Monday, January 21, 2008

Becky's Thoughts on Northanger Abbey


If I'm being honest, Northanger Abbey has never been one of my favorites. The book, well, the book just seemed to lack that magic spark, that sizzle, those ahhh life-is-good moments that Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion seem to encompass. It's not that I don't think the novel has its moments of charm. I do. The first sentence (or so) is magnificent: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her." In the first few pages, there are just some stand-out phrases that are pure wit (or satire or sarcasm). For example, "But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives." And I love this bit, "She had reached the age of seventeen without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility; without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighborhood; no, not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintances who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door; not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, the the squire of the parish no children. But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way." I love that...."something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way." Perfect tongue-in-cheek beginning to a rather ordinary trip to Bath.

Our heroine--our want-to-be-heroine--Catherine is seventeen. She has been invited to go to Bath to be a companion to Mr. and Mrs. Allen, the Morland's friendly (and childless) neighbors. At first, their trip is boring. The Allens don't know anyone in Bath. They can't very well go about introducing themselves to strangers. Catherine who longs to dance and soar in popularity can't go about conversing with strange young men. All seems rather dreary until they are introduced to a Mr. Henry Tilney. Suddenly, Catherine's eyes begin to sparkle and her heart begins to pound. (And if Austen's imagined character resembles JJ Feild, no wonder, Catherine is so swept up! Anyone's imagination would be prone to getting carried away all of a sudden. (Pictures of the cast can be found here and here and of course the Masterpiece Theatre site.) Soon after, the Allens meet the Thorpes. Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen having been school chums several decades before. Isabella Thorpe. Soon to be Catherine's instant new best friend. and (Perhaps we should all learn a lesson about people that are that clingy and chummy from the second you meet them.) A further coincidence occurs a bit later on when Mr. James Morland--Catherine's older brother--and Mr. John Thorpe suddenly appear on the scene. James is smitten with Isabella. And John is smitten with Catherine. (Catherine, however, remains smitten with Henry. Which girl wouldn't stay true, I tell you. Especially if the competition is John Thorpe. A man who was giving off creepy vibes almost from the very beginning. So the ThorpesMorlands are all chummy in a way. When the Tilneys reenter the scene. Mr. Henry Tilney is now accompanied by his father, General Tilney, a genuinely spooky and temperamental fellow, and his sweet and gentle sister, Eleanor. Miss Eleanor Tilney and Catherine while getting off to a bit of a bumpy start, soon become friends. Is Isabella happy? No. Just the first sign of trouble from her. So we've got Catherine being pursued by both John and Henry. Isabella being pursued by James and the noticeably arrogant Captain Tilney. (Henry's older brother who just happens to drop by and takes a noted interest in wooing Isabella away from her intended and straight into his bed.) All this drama and we haven't even heard mention of Northanger Abbey!

Well, I don't want to spoil this for anyone. Drama--some real, some imagined--is what you'll find in Austen's Northanger Abbey.

I read the book on Saturday afternoon/night. I liked it. It was okay. But on the screen it sizzled. It just worked. It was practically perfect in every way. Henry Tilney was the perfect hero. He was so thoroughly charming and witty. So adorably there for the girl. Always knowing just what to do, just what to say. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh. But my appreciation for the movie goes beyond the chemistry of Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland. Everything just worked. The mood. The tone. The music--the score. The dialogue. They truly captured the essence of this book. And in my opinion--and it is just my opinion--improved on it. Maybe it just works better--the plot, the characters, the dialogue--acted out instead of read. I am no expert on Northanger Abbey by any means, but to my reckoning it was true enough to the book that if it did in fact deviate at some point it wasn't glaringly, obviously, punch-you-in-the-gut contrary. That being said, it SPED things up considerably. Instead of showing the Allen's out of their element and bored and wondering what to do about it for a week or maybe two weeks, they meet Mr. Tilney at the first social gathering they attend. That wasn't in the book. And it happened several times. The book shows things happening gradually--slowly. There is more detailed action and characterization. (For example, the movie doesn't show James wooing Isabella at all. Or hardly at all. They just don't focus on that aspect of the book.) But do we lose the heart and soul of the story by watching things develop so quickly? Yes and no. Quite honestly, I would have LOVED this one to be two or three hours long. I wouldn't have been bored with more story, more details, more of everything really. I would have been happy. But still, there aren't any complaints from me. They got it right this time. It is just fun and delightful and enjoyable and happy-making. I think it says something when my mom and I both wear the same silly ear-to-ear grins at the end of a movie. I would imagine, I would hope, we're not the only ones out there who loved that oh-so-magical ending.

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