Oxford World’s Classics: Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon, by Jane Austen – A Review

“Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” The Narrator, Chapter 30 

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the novel that almost wasn’t. We know from Cassandra Austen’s notes that her sister Jane wrote it during 1798-1799, prepared it for publication in 1803, and sold it to publishers Crosby & Company of London only to never see it in print. It languished on the publisher’s shelf for six years until Austen, as perplexed as any authoress who was paid for a manuscript, saw it not published, and then made an ironical inquiry,  supposing that by some “extraordinary circumstance” that it had been carelessly lost, offering a replacement. In reply, the publisher claimed no obligation to publish it and sarcastically offered it back if repaid his 10 pounds.

Seven more years pass during which Pride and Prejudice is published in 1813 to much acclaim, followed by Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815, all anonymously ‘by a lady’. With the help of her brother Henry, Austen then buys back the manuscript from Crosby & Company for the same sum, for Crosby could not know this manuscript was written by a now successfully published and respected author and thus worth quite a bit more. Ha! Imagine the manuscript that would later be titled Northanger Abbey and published posthumously in 1818 might never have been available to us today. If its precarious publishing history suggests it lacks merit, I remind readers that ironically in the early 1800s most viewed it as “only a novel“, whose premise its author and narrator in turn heartily defend.

“And what are you reading, Miss – ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough 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.” The Narrator, Chapter 5

If this statement seems a bit over the top, then you have discovered one of the many ironies in Northanger Abbey as Austen pokes fun at the critics who oppose novel writing by cleverly writing a novel, defending writing a novel. Phew! In its simplest form, Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic fiction so popular in Austen’s day but considered lowbrow reading and shunned by the literati and critics. In a more expanded view it is so much more than I should attempt to describe in this limited space, but will reveal that it can be read on many different levels of enjoyment; — for its coming of age story, social observations, historical context, allusions to Gothic novels and literature, beautiful language and satisfying love story.

Some critics consider Northanger Abbey to be Jane Austen’s best work revealing both her comedic and intellectual talents at its best. I always enjoy reading it for the sheer joy of exuberant young heroine Catherine Morland, charmingly witty hero Henry Tilney and the comedy and social satire of the supporting characters. At times, I do find it a challenge because so much of the plot is based on allusions to other novels, and much of the story is tongue in cheek. Explanatory notes and further study have helped me understand so much more than just the surface story and I would like to recommend that all readers purchase annotated versions of the text for better appreciation.

Oxford World’s Classics has just released its new edition of Northanger Abbey which is worthy of consideration among the other editions in print that include a medium amount of supplemental material to support the text. Also included in this edition are three minor works, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Updated and revised in 2003, it has an newly designed cover and contains a short biography of Jane Austen, notes on the text, explanatory notes which are numbered within the text and referenced in the back, chronology, two appendixes of Rank and Social Class and Dancing and a 28 page introduction by Claudia L. Johnson, Prof. of English Literature at Princeton University and well known Austen scholar. Of the five introductions I have read so far in the Oxford Austen series I have enjoyed this one the most as Prof. Johnson style is so entertaining and accessible. She writes with authority and an elegant casualness that does not intimidate this everyman reader. The essay is broken down into a general Introduction, Gothic or Anti-Gothic?, Jane Austen, Irony, and Gothic Style, and Northanger Abbey in Relation to Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Here is an excerpt that I thought fitting to support my previous mention of publishing history and tone.

Northanger Abbey is a sophisticated and densely literary novel, mimicking a great variety of print forms common in Austen’s day – conduct of books, miscellanies, sermons,  literary reviews, and, of course, novels. Its ambition is fitting, because it was to have marked Austen’s entrance into the ranks of print culture. After Austen’s earlier attempt to publish a version of Pride and Prejudice failed, Northanger Abbey (then called Susan) seemed to have succeeded, for it sold for a grand total of 10 to Crosby & Company in 1803. We have seen that Austen’s entrance into the printed world, unlike Catherine’s entrée into the wide world outside Fullerton, was energetically confident: when the narrator declares that novels ‘have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them’ (p. 23), she is clearly referring to her own novel too. This seems an audacious claim when we consider that Austen had yet to publish a novel, and a painful one when we consider that the novel, though bought, paid for, and even advertised, never actually appeared.” Page xxv

What I found most enlightening about this edition were the explanatory notes to the text which were also written by Prof. Johnson. Not only do they call attention to words, phrases, places, allusions, and historical meanings, they explain them in context to the character or situation allowing us further inside the though process or action.

115 ponderous chest: the chest is a site of spine-tingling terror and curiosity in novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forrest (1791), where it holds a skeleton (vol, I , ch. iv), and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), where it holds evidence of Falkland’s diabolical crime. p. 369.

In addition to being an amusing parody and light-hearted romance, I recommend Northanger Abbey for young adult readers who will connect with the heroine Catherine Morland whose first experiences outside her home environment place her in a position to make decisions, judge for herself who is a good or bad friend, and many other life lessons that we discover again through her eyes. Henry Tilney is considered by many to be Austen’s most witty and charming hero and is given some the best dialogue of any of her characters.

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Henry Tilney, Chapter 14

Luckily for Henry Tilney, there was one woman who used all that nature had given her with her writing when she created him. We are so fortunate that Northanger Abbey is not languishing and forgotten on a shelf at Crosby & Company in London, and available in this valuable edition by Oxford Press.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Oxford World’s Classics: Northanger Abbey Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon, by Jane Austen, edited by James Kinsley & John Davie
Oxford University Press, (2008)
Trade paperback (379) pages
ISBN: 978-0199535545

Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press © 2008; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com

Oxford World’s Classics Pride and Prejudice: Our Diptych Review

Cover of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Oxford World Classics, (2008)

his perfect indifference, and your pointed dislike, make it so delightfully absurd!” Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 57

Gentle readers, Please join us for the second in a series of six diptych reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view. 

 

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Oxford World’s Classics Revised edition, (2008) 

Laurel Ann’s Review 

Any reader of the novel Pride and Prejudice, be it novice or veteran, has certain expectations and apprehensions based on its incredible popularity and renown. The same can be said for the media, whose recent over-use of its famous opening line, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ can be found repeated in the opening of many a news, magazine or blog article announcing some creditable or dubious connection to Jane Austen’s characters or plot. Interestingly, it has become the meme of the day passed along and re-used by those who want to appear in the know, but are sadly missing the point. It is debatable if Pride and Prejudice’s profound truths can be reduced to just universally acknowledged one-liners. If the novel was that easy to figure out we would not care two figs about it, and after nearly two hundred years, it would have been lost to obscurity! What one can expect though is so much more; an engaging plot that keeps you thinking and re-evaluating characters every step along the way, witty, sharp and humorous dialogue that others wish to emulate but never quite achieve, and a love story which just might reign supreme for all eternity. With all of these expectations before us, who could not be a little intimidated?  

The Oxford World’s Classics new edition of Pride and Prejudice might just meet your need to read and explore Jane Austen’s classic novel. This edition presents the reader with a wide variety of supplementary material to help you along in your discovery of the universal truths in Pride ad Prejudice. Like many editions, it supplies us with an unabridged text that has been carefully edited by prominent scholars since it was first published in 1813. ‘Carefully’ is the operative word here, since the debate is on about what has been changed or removed from the text. I will again defer to my learned co-reviewer Prof. Moody to delve into that arena. In addition to the brief biography of Jane Austen, select bibliography, chronology of her life, and two appendixes on dancing and social status that are repeated in each of the six editions in this series, (and previously mentioned in our first review), this volume includes a twenty-six page introduction by Fiona Stafford, notes on the text including a publishing history, textural notes and explanatory notes unique to this edition filled with insights and facts neatly organized and easy to find. 

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No conscience

Illustration of Marianne & Elinor Dashwood, Cover of Sense & Sensibility, Books on TapeCONSCIENCE

“A man who has nothing to do with his own time has no conscience in his intrusion on that of others.” Marianne Dashwood on Colonel Brandon, Sense & Sensibility, Chapter 31

This is a profound statement from a young lady who herself, has nothing to do with her own time! Isn’t this like calling the kettle black, or … throwing stones when you live in a glass house? Hmm?

The British Gentry had time at their disposal. If you had an estate such as Colonel Brandon’s Delford that earned 2000 pounds a year, you had the means to be a gentleman that could schedule his own time to his liking. Now, Marianne is another situation. After the death of their father and the transfer of his estate to their half brother John Dashwood, she and her sister Elinor are impoverished, and are at the mercy of time. They must marry well, and quickly.

I am puzzled by time in Jane Austen’s novels. Sense & Sensibility was written in the late 1790’s, but was not successfully published until 1811. I may have entirely missed this nuance, but how does one know in which era the novel is set? Late 1790’s or 1811? That is a 15 year time frame. Should we assume that it is contemporary to when it was published?

I think that others may be confused also, because many of my illustrated editions contain artist’s conceptions of characters that place them in context, and include clothing and furnishing of the time. Some scenes appear late Georgian, and others are Regency. To complicate matters further, some are Victorian!

So I went on an Internet hunt and Googled “Sense and Sensibility” + “time frame” and was fortunate after a bit of digging to find an answer on Austen scholar Ellen Moody’s web site. She had investigated the exact subject and wrote a paper called A Calendar for Sense and Sensibility; – – and after wading through all of her expert scholarly investigation, I discovered the bottom line…

1799 September. “Two years” after Marianne had declared Colonel Brandon to be too old to marry, she marries him. She is 19, Brandon 37.

So the novel begins in 1797! Phew. But that does not explain why different artists have illustrated the characters in fashions from the 1790’s to the 1860’s! Well, that is another story!

*Illustration from the cover of Sense & Sensibility, published by Books on Tape, circa 2000 showing Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in mid Victorian attire.