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“Extensive and Unaffected Pleasure”: Affectionate Satire in Northanger Abbey Reimagined for the Modern Day

As can be expected from the woman who quite literally invented the modern romance novel, Jane Austen’s works have been reimagined, rejuvenated, remodeled, and refreshed countless times. It is no surprise that the timeless and universal themes of Austen’s novels, such as love, duty, and family, continue to appeal to creative minds around the world. Some of these adaptations, however, have been more successful than others. If I were to try my hand at reworking one of these masterpieces for the silver screen or the stage, it would be imperative to first examine what makes other such attempts successful or unsuccessful. In essence, what is the essence of the work that cannot be compromised lest the irresistible magnetism of Austen be lost? In my observations of a number of these modern versions of Austen’s works, I have concluded that in every successful Austen adaptation, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary, the most crucial element is retaining the main themes, the original intentions of the author, and hearts of the characters. In the case of the novel I would choose to rework for the screen, Northanger Abbey, the most vital, unalterable feature of the work is its satirical nature and the surprisingly affectionate tone that Austen employs in mocking Gothic novels.

In this present age of numberless spoofs, satires, and mocking caricatures, what better Austen work to reintroduce to the modern world than Northanger Abbey? In fact, the most important thing to keep in mind about Austen’s first novel is that it is, at its heart, a satire of the melodramatic, dread-infused, glamor-glazed Gothic novels of her time. These novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and Camilla by Fanny Burney, were all the rage when Austen first began writing Northanger Abbey in the 1790s, especially with girls in their teens and twenties. Their basic formula consisted of a stunningly beautiful, wonderfully talented, melodramatic heroine who stumbles on some sort of mystery, which builds and builds, along with the characters’ and the readers’ dread and anxiety, until some horrid secret is uncovered, and the young lady lives happily ever after. A modern equivalent of these novels, matching them in popularity and in macabre, could easily be found in today’s young adult vampire romance novels such as the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries. Austen pokes fun at the Gothic genre in several ways. In any modern-day adaptation of this novel, necessity would demand that these multifarious methods of satire be kept intact.

First, Austen appears to sarcastically rebut and contradict every stereotype present in Gothic novels with her characters and plot. For example, in the very beginning of the novel, Austen helpfully assures readers that her “heroine,” Catherine Morland, is by no means a standard Gothic protagonist. Her childhood is not, as most tragically-beautiful/beautifully-tragic leading ladies’ commonly are, marred by any tragedy or economic disadvantage (Austen 917). Neither is she blessed by virtue of her beauty or talent, described as “plain as any,” and “often inattentive, and occasionally stupid” (Austen 917). She is also decidedly middle-class—well-off in her own village, but when compared with the affluent Tilneys, her dowry definitely falls short (Austen 917, 1037). Thus Austen creates a perfect comedic star, one that continues to be timelessly amusing and universally relatable—an unremarkable, yet likable, teenage girl, with the perfect mixture of kindhearted guilelessness and unbridled imagination to land her in endless communication mishaps.

Interestingly enough, Austen also involves the very objects of her satire in the novel itself, reasoning that “if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another from whom can she expect protection and regard?” (Austen 929). Catherine shows a fervent admiration, bordering on obsession, with Gothic novels (Austen 931), which frequently contributes to an overactive imagination, with humiliating yet humorous consequences. I envision Catherine’s modern counterpart as a naive, wildly imaginative, yet still somewhat dim teenage girl obsessed with the Twilight series, taken by her wealthy grandparents (the Allens’ modern counterparts) to taste the glamorous side of New York City (the contemporary equivalent to Bath). However, it must be possible to preserve the soul of Catherine while enduring some major alterations to her character. As fun as it is to simply imagine the modern versions of every event, character, and object in the novel, such as replacing John Thorpe’s beloved “gig” with a flashy sports car and Mrs. Allen’s “most harmless delight” in gowns to a preoccupation with antiques and the Food Network, it is also important to take into consideration the context in which Austen was writing along with the context of our modern world, and adjust accordingly (Austen 934, 920). For example, although preserving Catherine’s naivete, poor judgement of character, and general haplessness would be crucial, as it causes much of the chaotic hilarity in the novel (such as her obliviousness, “with all the earnestness of truth,” to John Thorpe’s affections, her conviction that General Tilney murdered his wife, and her innocent acceptance of the artificial, outrageously flirtatious, gold-digging Isabella as a friend), some aspects of her character could be compromised in order to connect the work to its modern audience (Austen 984, 1006, 927).

Above all, Catherine must be the antithesis of a heroine; and the antithesis of Bella Swan, the heroine of the Twilight novels, would be highly independent, outspoken, tomboyish, and colorful. Thus, the juxtaposition of her character with the educated, wealthy, prim Tilneys would be even more hilarious, as it would inevitably result in even more social faux pas on the part of Catherine, especially given her wild suspicions about General Tilney; in the novel, that he murdered his wife, but perhaps in the modernized version, that he is a vampire (Austen 1006). This would in turn contribute to General Tilney’s growing suspicions that Catherine is not as high-class as John Thorpe would have him think, culminating in the horrifying reveal of her middle-class status and Catherine’s subsequent eviction from Northanger Abbey—perhaps in the modern remake, the Tilneys’ vacation home in Europe, an imposing medieval castle reminiscent (to Catherine at least) of a stereotypical vampires’ dwelling (Austen 993).

A second form of satire Austen employs is the overdone cliche. Rather than disproving or making fun of cliches, Austen takes them to their extreme to demonstrate their ridiculousness. The novel’s ending is a prime example of this strategy. The endings of Gothic novels were often highly convenient, often employing deus ex machina to ensure a happy ending for the heroine, and essentially wrapped everything up with a neat little bow (such as the ending of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which culminates in a Shakespeare comedy-esque double wedding) (Radcliffe 630). The ending to Northanger Abbey is no exception, and in fact somewhat overdoes this little cliche. A nameless, faceless, previously unseen young man appears out of the blue to marry Eleanor and thus ensure that Henry and Catherine receive General Tilney’s blessing. Austen asserts that this incredibly wealthy, immensely handsome gentleman, whose “unexpected accession to title and fortune” makes his marriage, and Henry’s, possible, is “to a precision the most charming young man in the world,” humorously adding that “any further definition of his merits must be unnecessary; the most charming young man in the world is instantly before the imagination of us all” (Austen 1039). By introducing such an obviously, unapologetically contrived character, Austen gives readers a helpful reminder that this plot is not intended to be first and foremost realistic (although a major theme of the novel is Catherine’s learning to discern reality from fiction, and that her morbid, Gothic-inspired fantasies are irrelevant in the real world). In a modern ending, absurd ending of the Twilight series could likewise be grossly overdone to mock its ridiculousness. Catherine would obviously wind up with Henry, and the other characters would be conveniently paired off as well; perhaps landing Eleanor Tilney with James Morland, Isabella with Captain Tilney, and John Thorpe creepily obsessed with Catherine’s child, as Twilight’s spurned lover, Jacob Black, infamously ends up.

However, it is also crucial to remember that although Northanger Abbey is satire, it is not an empty, slapstick spoof like so many we see today. Rather, Austen manages to poke good-natured fun at Gothic novels while still retaining a genuine, although occasionally exasperated, fondness for her characters, as well as an actual plot, though chaotic and humorously turgid. This reflects the way she feels about Gothic novels themselves; although she admits that their plots are often ridiculous and their characters silly, she also considers them “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” (Austen 929). Austen’s affection for these novels is evident in the way Henry and Catherine discuss them. Catherine adores them, and Henry is unashamedly fond of them himself, stating that “I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay it down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the entire time” (Austen 966). However, being the more educated of the two, Henry also readily mocks the novels’ sensational histrionics and campy suspense, such as in his teasing banter with Catherine on the way to the Abbey in which he, aware of her eagerness to stay at a place as Udolpho-esque as an abbey, dramatically weaves a scene of the type of “horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce,” complete with “an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before,” “a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St. Anthony,” and a candle which “suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness” (Austen 991-3). He is thoroughly amused by, but not patronizing or disparaging of, Catherine’s enthusiasm at his contrived story, and through his unpretentious maturity Austen’s point of view can be discerned. Like any true word enthusiast, Jane Austen loved a good story. And although the Gothic novels of her day fell far short of the timelessly relatable personalities, struggles, hopes, and dreams of Austen’s beloved characters, she still insists that they do make a good story. They serve their intended purpose—to electrify and to entertain their readers. And, in Austen’s opinion, that is nothing to be ashamed of. She laments the fact that, although novels provide readers the most “extensive and unaffected pleasure” of any other type of book, their readers are apologetic, abashed, and dismissive of their own enjoyment (Austen 929). Austen’s mindset can most certainly be applied to the young adult novels of today; their melodrama, absurd plots, and two-dimensional characters are endlessly ridiculed, but at the end of the day, they provide the most genuine pleasure and authentic entertainment of any media.

Another of Austen’s vital ideas in Northanger Abbey is portrayed in Catherine’s hilariously humiliating realization of the complete and utter absurdity of her dark suspicions, mortifyingly delivered by her crush, Henry Tilney. This is far more than a comedic moment—it reveals one of the most heartfelt messages of the novel. When Catherine comes crashing down to reality, “most grievously humbled” and “completely awakened” by the disgraceful nature of her folly, it not only represents her growing to maturity and beginning to develop discernment between fiction and reality; it is Austen’s statement of her real critique of Gothic novels: their tendency to create caricatures instead of characters (Austen 1012). In Gothic novels, there is the hero and there is the villain. The hero (or heroine) is typically delineated by physical beauty, a pure, kind heart, and wonderful talent; the villain, the polar opposite—dark, brooding, ugly, purely evil and a heartless brute. But Austen knew that these “unnatural and overdrawn” characters were, and are, virtually nonexistent in real life (Austen 1003). As Catherine soon realizes, “charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works . . . it was not in them perhaps that human nature . . . was to be looked for” (Austen 1013). People simply do not operate on a rigid dichotomy. Thus, General Tilney, though by all means “not perfectly amiable,” is not a murderer, a schemer, or an abuser; he is simply as complex as any human being is, not purely good and not purely bad (Austen 1013). And from this recognition of the world’s disappointing deficiency of pure evil, Catherine deduces that there must also be no pure good, and “she would not be surprised if even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, some slight imperfection might hereafter appear” (Austen 1013). This comprehension is vital, not only in writing, but in living. Real people are not black-and-white Gothic caricatures of heroes and villains, but a wonderfully, annoyingly, beautifully, confusingly complicated mesh of good and bad, light and dark, agreeable and disagreeable. If one lives in expectation that every agreeable person must be absolutely flawless, and every disagreeable person must be absolutely malicious, then not only will they be continually disappointed, they will fail to understand and empathize with many of their fellow human beings. This idea is wildly popular in modern literature, cinema, and television; from Wicked to Pocahontas to High School Musical, the “revolutionary” idea that a person cannot be defined by one characteristic proliferates in modern entertainment. This is yet another example of Austen’s being far ahead of her time, and yet another reason why Northanger Abbey is an especially fitting candidate for a modern remake.

One of the primary reasons that Northanger Abbey remained unpublished for so long is that, after Austen’s publisher held onto it for some time, Austen feared it had become dated. By 1816, when Austen bought the copyright back, the Gothic craze had simmered down substantially, and many of the clever references contained in the book would be lost to her audience. Her brother Henry, however, apparently disagreed, and published it posthumously in 1817 several months after Austen’s death. The reason why Jane Austen chose not to republish it is most likely also one of the principal reasons that it is one of the few Austen novels to never receive a modern adaptation, loose or otherwise, or any other such creative attempts at reintroducing it to an audience largely ignorant of the works it was intended to criticize. However, even without being widely versed in Gothic novels, Northanger Abbey is objectively appealing and quite hilarious. Austen’s characters are so true to life, so believable, that they remain relatable even though they were intended for an audience two hundred years ago. This is true for all her novels, but is particularly impressive in Northanger Abbey, considering that not only was it intended for an 18th century audience, but much of its humor relies on a familiarity with works that I, and most of my peers, have never encountered. Characters such as the Thorpes, however, we have all encountered—painfully synthetic flirts like Isabella and tiresome, vulgar braggarts like John continue to plague us to this day. We know and love adorably absent-minded old ladies like Mrs. Allen; beloved brothers like James Morland; kind and devoted friends like Eleanor Tilney; imposing, gruff fathers like General Tilney; and dashing, dreamy, intelligent men like Henry Tilney. These characters make Northanger Abbey relevant in a way that the Gothic novels it parodies never had a chance of being. We can all relate to Catherine’s ordinariness, her awkward crushes, her humiliating social slip-ups, her “guilty pleasure” in something society mocks, and her childish romanticization of everyday life. Life for all of us often does not live up to our expectations; so we, like Catherine, are left to fill in the gaps with whatever wild fantasies we have at our disposal. Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s way gently chiding us, yet amusedly encouraging us, in our escapist endeavors. It is a reminder that many of us need—to come to terms with reality, to realize the complexity of human character, but also to be unashamed of what we enjoy.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. London, 1817.
  • Jane Austen: Seven Novels, compiled by Barnes & Noble, Inc., Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2016, pp. 917-1040.
  • Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. G. G. and Robinson, 1794.
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