The Complete Jane Austen "Northanger Abbey" by Heather Laurence

Masterpiece Classic

by Heather Laurence

Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen's first novel accepted for publication, but one of her last novels published, and only after her death. This adaptation's road to production has also been long: it was originally written in 1999 for London Weekend Television, then purchased by Miramax, bought back from Miramax in 2004 by Grenada, then ultimately produced for a 2007 Austen Season broadcast on ITV1. During this time fans have amused themselves with creating dream cast wish lists and wild speculation about the script to rival anything from heroine Catherine Morland's lurid imagination. As with the conclusion of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe's £500 gorilla of Gothic novels, it has been a long wait to find out what sort of adaptation waited behind the mysterious black veil.

Now that the veil has been pulled aside, what does this fan think?

Well, it's not bad. The film starts strong and vigorous and maintains a brisk, lively pace not unlike Catherine herself and the dances she loves. Most of the plot points are covered, with minor stories such as the Isabella/James/Frederick triangle and Eleanor's secret romance receiving decent coverage and satisfactory conclusions. Gothic scenes from Catherine's imagination have a playful quality to them and are distinct from the main action, so the viewer is not left wondering if Northanger Abbey had been written during Jane Austen's heretofore unknown experimental drug phase. The locations are lovely - although Dublin's King's Inns will never be Bath no matter how many times the characters promenade up and down that same street as if they have strayed into a Flintstones cartoon. The costumes are well done: Mrs. Allen's wardrobe is suitably ornate, and Catherine's gowns are simpler and more girlish than the rich fabrics worn by Eleanor Tilney or the lower-cut, showy styles favored by Isabella Thorpe. The lighthearted music is period appropriate (if you prefer saxophones with your Jane Austen, the 1986 Northanger Abbey film may be more to your taste).

The cast is young, attractive, and talented. What a treat to see Fanny Price (Sylvestra Le Touzel's role in the 1983 Mansfield Park) all grown up as silly Mrs. Allen. Carey Mulligan delivers a standout performance as the duplicitous Isabella Thorpe: watch her in the scene where she learns that the Morlands won't inherit the Allens' fortune. Felicity Jones (Catherine Morland) looks as if she's stepped out of a C.E. Brock watercolor. And a note to future Masterpiece productions: please, please keep casting JJ Feild (Henry Tilney), because he's absolutely adorable. His charm is an important part of this film's appeal. And if you could bring back Mark Dymond (Captain Frederick "Freddelicious" Tilney) to smolder around the edges of another film or two it would also be very much appreciated.

In short, Northanger Abbey is a cute, perky film starring pretty people in pretty costumes. A romantic ending (was there any doubt?) finishes out the evening's entertainment.

The challenge in adapting Northanger Abbey - or any Jane Austen novel - is to capture the wit and telling details which define a character or scene, and give such keen insight into human nature. These lift Jane's novels above the myriad boy-meets-girl stories (even though they may share the same plots) and give her timeless and universal appeal. Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney's romance is not particularly memorable: they meet at a ball in Bath, as many young couples did; their acquaintance leads to an invitation to visit his family home. A misunderstanding threatens to put an end to the budding romance, but it is resolved quickly enough that they are able to marry within a year of the day they first met. But written by Jane Austen, this basic plot is carefully worked over and polished to become

"only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough rough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." (Northanger Abbey, ch. 5)

The film replaces most of these qualities with elements thought to be more appealing to modern audiences. Catherine's reading habits and fantasies are erotically charged; John Thorpe evolves from a bumbling boor to a romantic rival; Henry's confident sense of humor is replaced by melancholy; Frederick's seduction of Isabella is dismissed with a smirk and a shrug. It's entertaining, but details that made the story special (and worth adapting in the first place) are gone.

Catherine Morland, as she appears in the novel, may be one of Jane Austen's youngest heroines with the most to learn, but she shows great potential. She displays a stubborn integrity: even as the Thorpes encourage her to make social mistakes, she always wishes to behave properly and goes to great lengths to correct her errors. Catherine progresses from damage control to eventually realize the Thorpes aren't trustworthy guides. Next, she learns from painful experiences (the duplicity of the Thorpes; General Tilney's treatment). She doesn't become bitter; she becomes wiser. Catherine is still sweet and kind - by the end of the novel she's able to show genuine concern for Isabella's feelings - while seeing Isabella for what she is and not falling for her tricks again. As Catherine learns how to be a more critical reader of novels, she becomes a more careful reader of the people around her.

Henry Tilney's sense of humor sets him apart even in the pantheon of Jane Austen's heroes, but his wit is always tempered with kindness. His teasing is inclusive - he invites Catherine to share a joke with him - and complimentary rather than an attempt to make himself look clever at Catherine's expense. Unlike the Thorpes, the Allens, or James, who have their own agendas in Bath, Henry genuinely listens to Catherine and responds accordingly. When Catherine makes poor choices due to her inexperience, Henry doesn't directly tell Catherine what to think, but presents evidence and leaves her to come to her own conclusions.

The conversations Catherine and Henry share show not only their thoughts on how novels ought to be interpreted and applied, but also give them the opportunity to share their values on how relationships (friendship, marriage, and family) ought to be conducted. Examples of such conversations include the marriage/dancing dialogue when John Thorpe interrupts their dance (ch. 10) and Henry and Catherine's ongoing discussion about Isabella and Frederick's conduct (ch. 16, 19, and 25).

The point of Northanger Abbey is not the inevitable marriage at the end, nor that Catherine should stop reading novels. Northanger Abbey explores the process of becoming a wise reader, both of books and people, through a spectrum of everyday human cruelties - the damage a Thorpe can do; the selfishness of a General or Captain Tilney - and by celebrating simple pleasures. Catherine may never travel across the grand scenes of Europe as Udolpho's Emily St. Aubert does, but, in a scene omitted from the film, she learns to love a hyacinth. And as Henry tells her (and us), learning to love is the thing.


Oh, how I wish I could have viewed tonight's Northanger Abbey, but, alas, KCTS/KYVE's reception was simply too poor. Too many dots on the screen. Or are those things pixels? At any rate, I hope that technological things are back to their normal clarity by next Sunday's 4 p.m. repeat. Is somebody listening?

Although I was very trepidatious after the disappointment of last week's Persuasion, I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey. The characters were much better suited to their roles in this production. I play to buy this on DVD, my praise can't go any higher than that!

I definitely agree that Northanger Abbey translated far better to screen than did Persuasion. Of course, it is a much simpler story, and simpler will translate more readily than the far more nuanced story of regret told in Persuasion. I particularly enjoyed the insertions of Catherine's vivid imaginary scenes; they were very effective. And the costumes were marvelous. I thought the necklines were particularly effective at showing the innocence of Catherine, as opposed to Isabella Thorpe's far more worldly display. It was great fun!

So far no comparison (for me) to C. Bronte whose writings rope you in emotionally and tug at your heart. In this portrayal of Austen's stories, the young actresses often slip into the immodesties of modernity. The overly foppish actors seem to be parodying their characters. I read Austen and Bronte many many years ago. I remember with clarity the Bronte but the Austen blurs together like soap opera. Is the comaprison unfair?

My main, and admittedly trivial, peeve was the actress that played Elenore Tilney. She looked old enough to be unmarriageable in Austen's time (27). Even four teen boys (I was hoping for a break from the testosterone and was sure Jane Austen would be too girlie, but the production was so well done!) thought she "looked 40".

Hurray for the National Film Board of Ireland and Lismore Castle ! Irish Tourism and the Duke of Devonshire take note; hords coming to see where Catherine slept........?
What an improvement after Persuasion !
Did anyone else notice the "walk-ons" Irish accents ? Added charm, stopped it being too sugary & twee.
The General wasn't as grim as Robert Hardy in the BBC version, and I found the story easier to follow. Might try rereading the book, my least favorite of the six.
I actually liked it.

I thought that Northanger Abbey was better than Persuasion, but it too was far too short.

As ususal Andrew Davies did thhe best he could with the time he had.

From my point of view PBS has done a good job on Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. But from the original ITV Persuasion and Northanger Abbey was the best. Northanger Abbey was orignaly a 2 hour movie and PBS has cut a 1/2 hour from it.

I heartily agree with your vote to keep casting JJ Feild in future productions. He really was appealing, and the interactions between Henry and Catherine were my favorite parts of the film. The sarcasm, the playful tenderness were all executed perfectly by JJ Feild. I enjoyed the lightness of Henry's character in this adaptation, which is a nice change from the brooding heroes of Jane Austen's other novels (Don't get me wrong; I still like Mr. Darcy as much as the next woman). The liveliness of this production has inspired me to read the novel.

It was very different than the original, and I enjoyed it. However, I have since watched a few scenes from the first one and found Peter Firth's perfomance so much better (although JJ Field's eyes are beautiful!) I was much more moved at the ending of the '86 version. I felt that in the newer version Elenore and Catherine's friendship never had a chance to develop and there were just too many knowing glances between the 2 younger Tilney's. I am now going to watch the original!

I've seen the 86' version and now this one and I have to say this new version was simply adorable. The two lead characters had a sweet chemistry and innocence that was truly a joy to watch. I thought the casting was right on point. Hopefully the ones to follow will be just as delightful.

As to Janette Smith's comment below, is there any way to view this missing half hour? I am disappointed that PBS would cut it!
Overall, really enjoyed Northanger Abbey and will have to re-read the book. I wasn't too fond of Persuasion -- I prefer the 1995 version.

I liked this version except I don't recall that Catherine would have been reading salacious novels like The Monk, or indeed, that a 'nice' girl of her day would have done so, necessarily; and I was disappointed that Andrew Davies cut my fave lines from the novel (though it might be in the missing half hour that was edited out, now that I hear PBS did that) in Chap. 16 where Henry and Catherine are discussing Isabella and Capt. Tilney and Henry tells her 'With you, it is not, how is such a one likely to be influenced, What is the inducement most likely to act upon such a person's feelings, age, situation, and probably habits of life considered-but, How should I be influenced, What would be my inducement in acting so and so?' and Catherine says 'I do not understand you." and he replies "Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well.' to which she says "Me? Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.' and he says "Bravo! An excellent satire on modern language."
This is my favorite 'back and forth' in the novel of Henry and Catherine and I was disappointed not to hear it in this version. It's in the other BBC version.

I liked this version too -- the full movie is on Youtube (in 16 parts) for those who couldn't get it, or for those who want to see the missing pieces.

I was less pleased with it than most. The twists of plot that come as interesting surprises in the book were exhaustively "telegraphed" in the early scenes of the TV version. And Isabella-- where was Isabella, whose selfishness and vanity are so deliciously naughty in the book? She seemed relegated to being a very minor character indeed.

Bravo PBS! At last a drink of pure enjoyment after a drought from literary excellent. Congratulations on Persuasion and Northanger Park! The acting is exellent, the story lines fast moving, yet with a beautiful pause here and there for a sweet breath and a sigh of pure pleasure. I am impatiently waiting for Mansfield park tonight. Most excellent praise to your program director.

Why is PBS keeping these productions to 90 minutes? Why not allow the films to more fully reflect the novels by giving them at least two hours?

I'm ready to enjoy the whole story of each book in longer productions; if I had not read the novels, I probably wouldn't feel so short-changed. It's too bad.

Between the new production of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, I preferred the latter. It had that wonderful Andrew Davies feel to it.

Persuasion was particularly disappointing, but the 1995 movie was so marvelous, it would be very difficult to match up - this new production did not even come close, sadly. Amanda Root's Anne and Sophie Thompson's Mary were spot on in the 1995 version. Sally Hawkins did not have the intelligence of Root's Anne, and the actress who played Mary had none of Thompson's comic timing.

Why not air that production, as the Pride and Prejudice from the same era is being re-broadcast?

I'm not sure that calling this series "The Complete Jane Austen" is appropriate, since these first films are incomplete.

Thank you Heather for a thoughtful review. I agree that this adaptation missed many of the nuances of NA that made the characters and plot special. I missed all of Henry Tilney's clever speaches, and the walk to Beechen Cliff is a great loss. Maybe one day they will get it right! Cheers, Laurel Ann

Persuasion was a disappointment though the book is one of my favorites. If I had not been familiar with the story I would have been lost. However, I thought Northanger Abbey was quite good considering the short time frame. They surely deserved 2 hours at least. The male and female characters in each were well depicted. Especially jjField's Henry Tilney. As yet no one captures a character as well as Colin Firth captured Darcy in the A&E-BBC classic and I doubt they will.

I've read the book, watched the earlier video versions and thought the newest adaptation of Northanger Abbey a wonderful treat. So much so, I've purchased the video for my Jane Austen collection of books and videos. I only wish that it was longer. The actor and actress who played Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney’s were truly excellent. Great chemistry. I thought the actor who played Henry in the earlier version was too old for the part. Believe this adaptation of the Austen books has been my favorite of the new series on PBS. However ... I have purchased each of the new adaptions and will watch again (and again) as I find that I usually miss little nuances watching the videos as I have missed parts in reading the books the second, third, fourth..... time.

This is one of the best JA adaptations I have ever seen!
It is just so lively and adoreable. JJ Field and Felicity Jones were both amazing!

["Amanda Root's Anne and Sophie Thompson's Mary were spot on in the 1995 version. Sally Hawkins did not have the intelligence of Root's Anne, and the actress who played Mary had none of Thompson's comic timing."]

You're entitled to this opinion, but it is one opinion that I have to vigorously disagree with.

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