The Complete Jane Austen "Northanger Abbey" 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 Â£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.