Saturday, October 10, 2009

Northanger Abbey

So I FINALLY saw the 2007 Masterpiece Theater version of what I think is, hands down, Jane Austen's wittiest novel and was quite pleased. It was wonderfully cast. Felicity Jones captured all of Catherine Morland's charming naivety while JJ Feild was fabulous as Henry Tilney (he has something of the look of Jude Law - very dashing). I was also thrilled to see Sylvestra Le Tozel in the roll of Mrs. Allen having loved her portrayal of Fanny Price in the 1983 BBC Classic Miniseries version of Mansfield Park (which is really well done - Lady Bertram is fabulously comical in this version!). The Thorpes were also excellently portrayed, their deviousness and hypocrisy perfectly preserved.

I love the character of Henry Tilney, Austen's most playful hero. I'm only sorry they did not include my favorite piece of dialogue, probably because it expresses what we today would certainly see as a sexist sentiment. I believe that Jane couldn't possibly think so poorly of her own gender and was only mocking the condescending way in which brothers will deprecate their sister (a phenomenon with which she would have been quite familiar). It was she, after all, who was clever enough to think of it. The scene encompasses Chapter 14 (the one which contains Austen's classic defense and criticism of novels and their reader) in which the Tilney's and Miss Morland walk to Beechen Cliff:

The general pause which succeeded his short disquisition on the state of the nation was put an end to by Catherine, who, in rather a solemn tone of voice, uttered these words, “I have heard that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London.”

Miss Tilney, to whom this was chiefly addressed, was startled, and hastily replied, “Indeed! And of what nature?”

“That I do not know, nor who is the author. I have only heard that it is to be more horrible than anything we have met with yet.”

“Good heaven! Where could you hear of such a thing?”

“A particular friend of mine had an account of it in a letter from London yesterday. It is to be uncommonly dreadful. I shall expect murder and everything of the kind.”

“You speak with astonishing composure! But I hope your friend’s accounts have been
exaggerated; and if such a design is known beforehand, proper measures will undoubtedly be taken by government to prevent its coming to effect.”

“Government,” said Henry, endeavouring not to smile, “neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters. There must be murder; and government cares not how much.”

The ladies stared. He laughed, and added, “Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No — I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute — neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit.”

“Miss Morland, do not mind what he says; but have the goodness to satisfy me as to this dreadful riot.”

“Riot! What riot?”

“My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy–six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern — do you understand? And you, Miss Morland — my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London — and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window. Forgive her stupidity. The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general.”

Catherine looked grave. “And now, Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “that you have made us understand each other, you may as well make Miss Morland understand yourself — unless you mean to have her think you intolerably rude to your sister, and a great brute in your opinion of women in general. Miss Morland is not used to your odd ways.”

“I shall be most happy to make her better acquainted with them.”

“No doubt; but that is no explanation of the present.”

“What am I to do?”

“You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women.”

“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world — especially of those — whoever they may be — with whom I happen to be in company.”

“That is not enough. Be more serious.”

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

The entire text of this novel can be read at The Republic of Pemberley.


  1. I loved this version! It bumped Northanger Abbey up from its second-to-last on my Austen novel ranking list, and helped me through my reread!

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