ARE they all horrid? Our Gentle Readers have judged the latest adaptation of Persuasion and found it lacking; next up, Northanger Abbey.
Several Alert Janeites, alarmed and horrified to find Andrew Davies holding forth on Jane Austen on the front page of CNN (we’re not snarking, you should read the e-mails), sent us a link to this article. We were a little surprised to see so many e-mails about it, as we were fairly certain we had already snarked this particular piece, but alas, no. It’s just that we’ve read it all before.
Her work, Davies argues, “is not just social comedy. It’s about money, struggle for individualism, sex — all the kinds of things that interest us now. People sometimes misinterpret that. Jane Austen is regarded as such a prim writer. Well, she’s not, really. The engine of her plot is often sexual desire.”
Are we all taking notes? Good.
And, airing 9 p.m. EST Sunday, a charming parody of gothic fiction, “Northanger Abbey,” whose virginal teen heroine, Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) displays a penchant for romantic, even erotic fantasies.
“Characters can’t have sex until after they’re married in this kind of story,” says Davies. “But one can remind the audience in various subtle, and less subtle, ways that sex is in the air.” And he beckons the audience to take a deep breath.
Well, there you go.
“My mother was a difficult and unfathomable woman,” declares Davies, “and I started trying to understand women at an early age.”
That explains a great deal, doesn’t it?
Hear him lovingly survey the young women in a typical Austen novel: “Their bodies are quite a substantial part of what they bring to the whole sexual equation. Their hair and their shoulders and their necks and their breasts” — ripe in decolletage — “are all on show, part of the whole deal.
Oh, please. As if that’s all that Jane Austen’s heroines have to offer. That, too, explains a great deal.
“And the men, too,” he goes on. “I have men on horseback riding very fast, working up a sweat, in boots and tight breeches, all that kind of thing.
*falls over laughing*
Oh, Andy. You do amuse us, little man. It doesn’t astonish us at all that you think no more of consumers of Austen than you do of the novels themselves. Thanks to the Shell-shocked Yet Alert Janeites who sent us this link: Jessica, Marcia, Julie S., Rosa Cotton, and Arti.
In general the press coverage has us rolling our eyes just a bit. The San Francisco Chronicle’s review is rather typical.
“Northanger” is interesting in part because, in addition to being an amusing send-up of Gothic romance novels, it is a sketchbook for the plots and characters that would come to full bloom in Austen’s later novels.
Okay, that’s the second time that we have read a similar comment: that NA was “practice” for Jane Austen’s later novels, instead of being something rather different from the others. Is this a meme that somebody (PBS, perhaps?) is sending around to the press?
There is, of course, a young, somewhat plain heroine who is pursued by a perfectly pleasant but bland chap, while her heart flutters for a more aloof man.
Uh…BLAND? Surely you do not mean Da Man. Surely not. And when, IN THE NOVEL, does Catherine’s heart “flutter” for anyone but Henry Tilney? Somebody didn’t read the assignment, we think.
But “Northanger” also has its own charms, slight though they may be in comparison with Austen’s later masterpieces.
Okay, we’re done. Next victim. DOROTHY! A fresh spork!
The Los Angeles Times also has a review.
In the good old days, before Jane Austen was a pop star, with assorted websites and an action figure, “Northanger Abbey” was what used to be called a “lesser-known work.” “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” even “Persuasion” all could be referred to in casual conversation by those desirous of proving their good taste and general familiarity with English literature. Mention your devotion to “Northanger Abbey,” however, and you instantly identified yourself as a Jane Austen geek.
She says that like it’s a bad thing.
This is strange, since “Northanger Abbey” is the most lighthearted of Austen’s novels, a gentle take-down of the popular Gothic novels of the time, with their swooning, sexually endangered heroines, mildly depraved villains and heroes in thigh-high boots.
Thigh-high? Doubtful, but…hmm. Oh, and don’t forget the Many Caped Great Coat!
The second in Masterpiece Theatre’s “Complete Jane Austen,” “Northanger” lends itself more freely to the term “based on.” Thus Andrew Davies (who has done many Austen adaptations, including the 1995 TV production of “Pride and Prejudice,” not to mention those Bridget Jones movies) may hew faithfully to the essential story, but he also has a little fun with it.
We suppose one might attach a certain value to “fun,” yes.
Oh, you could poke a few holes in the production — the 90-minute playing time does not leave much room for mood. Beck’s John Thorpe is not polished enough to fool even a young woman for more than a few minutes, while Feild seems to downplay Tilney’s rather zany charms. Davies gets a bit carried away with the sexiness — “there’s a young peach ripe for plucking,” comments the young roué as he catches sight of Catherine, while Austen no doubt turns in her grave.
“Northanger Abbey” the novel was as fun as it gets for Austen, and the television film quite lives up to the same standard. Which is not to recommend it as a substitute for the novel, which it is now quite the fashion to have read.
*puts down spork*
While we didn’t agree with all of that article, we liked it quite a bit. We liked this one from the Boston Globe as well, again written by someone who actually seems familiar with the original.
There are things to like about Davies’ “Northanger Abbey,” even while it is flawed and superficial, particularly when the storyline collapses awkwardly toward the end. It is not one of Davies’ most consistent adaptations, but still, it’s an easy-to-watch introduction to one of Austen’s lesser-known novels. Austen wrote “Northanger Abbey” early in her career but, after a publishing misadventure, it was not released until after her death. About an imaginative young woman who reads too many Gothic novels, the story is Austen’s most lighthearted.
At one point while staying with the Tilneys at their large home, Northanger Abbey, Catherine imagines that their father, a stiff general, was in some way responsible for the death of their late mother. Swept up in her sense of drama, she shares her theory with Henry and appears to trigger a series of unpleasant events. By that moment, though, the movie has already given up on its storytelling efforts and on making the secondary characters anything more than sketches. Davies and director Jon Jones seem to be saying, “OK, you know where this is all going, so let’s just go there. You’ve seen an Austen movie, that’s good enough.”
Part of “The Complete Jane Austen” presented by “Masterpiece” this season, “Northanger Abbey” probably needs more than 90 minutes to do justice to Austen’s novel. While it is a fairly obvious piece of work, in that the perceptions of characters generally match their realities, the story still deserves enough time to explore more thoroughly how the Thorpes’ behavior affects our heroine, and how our heroine grows. As she learns not to be so easily influenced by others and by books, we need to know more about the allure of those influences.
Which sounds an awful lot like what Cub Reporter Heather L. said, though she said it rather more elegantly. 🙂
Unfortunately our duty to our Gentle Readers plunges us back in the maelstrom of the ill-informed ink-stained wretches of the public press. The New York Times:
“Northanger’s” heroine, Catherine Morland, dreams of being ravished in the manner of the preposterous Gothic novels she reads. The movie visualizes these fantasies with full submission to their campiness, effectively conveying the novel’s ideas about the way pop culture invades our psyches. By candlelight she slops up “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe and “The Monk” by Matthew Lewis, the actress Felicity Jones giving us Catherine’s breathless readings in voice-over:
“The amorous monk had full opportunity to observe the voluptuous contours and admirable symmetry of her person as she dropped her last garment. Ambrosio could bear no more.”
Catherine Morland is the most naïve and least verbally choreographed of all of Austen’s heroines, and Ms. Jones gives her the full milkmaid. Just one look at her, and you know you’d crush her in a game of whist. In some ways “Northanger Abbey” was made to be a television movie — it’s actually more fun than the book, which is as much a parody of Gothic novels as it is a parody of the sensibility that would develop in Austen’s five subsequent novels. Pages and pages of “Northanger” are devoted literally to manner: to the logistics, for instance, of taking a long walk.
*sporks out eye*
Our own hometown newspaper, for our sins:
Austen’s playful parody of the then-popular Gothic novel isn’t the best of her books, but Andrew Davies’ sprightly adaptation does it only good.
*sporks out other eye*
See how we suffer for our art? But we did like this bit about Miss Austen Regrets in the NYT article:
What eluded Austen herself, of course, was sustained love and marriage. And though she completed six brilliant novels before she died, at 41, she left the world having no inkling that immortality was hers. As Austen, played by Olivia Williams in a dramatization of the writer’s late life (“Miss Austen Regrets,” to be shown on Feb. 3), explains, “My work is so small.” Written by Gwyneth Hughes, the film, despite the hokey title, gives us a moving vision of Austen as a pragmatist who comes to wonder if her aversion to gold-digging might have been ill advised. Love is all that matters in making a marriage, Austen’s young niece tells her during a carriage ride with Austen and an older man.
“And in heaven’s name what gave you that idea?” Austen replies.
The niece answers, “Well, it says so in your books.”
“If that’s what you think they say, my dear,” the man pipes in, “perhaps you should read them again.”
Indeed. (Thanks to Alert Janeite Maria for the link.)