understanding of Catherine’s imagination and how she draws her conclusions near the end of the book.

Then we get to my notion of Books vs. Boys. Throughout the chapter, Isabella turns the conversation toward boys, teasing, and flirting techniques, while Catherine turns back to the book talk. Is this merely an age difference, or relationship experience difference, or personality difference — or all three?

My thoughts wind back to Isabella’s personality. She says she has “no notion of loving people by halves.” She knows this about herself. Is it good or bad, and does Isabella pride herself on it? It seems manipulative in a way, but if you think about it, Marianne tends to have the same temperament and many people tend to like Marianne OK. I’ve heard or read somewhere that Jane saw herself as a Marianne – so does she relate to Isabella as well? What about you — are you more of a Catherine or Isabella, and what do you think about this notion of feelings toward people?

There’s also the typical teenager double talk of loving someone and then putting them down almost immediately. Isabella can’t stop praising Miss Andrews but then puts down her personality in favor of Catherine. How does this foreshadow how Isabella will manipulate guys and Catherine down the road?

And of course, my favorite lines. Jane’s at it again with her interesting chapter endings that conclude with a bit of humor – the book talk ends as they “don’t” pursue the gentlemen. :

“I shall not pay them any such compliment, I assure you. I have no notion of treating men with such respect. That is the way to spoil them.” (Isabella)

“Catherine had nothing to oppose against such reasoning; and therefore, to show the independence of Miss Thorpe, and her resolution of humbling the sex, they set off immediately as fast as they could walk, in pursuit of the two young men.”

I’ve definitely done the fake not interested bit. You? What about this notion of how to treat the opposite sex and whether to “spoil” them? There’s a huge conversation waiting to happen.


Northanger Abbey Ch. 5: Jane’s rant about novels

5 Jan

In Chapter 5, we find Catherine on the search again. Did she not listen the first time? If you search for a mate, you’ll be disappointed. That’s my mantra right now. Revel in friends. Revel in yourself.

Isabella is there to play the appropriate girl friend role — support her, tell her that the guy likes her, all of that good stuff. You wouldn’t be a good friend if you didn’t do that.

And then there’s the matter of Tilney being mysterious. What is it with the cool ones being enshrouded in shadow, anyway?

“This sort of mysteriousness, which is always so becoming in a hero, threw a fresh grace in Catherine’s imagination around his person and manners, and increased her anxiety to know more of him.”

I’ve always been a sucker for the mysterious ones, the brooders, the intellectuals. Is it because you can imagine what you want in your hero, and you never know for sure?

Keep up the mantra. If you have fun and improve yourself, the right person will come along. At the same time, how do you stop yourself and distract yourself?

Oh yeah, you read books. That’s what I do, too, so thanks again for speaking to my heart, Jane.

She does a nice homage (at the same time parody, probably) of the Gothic, romance, and manners novels of the time. When I took a Romantic Literature class during my senior year of college (where I met the ex, actually. Ahem.), we read several of the Cecilia/Camilla/Belinda novels, and they all have their interesting points. I will say that I appreciate Jane’s rant about novels and sticking up for them when other novelists didn’t. She argues that they have plenty to contribute to thought and society by studying people, conversation, and a “thorough knowledge of human nature.” Novels are more lifelike and real, and she certainly appreciates that they include “the greatest powers of the mind” and “the liveliest effusions of wit and humour.”

Imagine how much has changed in the attitudes toward novels. In some crowds, they’re still not treasured, but by others, they’re cherished and collected. Think about Jane’s bravery in becoming a novelist and her ability to both draw on the trend of her time and write about “matters of the heart” (also note that she used heroine names for a few book titles) but also put her own spin on the subjects.

Northanger Abbey Ch. 4: Don’t go searching for boys

4 Jan

Chapter 4 will stand the test of time as long girls and guys are around. Haven’t you felt this one before? Whether it was following a date or a simple meeting of destiny, the guy disappears and you expect to run into him everywhere. I’ve definitely done this before, and of course the age-old wisdom applies: Don’t go searching for him. If he wants to find you, he will.

So of course Catherine is eager to see him, and of course he isn’t here.

But of course the next best thing happens: finding a new and interesting girl friend. After a breakup, as I’m dealing with right now, you always need your girl friends (or just any friends) around to cheer you up. Isabella Thorpe helps to distract Catherine, at least momentarily.

Isabella as a foil: Here we meet our second “heroine” character of the novel. Jane often likes to set us up with two female characters to show comparison and contrast in the characters. Those of us who have read this before can watch how Jane sets up Isabella’s manipulative and artful character. At first, it’s tough not to like her, though I get easily annoyed when you see how she talks to people. With Isabella four years older (and probably prettier) than Catherine, it’s easy to see how this happens. Catherine admires her from the window at the end of the chapter and doesn’t know to be jealous or annoyed just yet.

At the same time, I think about times when I probably acted like Isabella as a teenager to get what I wanted. Did Jane have a girl friend who acted like this and perhaps “got in the way,” or did she recognize a bit of this in herself as well? The best part about her characters is that we (or at least I) can relate to both Catherine and Isabella at different times in my life.

Mrs. Allen vs. Mrs. Thorpe: It’s a quick side commentary, but I love Austen’s image here of the two women who like to talk but only to talk about themselves. I’ve certainly seen this happen before, so it’s great to read how it continues through the ages. Austen often uses this set up of a mom who talks relentlessly about her children and has no life outside of them. There are plenty of “helicopter parents” like that in our time as well. It definitely makes me stop and think about my own conversations. Do I tend to monopolize them? Do I allow for give and take, and do I truly listen? I try to keep it in check. Thanks for the reminder, Jane.

Final paragraph: Jane’s commentary on her peers’ novels is humorous, once again. The brief details about Mrs. Thorpe is “intended to supercede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself … which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters;” which we see time and time again. Jane knows how to stick to her story.

I do find some tangents in novels useful and entertaining, but when does it go too far?

Northanger Abbey Ch. 3: What makes a hero perfect?

3 Jan

Just as soon as Jane jokes that a hero hasn’t been thrown in Catherine’s way, she turns around and does it. The novel wouldn’t be complete without our hero’s entrance, now would it?

As Catherine and Mrs. Allen go about the “regular duties” of visiting the shops and the pump-room, we meet Tilney – a gentlemanlike guy of 24 or 25 (Hey, hey, her age while writing this and my age now. Let’s see if he’s a catch.) He has good humor, is clever with words, and is generally handsome. He is tall, he can dance, and he’s a talented conversationalist. What more could you want?

I love the back-and-forth when they first meet. I wonder if Jane had these conversations herself at some point, if she observed them, or if she simply made them up. When writing, I enjoy using dialogue I’ve used or heard because it feels more authentic to me. I sometimes mine my chat conversations for banter as well – so watch out! Ha ha.

The part that strikes me is that these conversations seem to differ a good bit from other “manners” books written during her time. She’s showing real people having real conversations, and I like it. I especially appreciate the section where Tilney jokes about himself being a “poor figure” in her journal. Is this Jane’s own commentary on what women write?

Tilney pokes fun at letters that have a “general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.” Though I can’t quite tell if I take him seriously when he talks about “excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes,” I do like that the conversation happens at all. He knows his stuff when it comes to talking, dresses, and teasing Catherine about what she’s thinking. This is exactly the sort of guy who should be her first experience, don’t you think? We all need a clever guy in our lives.

So then I get to another point: Is Jane trying to create the “perfect” guy, as far as a 24/25-year-old guy can be at this point? Did she have someone in mind while creating Tilney, or is she simply creating a character who would be fun? Are there guys out there like this? It’s worth asking.

As usual, Jane ends the chapter on a grand note with her humor, smirking that “no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared.” This is all about being coquettish and “playing the game,” is it not? I wonder if Jane herself was clever about playing the game. Taking a look at today, how can I also take on this advice? I tend to be frank in my dating life, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to move back into the mysterious side. Laugh at me below!

Northanger Abbey Ch. 2: What’s important for women to know?

2 Jan

Jane continues to describe Catherine and her circumstances before she departs. After all, we must know what we’re getting ourselves into, right?

What sticks out the most is how Jane inserts herself, acknowledges the reader, and gives details with self-deprecating humor.

“It may be stated, for the reader’s more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be, that her heart was affectionate;”

Questions about Jane’s style: Why does she choose to insert herself and the reader in this way? Is this another lovely form of her humor, and is she poking fun at the long-winded descriptions usually denoted in other novels? At the same time, she includes the description anyway because it is perhaps necessary to understand the way Catherine will act and react in upcoming chapters. In a way, Jane is hinting that Catherine’s point of view is naive and somewhat unreliable. Is Jane also trying to control how we view Catherine here? Instead of showing Catherine to us and allowing us to make judgements, she’s telling us directly.

Mrs. Morland: This is a nice moment for the reader, and it’s a great way for Jane to explain Catherine’s inexperience and lack of emotional frenzy and sensibility often associated with females in novels at that time. Mom doesn’t talk about the birds and the bees and doesn’t offer any much-needed advice. It’s a nice piece of foreshadowing for Catherine’s future struggles. I wonder what Jane’s experience with this was in her own life.

I always pause here and think about my own experience with all of this. I won’t delve into it here, of course, but I always think about the advice that my mom has given me over the years and what has helped and what I’ve had to learn on my own. I’ve also learned more about my mom’s past relationships and why she dished that advice. At the same time, I look forward and think about some of the tips I’ll try to give my (possible) daughter someday and hope that she’ll listen. Are there any top tips that you someday hope to tell your children about love and relationships?

Travel and shopping: Jane avoids any Gothic-style details with the travel, and the shopping is rather normal as well. We get a glimpse into what Mrs. Allen prizes, and I can’t help but tick off names of past friends who are like this as well. All in all, we can see that Mrs. Allen will be pretty harmless but not particularly helpful in our heroine’s adventures. We also get some nice flavor and scene-setting with details about making acquaintances, dancing, crowds, and people-watching.

Ch. 2 wraps with Catherine’s first compliments as a “pretty girl.” Jane has a nice touch here of illustrating how¬† girls often react to their first positive notices. I can definitely relate to this, and I wonder if Jane means anything in particular by it. Is it good or bad, or is she simply stating that this happens, and this is how Catherine reacted?

Northanger Abbey Ch. 1: Catherine as a heroine

1 Jan

Jane wrote Northanger Abbey in 1798-1799, which puts her at 23 when she started the novel. That makes it particularly relevant to me because I’m 23 (turning 24 on Jan. 6), and it’s quite intriguing to see what she wrote around this age. Of course, times are different and her maturity and sense about the world are not similar to today’s 23-year-old, but the themes heavily cross time: a female bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), society, relationships, weddings.

My roommate got engaged a week before Christmas, and the wedding is in July, so we’re now in the middle of frenzied wedding planning. Two of my other closest girl friends got married in November 2010 and September 2011, so although I’m far from being a spinster, I’m sensing that ticking timeline. It’s amazing how that still operates. This is all just to say that the topics are particularly relevant to me right now.

As for Chapter 1, I mostly want to focus on Catherine as the novel’s heroine and how Jane plays with this idea of what a typical literary heroine was during her time. From the start, you can note her sense of humor.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

I adore first lines. I believe that first lines can tell you everything. This is probably the journalist in me who craves to craft a perfect first sentence that will draw the reader in. From this first line, Jane tells us that this won’t be your stereotypical heroine story. Catherine has flaws, and for all purposes, she’s pretty plain and normal. Jane wants to give us a relateable character.

I tend to read with questions in mind, so pick what you will. Take them as rhetorical, or help me out by expounding below. I welcome it!

The questions to start: If you were a new reader to Jane’s works, can you tell that this is her first written work? Did Jane think about this first sentence as much as she (obviously) did for Pride and Prejudice? Does it match the caliber in terms of capturing interest, inserting humor and telling us about the story? Why does she decide to focus on Catherine in the very first sentence? What about the first words – “no one”?

The questions about Catherine: What defines a “heroine” — in Catherine’s case, her situation in life, her parents’ characters, and her disposition? What defines a heroine now, and how can we choose to be the heroines of our own stories? Sometimes I think we live as though we’re not directing our own stories. This is the story of a normal girl with a story. We all have a story, and we all have twists and turns. This is important to remember.

The questions about Gothic and romance novels: What is Jane trying to say about these novels during her time? Is she paying them an homage by noting that Catherine’s mom didn’t die during childbirth and the family is large and healthy? Unfortunate circumstances were common in other novels at the time, so is she putting them down or merely drawing a contrast? We’ll dig into this more later.

The questions about Jane as a writer: Why did she choose to feature a plain heroine – to be different or to relate to the readers? Is this why the book was unsuccessful originally? What can this mean for writers now, in terms of writing against the trend or not giving up when your first novel doesn’t sell? Imagine if Jane stopped writing after Northanger Abbey. The English canon would be drastically different. I think it also points to the importance of quality writing, character, clever dialogue and observation. Momentary success can’t match the respect and critical thought you’ll garner if you focus on your story and take pride in it.

Other thoughts: Jane also pokes fun at Catherine’s talents and accomplishments, which I take as commentary on the status of women during her time. However, I don’t think we’ve progressed as much as we think we have. This generation, especially the high achievers, have their own version of this by trying to achieve top grades, be a star athlete, play an instrument, lead a club or organization, and do community service. I work in a scholarship office at the University of Georgia, and each year, it’s amazing what I see on resumes at earlier and earlier ages. It’s impressive, but I also wonder what we’re doing to our students. Do they even have the time to figure out what truly makes them happy?

I also appreciate Jane’s commentary on Catherine’s schooling, the meaningless quotations taken out of context, and the mind during ages 15-17. Female readers (and probably even male readers) can relate to this flighty time after puberty. Jane also lines up a view of Catherine’s inexperience with boys and not having a hero “thrown in her way.” That will come in handy later.

By the end of the first chapter, Jane sends Catherine on her adventure. Chapter 1 sets us up with Catherine as the heroine, and Jane quickly sends us on our way, avoiding many of the side stories and wandering prose associated with novels of her time.

2012: The year we apply Jane Austen to our lives

31 Dec


I’ve been absent far longer than I intended, but 2012 will change it all. I’m going back to the basics, and I’m digging into her 6 novels (and a few extras) to garner as much life advice as possible. As a few of you know, a breakup at the beginning of December left me in a whirlwind and asking plenty of questions about my life. I always find myself turning to Jane when life throws me a tough change, and what better way to dig into her words than to get input from others?

I’m going to read each of her works, starting with Northanger Abbey, and I’m inviting you to join me. I took a class on Jane Austen two years ago as an English major in college, and though it was great, I hate to admit that I wasn’t able to participate as fully as I should have because of the other class and activities I had on my mind. However, I love the premise of the class: We investigated Jane’s heroines.

This time last year, I was in a funk at my old job (which soon led to another major life change – getting out of the journalism industry for a bit), and my roommate and I decided to read all of Jane’s works and talk about the heros and heroines and what characteristics make a “perfect” guy or gal. I created charts for each book and put them on our living room wall (which got some great comments from our friends, especially guy friends. I’ll have to find them in my files and post them soon.) We got through a couple of the books, but then her schoolwork and my job took over, and we dropped it.

Now I’m determined. I need advice, and I need it now.

Jane’s work is timeless, and I know I’m not alone in saying this. In fact, it could be the main reason we all love her so much. As you read along with me, feel free to toss in any ideas or questions you have. I’ll be looking at the heroines, the heros and anything I can deem “life advice,” which carries a very loose interpretation.

I’m planning to read the books in the order she wrote them. I want to be a writer, so I’m always fascinated with the way writers’ voices develop over time. I’d also like to see how Jane’s characters and thoughts change over time as well. This works out perfectly to start with Northanger Abbey in January because the book has 31 chapters for the month’s 31 days.

Then we’ll cover the other 5 books February through November and some odds and ends (Sanditon, Watsons, Lady Susan) in December. I’ll post a more specific schedule as we approach each novel. For January, I’m getting a late start, but I hope to work ahead in the future so I can post with consistency.

Ready? 2012 is going to be a fantastic year, and if we keep up with Jane all year, we’ll come out as better people on the other end. I can feel it.