Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen — Reread Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

Despite taking a Jane Austen module at university, I was certain I hadn’t read Northanger Abbey. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and found notes, in my own handwriting, all the way through! It’s never happened to me before that I have absolutely no memory of previously reading a book (though, I suppose the question is: how would I know? Spooky!). I can only assume that reading books for six modules, and reading several other Austens, Northanger Abbey didn’t have time to make much impression.

At length, however, having slipped one arm into her gown, her toilette seemed so nearly finished, that the impatience of her curiosity might safely be indulged.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Catherine Morland feels incredibly different from Jane Austen’s other heroines. She’s neither in total possession of herself like Elizabeth, Emma and Elinor nor giddily irresponsible like Marianne or Lydia. Instead, she’s guileless and a little socially awkward. Watching her thrown into Society in Bath will little in the way of helpful guidance from anyone on how to pick her friends and acquaintances was very relatable, despite the wealth of years since Jane Austen was writing.

Speaking of characters, General Tilney is an amazing villain. Not, as Catherine thinks, because he might have murdered his wife, but because the ways he breaches etiquette feel as outrageous today as they presumably did over two hundred years ago. Contrasted against her father and Isabella, Eleanor shines as friend worth making. As the romantic lead, Henry is… fine. He’s certainly no Mr Darcy. There are moments where his teasing of Catherine seems based in intelligence and affection, but then Austen also explicitly states that he only fell for her because she was interested in him, which is hardly the stuff of a great love story.

From that point on, it has been the novel’s fate to be read by successive generations who have not read the books to which its author and its characters make reference.

Introduction to Northanger Abbey, David Blair

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey particularly needs a good introduction, and David Blair does a decent job. Some sentences are a little wordy, but the main points are interesting and illuminate the text. The point he makes about Catherine’s taste for novels giving her a vocabulary to express her discomfort with General Tilney made a nice contrast to the usual perspective that Catherine is a young woman carried into foolishness by her overactive imagination.

Northanger Abbey‘s ending is a little abrupt. Austen never really dwells on what happens between the proposal and the wedding, but in this case, her quick summary and dismissal of Eleanor’s contribution to proceedings felt unearned. If that plot line had been brought up earlier, it would have been more satisfying, and it’s not as if the book is overlong as it is!

Despite enjoying Northanger Abbey more than I expected to, it doesn’t quite displace Emma as my current favourite Jane Austen novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

The premise of Unmarriageable appealed to me: Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan. Retellings of the same story are usually interesting, and while I’ve experienced a few modern takes of Pride and Prejudice, the Pakistani setting made this one stand out as something different. Soniah Kamal makes it work well in several ways: the urgency placed on getting the Binat sisters married, and the way their family’s reputation reflects on their eligibility feels much more at home here than it might in a British retelling.

We like reading and we have growing up abroad in common. We both grew up multi-cultural kids. We know no one person represents a group or a country in things good or bad. We know how to plant roots where there are none. We know that friends can be made anywhere regardless of race or religion. We know how to uproot. We know how to move on from memories, or at least not let memories bury us.

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable‘s characters are interesting, too. Alys and Darsee have a history of displacement in common with each other, and with me, which is something fresh bringing them together, as is their love of literature. It surprised me, at first, that Jane Austen actually exists in the novel, but it made sense. The criticism of Anne de Bourgh by her re-imagined character was a particularly nice touch. Soniah Kamal also takes the award for the grossest version of Mr Collins since the original, he actually made my skin crawl.

“You wait, Mummy,” Qitty said, “Bathool the fool is going to do something so unforgivable one day that my being fat will be nothing in comparison.”

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal

In some places, Unmarriageable stuck too closely to the original. It was fairly obvious what was going to happen, with relatively few surprises, which made reading the book an experience in exasperated impatience. That said, there were some differences, mostly in the characters rather than the plot. And at one point, I genuinely questioned whether Alys Binat was going to end the book unmarried, which would certainly have been a twist!

Unfortunately, what really let Unmarriageable down was the prose; it was just terrible. Sentences rambled in a way that made me cringe almost as much as Farhat Kaleen. While I could understand what Soniah Kamal was getting at, there was no grace in it, and I kept being thrown out of the world by constructions like ‘she was beginning to believe that truly of what use was beauty without a brain that could plot’.

Usually, I say that characters are the most important part of a book for me, but Unmarriageable has taught me that prose quality is at least equally significant, if not more so.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield — Reread Review

As an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, I knew going in that I was going to enjoy the story of Eligible. All the traditional elements are there: overbearing and hysterical Mrs Bennet, dry Mr Bennet, obliging Jane and giggling Lydia. So the real question for this review, then, is whether or not I liked the modernisation. And, actually, I’m not entirely sure that I did.

Some bits were clever! Instead of walking to Netherfield when Jane is ill, Liz has no car and so runs to the nearest hospital when Jane is taken in — which, of course, still has the same result of Caroline and Darcy looking at her as if she has two heads and a muddy petticoat. But other elements were modernised in ways I didn’t really understand. I won’t spoil it, but the conclusion to Mary Bennet’s plot line was particularly head-scratching.

‘I don’t suppose that any of you can appreciate the terror a man might feel being so outnumbered,’ Mr Bennet said. ‘I often weep, and there are only six of you.’

Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield

I can’t honestly say I liked the characters, either. Liz is a journalist, rather than a lover of literature, and I’m not sure she picks up a book from one end of Eligible to the next. Instead, she is noted as a gossip who asks people startling questions about themselves. It’s more modern, but it also makes me like her less. Although I enjoyed seeing what the updates were, and Liz’s relationship with her mother, I didn’t get a lot else out of this book.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Emma by Jane Austen — Reread Review

As someone who loves character development, it’s probably not surprising that Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel, out of the ones I’ve read, anyway. ‘Character grows from selfish, spoiled child to empathetic woman’ is probably my absolute favourite development trope, and that’s certainly the broad outline of Emma Woodhouse’s arc, with some romance thrown in.

I find Emma’s faults particularly relatable. She lacks the consistency to devote herself to practice, and so her skills are never as good as she feels that they should be. Not only that, but what young woman hasn’t deceived herself as to the signs that somebody else is interested in the relationship she wishes that they were? In Emma Woodhouse’s case, it’s made even more cringe-worthy by the fact that all her incorrect assumptions about people’s behaviour end up making life more difficult for others far more than for herself.

‘No. I think, Miss Woodhouse, I may just as well have it sent to Hartfield, and take it home with me at night. What do you advise?’
‘That you do not give another half-second to the subject.’

Emma, Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s comic characters in Emma are every bit as good as the inestimable Mrs Bennet, and I think definitely funnier than anything you’ll find in Sense & Sensibility. Humour is subjective, of course, but I laughed out loud a few times, which is pretty impressive for a book written over 200 years ago!

The obsession with people marrying within their social rank is a little troubling for a modern reader. It’s hard to get behind Mr Knightley’s objections to Harriet on the grounds that she’s ‘too low’, and it’s especially galling that, although Emma argues against these at first, she ends up agreeing by the conclusion of the novel. That, and Mr Knightley’s having been in love with Emma since she was 13 (and he was 29), are truly the ‘stuck in its time’ elements, to steal a phrase from the great All About Agatha. I can definitely see how readers would be put off by this, even if they can make it through Emma’s deliberately flawed personality.

Mr Knightley somewhat redeems himself in my eyes, however, by being the one person who’ll tell Emma hard truths about herself. In a novel that’s all about character development, it’s hard to imagine a more attractive suitor than the one who sees your faults, will help you overcome them, and love you for the efforts you’ve made! That’s true love right there, as I’m sure both he and Emma would agree.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley — New Review

Rebecca bought me Jane Austen at Home for either my birthday or Christmas, for the obvious reason that I enjoy reading Jane Austen’s novels. I’d never thought before about how much of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are about finding a secure home, and I most enjoyed the parts of Jane Austen at Home that focused on that, because I’m always interested in the idea of homes. The insights into Jane’s situation (and that of her sister, Cassandra) as single women also played into themes I’ve been interested in.

So far, so good for Stoneleigh Abbey: it had been handed smoothly from father to son seven times, and most of those involved were called Thomas.

Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley

I learned a lot of interesting titbits about Georgian England, including the fact that for letters carrying bad news, people used black sealing wax, so that the recipients would have some warning before they opened the letter. Sadly, I did feel that a lot of the material around these interesting themes and facts was quite dull, and it took me a full month and a bit to get through this book, which is unusual. Of course it makes sense for a biography to be written in broadly chronological order, but I wonder if it would have held my attention better had it been more focused on grouping by theme or topic.

I’d definitely recommend this to people who enjoy both biography and Jane Austen’s novels, but perhaps not so much for anyone who is looking for literary criticism. Next, I’ll be reading The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes.

For Jane, then, it doesn’t matter what books you read, even if your choice is ‘trashy’ Gothic novels. It’s what you make of them, how you behave in consequence, that counts.

Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley

Rating: 2 out of 5.