Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Northanger Abbey on Film

I am writing this whilst slogging my way through 672 pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Yes. 672 pages.  I am hoping to have something to write about on this blog when I get to the halfway mark.  Until that delightful day, dear readers, I thought we might pass the time with a discussion of Northanger Abbey on film.  

Naturally, when I decided to embark on this project, I reread Northanger Abbey.  Then I decided that I must watch the film version(s).  I had not yet seen the 2007 version and after reading Bruce Stovel’s article “Northanger Abbey at the Movies,” I felt I really had to see the 1986 (1987) version.  Fortunately both are available on Amazon Prime. Click here for 1986(1987) and here for 2007. Stovel has it right when he declares the 1986 version a “campy…romp.” Indeed it is.  This version stars Peter Firth (brother of Colin) as a Henry Tilney who alternately smirks and simpers his way through the movie. It is hard to believe from this performance that he had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 for his work on Equus with Richard Burton, or that he would go on to become the chief Spook on the series of that title, also known as MI5 in the United States, but I digress.  Henry really is probably the best thing about this version, since Catherine is portrayed as weak-willed and already in thrall to Gothic fiction from the opening scene in which she reclines in a large tree reading and imagining herself as the heroine about to be ravished. (!)

One of Stovel’s best points in the article is how the 1986 film version forces the reader to notice what is important in the book that cannot be easily translated to the movie. The Narrator is at the top of the list; “the narrator of Northanger Abbey is the closest Jane Austen comes to Henry Fielding’s obtrusive, poised and witty, wise philosophizing, self-conscious narrator of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews.” (238)  The 2007 version, which we will get to shortly, does attempt to include the narrator, with uneven results. The voice overs are lackluster at best.

In the novel, as I wrote earlier in my post about rereading Northanger Abbey, the reader sees Catherine grow and learn to be discerning, both in selecting her reading and her companions.  However, in both film versions, Catherine is played as a static character, without the roundness of which E. M. Forster was so fond. The cast of the 2007 version includes J.J. Feilds and Felicity Jones, who both sparkle on screen. However, the dialogue, even when taken directly from Austen’s novel, feels stilted.  And Feilds’s Henry seems to smile at inappropriate moments–he’s not as creepy as Peter Firth’s Henry, but he is odd, to say the least, and not just because he knows about muslin….

If you, like me, enjoy the settings and costumes, by all means, watch both, though the 2007 version is probably superior in this regard.  Interestingly, the opening scene of the 2007 version is a near copy of the 1986 opening scene, but the films diverge pretty quickly from there. Carey Mulligan makes an appearance as Isabella, and though she is uber smarmy, she is infinitely superior to her counterpart from 1986. Interestingly, the 2007 version uses numerous references to Lewis’s The Monk, which features prominently in Catherine’s Gothic fantasies (but as Janeites know this is only in the movie).  I had forgotten that it is mentioned once in Northanger Abbey by John Thorpe when he goes on about novels being nonsense.  The only two he has enjoyed are Tom Jones and The Monk.  If you read my previous posts (part 1 and part 2) about The Monk and if you have read Tom Jones, you will no doubt see the humor here.  John mentions two books with plenty of sex and seduction, and a deal of it explicit to someone he is supposed to be courting for marriage.  He betrays his lack of couth and tact, but of course, Catherine, at this point in their relationship, is too innocent to catch the references.  I do not doubt that Austen’s readers caught them and had fair warning, if they needed it, of John’s real character. His reading choices also make his refusal to stop the carriage with Catherine in it more diabolical, and perhaps more meaningful. He intends to keep Catherine from his rival, even by force. Is it a nod to Ambrosio?  I can’t say for sure…

I don’t intend to bash either of these versions, though both are ultimately inadequate.  I think Stovel’s assessment is accurate–that without the witty narrator and without keeping the action from Catherine’s point of view, there is something lost in the translation from novel to film–Northanger Abbey is primarily an interior story, and those are hard to put on film. It is quite possible that in the future someone will find a way to adapt Northanger Abbey by distilling the essence of the novel in a way that neither of these versions does. They are not bad, and if I had to choose, I would prefer the 2007, but they are not instant classics in the way that the 1994 P&P or the 1995 Persuasion are. Even though purists may have their complaints about these adaptations, they are still beloved in a way that neither version of Northanger Abbey has been–though each is still great fun and a fine way to pass an hour or two if you enjoy costume drama with a big steaming helping of “camp.”

Stovel, Bruce. “Northanger Abbey at the Movies.” Persuasions 20 (1998): 236-247.

Austenalia

Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk part II


When last we saw our cast of characters, Ambrosio was locked in Matilda’s illicit embrace, she having saved him from the viper’s poison through witchcraft; we have heard the tale within a tale of Don Raymond’s adventures, and Agnes was presumed dead, although Lorenzo was still searching the convent for her daily. In the second half, The Monk continues to be melodramatic and overwrought, but a lot of fun.  

Ambrosio immediately upon satiation, begins to regret his actions. “He reflected on the scene which had just been acted, and trembled at the consequences of discovery: he looked forward with with horror: his heart was despondent, and became the abode of satiety and disgust: he avoided the eyes of his partner in frailty.” (193)  So, like many modern villains, it is not a true repentance of the act which we find in Ambrosio, rather a fear of getting caught. Interestingly, he moves quickly in the next few pages from frequent and ardent relations with Matilda to using her merely for physical satisfaction. Matilda becomes almost loathsome to him and he blames her, as does Lewis, for his downfall.  Matilda goes from virgin maid pretending to be a monk to be near her beloved to a seductress versed in the dark arts of sorcery. By page 229, Matilda has turned procuress for Ambrosio, whose lust has been excited by the fair Antonia. Matilda not only gives him an enchanted mirror through which he may watch Antonia, but provides him with a specially empowered myrtle branch which will not only allow him entry into any door and thus into Antonia’s private chamber, but will also render her senseless and allow Ambrosio to rape her without consequence. Ambrosio has embraced a Faustian bargain, but one which will only doom Matilda, who has sold her soul to help procure his way with Antonia.  Ambrosio himself doesn’t pay the price for his own debauchery. Lewis uses Ambrosio’s thralldom to his sexual desires to make several misogynistic statements. Matilda condemns him for having a mind “weaker than a woman’s” (230) and Ambrosio chides her with, “Oh! Cease, Matilda! That scoffing tone, that bold and impious language is horrible in every mouth, but most so in a woman’s.” (231) There are more, but you get the idea. It’s all her fault–she seduced him. Not only that, but any weakness in mind or spirit is portrayed as feminine in nature, even when man is the weak one. [sigh]

We leave Ambrosio impatiently waiting to use his magic myrtle after midnight and go to Theodore, Don Raymond’s servant, who alone seems to possess the wherewithal to come up with a plan to find out what happened to Agnes. In a nod to the story of Richard the Lionheart, who, according to legend, was discovered by a minstrel who sang and waited to hear Richard echo him, Theodore sings, but hears nothing.  However, he is able to convince a couple of nuns to come clean and tell him that Agnes had been poisoned by the mother superior. Don Raymond’s hopes dashed, he proceeds to fall into despair.

Meanwhile, Ambrosio enters Antonia’s bedroom without incident. There’s just one problem.  The myrtle branch doesn’t work on Antonia’s mother, who discovers him almost in flagrante and threatens to sound the alarm. Unfortunately, because she knows that no one will believe her story if she doesn’t have another witness (HINT: she’s a woman, who would listen to anything she says or believe her without corroboration?), she ineffectually hangs on his arm and tries to wake the maid. Ambrosio panics and murders her, fleeing the room and returning to Matilda.

As Lorenzo vows to have his revenge on the murderer of his sister Agnes, Ambrosio plots to kidnap Matilda, fake her death, and have her as his prisoner in the catacombs beneath the Abbey. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! These two plots climax in tandem when Raymond inadvertently sets off a riot by unmasking the supposed murderers of Agnes. He chases after some nuns who are running into the tombs and hears cries coming from deep within. Meanwhile, Ambrosio and Matilda have drugged Antonia and faked her death–she lies in a sepulchre and he waits for her to wake so he can take what he wants. Ambrosio rapes Antonia disregarding her pleas for mercy and for him to return to his right mind. Afterward, it isn’t long before they hear the rioters approaching. Ambrosio flees as Lorenzo discovers Antonia.  The lovers are reunited, but she is damaged goods and does the only thing she can–dies after proclaiming her love to Lorenzo. He is suitably heartbroken, but soon has cause for wonder in his discovery of Agnes, still alive! She has been kept prisoner in the catacombs.

The last chapter ties up the loose ends by filling in the backstory of what happened to Anges and finding a new match for Lorenzo of appropriate rank and wealth.  All’s well that ends well.

There is a lot to discuss here, especially in relation to Northanger Abbey. I will just bring out a couple of points.  First, there is a section in which women’s reading is addressed–specifically Bible reading. Elvira, Antonia’s mother, believed that, “unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman.” (223) She had gone so far as to write out a special copy of the Bible in her own hand, altering or omitting the improper parts. (!) This section was removed by Lewis in later editions to avoid charges of blasphemy, but it offers an intriguing window into his view on women, as does his treatment of Matilda–pious virgin turned Satan’s handmaiden. Lewis’s mother was somewhat unconventional and these passages, along with some of his other commentary make one wonder if he had Mommy issues.

Second, there is a section in chapter 9, where Antonia is sitting alone after her mother’s death.  It is late at night, there is a storm, and she is reading the Ballad of Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene–in which Imogene is faithless to her crusading knight.  He returns as a ghost to haunt her, etc. So, she’s reading a “horrid tale,” it’s a dark and stormy night, the doors are rattling, the wind is howling.  It is now that she sees Ambrosio dressed as a ghost. She tries to call for Flora, her maid…remind you of anyone? Maybe someone named Catherine? “With such a turn of mind.” (273) “Antonia’s heart throbbed with agitation; her eyes wandered fearfully over the objects around her…” (274)  You see what I mean.

Next up:  The Mysteries of Udolpho; I can’t wait!

Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Monk by Matthew Lewis, part 1

The Monk was published in 1796; some critics suspect that it was written, or at least started as early as 1792, during Lewis’s visit to the continent.  Several letters to his mother mention that he is working on a novel, and in a 1794 letter to her, he specifically mentions having written a novel in the style of The Castle of Otranto.  He must have revised his work, though, because it also contains nods to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which was published in 1794. Maclachlan writes in the introduction that despite initial favorable reviews, several reviews, especially the February 1797 article by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were somewhat less than complimentary (ix, x).  The Penguin Classic version I am reading is a reprint of the April 1796 version, which would have been the second edition, to which Lewis attached his name. Interestingly, there is a passage in Chapter V of Volume II in which the writer directly addresses the reader with an aside about book critics, “for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them…one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author.” (172-173)  It seems Lewis was a little tetchy about some of the reviews of his work.

The Monk is extremely melodramatic and there is much that will be laughable to a modern reader, indeed, one can easily see why Austen enjoyed lampooning the Gothic in Northanger Abbey. Although some critics have sought to credit Lewis with giving women agency, because of the copious and frequent consensual “relations” in The Monk, I would tend to put his depiction of women under the heading of wish fulfillment.  I mean how many women fall madly in love with a middle-aged priest with a God complex?  Or maybe I lead a sheltered life. Also, anyone who makes as many misogynistic asides, such as this gem from chapter 1, “As this is the only instance known of a woman’s ever having done so [hold her tongue], it was judged worthy to be recorded here,” (33) is not interested in portraying women as fully formed humans with the ability to choose their own paths.

Something else to notice about The Monk in relation to British Gothic literature and Northanger Abbey is the setting, which is Catholic Spain.  In Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820, one of Angela Wright’s main arguments is that British writers (and translators) of Gothic fiction had to walk a line between nascent British nationalism, especially in light of the French Revolution, and the standard ingredients in Gothic fiction, such as moody castles with Catholic priests and nuns, as well as an ample helping of the supernatural, which was usually somehow tied to Catholic mysticism. Walpole sidestepped this problem by giving his tale a fake backstory of translation from the Italian, but Lewis goes all in and writes somewhat condescendingly of Catholic rituals, beliefs, and clergy, make it obvious that he and his readers are above all that nonsense without overtly saying so. Interestingly, one of the pivotal moments in Austen’s Northanger Abbey is when Henry realizes what Catherine has supposed and says in chapter 24, “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English…” Austen was as much aware of the settings of the Gothic as her fellow writers and she walked the line right along with them; she uses the expectations of the reader (and Catherine) to full effect by having Henry remind us of the difference between fantasy and reality, at least in the world of Northanger Abbey.

Lewis’s The Monk is written as a story within a frame story, a commonly used device at the time. In chapter 1 we meet Antonia and her Aunt Leonella (the comic relief) along with three cavaliers and Ambrosio, a priest famous for his piety. Chapter 2 goes into the story of Ambrosio and Rosario, who is really Matilda (that name keeps reappearing!) who has disguised herself as a young monk and is about to take her vows, when she unmasks herself to Ambrosio and declares her undying love for him.  During one of their meetings, Ambrosio is bitten by a viper and Matilda sucks the poison out in order to save him, thus dooming herself to die, but not before they do the dirty on the final page of the chapter. The most obvious thing to point out here is the symbolism of the viper in the garden, but in Lewis’s telling, it is the man who is attacked and the woman saves him by sacrificing herself. Interesting. Since Matilda is about to die, they consummate their love, but one wonders what Ambrosio will do when he realizes what he has done.  Stay tuned…

Chapter 3-5 switch to the story of Alphonso (really the Conde de las Cisternas) and Agnes, the sister of Lorenzo–these are 2 or our three cavaliers from chapter one, if you’re keeping up. There are a lot of twists and turns, banditti, disguises, apparently a favorite tool of Lewis’s, and chase scenes. Of course, Agnes and Cisternas are in love, but through a series of miscommunications, she ends up pregnant and in a nunnery, while Cisternas is searching everywhere for her.  He finds her, but not before Ambrosio discovers her secret and rats her out to the Mother Superior and she is tortured and dies. Meanwhile, Lorenzo is pursuing his own crush on Antonia from Chapter 1. We are now about halfway through. The main points to remember as related to Northanger Abbey are the frequent misunderstandings and coincidences that serve to move the plot along. The characters always circle back into the story, just as they do in Northanger Abbey.  We think we’ve seen the last of James Thorpe, but he turns out to be the cause of Catherine’s summary dismissal by General Tilney. We think that Ambrosio has fallen, but I suspect he will make a reappearance in the second half.

The Monk is a great example of what Austen found so humorous about Gothic novels.  It is over the top melodramatic. There are hidden identities, melancholy castles, abbeys, and churches, overwrought clergymen and horse chases galore.  We’ll see what happens to our cast of characters next time when I discuss the second half of The Monk.

Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

In Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, he writes that Revolutionary era literature contained a great deal of satire. He further argues that, “Satire as a literary device depends on a comprehending…audience…” (251). If we accept, as many Austen fans do, that Northanger Abbey is a satire of Gothic Romances, then in order to understand the full meaning of the satire, to get the jokes if you will, requires us to look at the stories and novels being satirized.  It is with this idea in mind that I have begun the Year of Reading Dangerously.

Jane Austen added a preface to Northanger Abbey, while preparing it for publication, in order to explain that because it had originally been finished in 1803, “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” (Emphasis mine.) Austen herself knew that to enjoy Northanger Abbey fully, it was important to understand the books and opinions (often about books) which were in vogue at the time it was originally written.

This year, I will be reading as many books referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible and writing about those reading adventures here.  I will also be reading and writing about other books, but my major project for this year is The Year of Reading Dangerously. I have started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  Though this slim novel is not mentioned in the text of Northanger Abbey as many others are, it is considered to be the first British Gothic novel, having been published in 1764, at least 25 years before Gothic fiction became a popular literary form (Gamer in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of The Castle of Otranto). Interestingly, Austen uses the name Isabella for one of her main characters, and that same name is given to one of the heroines in Otranto. Other parallels include the use of a sinister castle, a mistress whom the owner of the castle is trying to be rid of, and a whole host of coincidences which serve to push the narrative along.

In Britain, France and the Gothic 1764-1820: the Import of Terror, Angela Wright lists Gothic tropes as “melancholia, oppressive feudal castles and dreams which foreshadow disastrous outcomes for their protagonists” (39). All of these are found in The Castle of Otranto. The action takes place in and around the titular castle, which contains underground passages, and various rooms which may be used to take refuge in or to hold people against their will. Almost all  the main characters and many of the secondary characters have dreams or supernatural visions, including Manfred, Hippolita, Isabella, Matilda, Father Jerome, and Frederic. The mood of the entire piece is melancholy. Dim passage ways, fog, a supernatural giant knight seeking vengeance, and worst of all, Manfred’s weirdly manic behavior. Once minute, he is grieving his dead son and the next, he’s trying to force his son’s betrothed into a quickie marriage (after he finds a way to have his marriage to the long-suffering Hippolita annulled, of course).

As noted in the introduction, modern readers will most likely find Otranto overwrought and slightly silly, but this in fact adds to the reader’s enjoyment of Northanger Abbey, as undoubtedly, Austen is poking a little fun at Otranto along with other Gothic fiction. In fact, General Tilney bears more than a passing resemblance to Manfred; he is handsome and respected, yet seems a little manic.  Also, just as Manfred oversteps the boundaries of good taste with his plot to marry Isabella and put away Hippolita after Conrad’s death, General Tilney’s designs on Catherine and his head-spinning banishment of her upon discovering her true social and economic standing are similar. Both Manfred and General Tilney are mercurial in their behavior and are trying to insure the continuance of their legacies into the future via nefarious means.

Should you decide to read The Castle of Otranto, here are a few discussion questions to consider:

  1. How do the coincidences move the plot along?  What would happen to the story if they were gone?
  2. Consider the actions of the three female leads.  How were Hippolita, Matilda, and Isabella acting as expected by women of their station?  How were they acting in opposition to expectations?
  3. Reviews of Otranto even from the beginning were mixed. If you were to review it today, what would be your recommendation to readers?
  4. What are some other comparisons between Otranto and Northanger Abbey?
  5. What other characters can you think of from literature who are similar to Manfred? Is he a hero, and anti-hero, a villian?  Why do you think so?

Austenalia

The Year of Reading Dangerously Begins…

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For 2019, the theme of the Jane Austen Society of North America will be Northanger Abbey.  Since Northanger Abbey is a book largely concerned with reading, and especially a certain type of reading, I have decided to try to read as many of the Gothic and other novels mentioned or referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible, hence The Year of Reading Dangerously: in which I read the Gothic novels referenced in Northanger Abbey and live to tell the tale.

I began my quest by re-reading Northanger Abbey and I enjoyed it immensely. This time through, I found Catherine much more engaging and less silly.  Likewise, Henry grows in my estimation as an Austen hero. I quite like him and his sense of humor. I find his wit droll and I appreciate the fact that he is comfortable enough with his masculinity to discuss textiles authoritatively. Henry’s best asset is his sense of humor.  One of his gems is, “Promised so faithfully!–A faithful promise!–That puzzles me.–I have heard of a faithful performance. But a faithful promise–the fidelity of promising!” (p. 144 in the Oxford World’s Classic edition) I am not ashamed to admit to chuckling whilst reading. I am sure my husband thought I was going mad, but then again probably not.  I re-read Austen regularly and there are other books which have been known to bring up a laugh as well.

To help me on my journey, I have enlisted Angela Wright and her volume, entitled, Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820: the import of terror. I must say that I find it slightly ironic that she has opted out of the Oxford comma in her title,which is published by Cambridge University Press.  Perhaps CUP doesn’t allow the Oxford comma? In any case, I am about halfway through and I am finding the essays insightful and helpful, especially as the first one is about Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto.  I am midway through The Castle of Otranto; I chose to read it first after Northanger Abbey, because Walpole’s slim novel is often credited with bringing the Gothic to Britain.  

Feel free to throw caution to the wind, and join me as I read some hair-raising Gothic Stories!