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Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Little Gems of Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'

There are in Northanger Abbey enjoyable throw-away comments satirizing the foibles of human nature.

James Morland allows his younger sister to flatter him by expressing her joy that he has come to Bath to see her, when in fact he has not, and is soon surprising his sister by taking sides against her in favour of Isabella.

When, in Bath, Mrs. Allen chances to meet her former school acquaintance Mrs. Thorpe, their joy is great, 'since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years'.

When Mr. Allen opposes on grounds of propriety the idea of young people driving round the countryside unchaperoned in open carriages, Mrs. Allen supports him only with 'Open carriages are nasty things. A clean gown is not five minutes wear in them.'

There are in light touches astonishing insights. Mrs. Allen advises Catherine, who is planning to visit Miss Eleanor Tilney: 'put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white'. These few words imply so much – that Miss Tilney is from a wealthy family (laundry is no problem), that she has taste, and also that Mrs. Allen, however silly she may be, knows how Catherine can make herself attractive to the Tilneys.

In Chapter 25, when it is expected that Captain Tilney will marry Isabella, Henry tells his sister, with heavy irony: 'Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in-law as you must delight in! – Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise.' This is typical of his Jane Austen-like wit and charm. Eleanor's reply, however, is equally delightful, since it carries (for the reader) the double irony of a compliment to Catherine: 'Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in'. Such a sister-in-law she eventually has.

The novel ends with a characteristic Jane Austen-ism: 'I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience'.