I happened to catch the end of the movie adaptation of Northanger Abbey a year or two ago, in which The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe was mentioned. I am a big fan of Jane Austen’s, so Northanger Abbey had already been on my to-read list for a while, but if it was going to poke fun at Radcliffe’s book, I wanted to be in on the joke. Of course, reading a 672 pages novel only to better enjoy a 254 pages novel might seem a bit excessive to some but, I guess it testifies to how much I love Jane Austen’s wit.
This novel was one of the first book written by a woman for women–it had a huge success in its time and was accordingly disdained by men who thought it was too sentimental. I would have loved to contradict them, but sadly… it really is excessively sentimental.
People keep shedding tears at the sight of gorgeous landscapes, of which there were too many descriptions. I do love a good landscape description, I loved Tolkien’s, but here they were too numerous, too much alike and too little important to the story to hold my interest.
The characters were not very believable. They made me think more of Molière’s caricatured characters than actual human beings, without being as funny or satirical. There were excessive backstories for characters who weren’t even very important, which contributed to the excessive sentimentality. Also… the main character is arguably a Mary Sue.
The writing style of the writer was a bit wordy and contained with too many useless commas. I do love commas, but one every five words or so is too much. Seriously, I’d love to know the actual comma per sentence ratio, it must be extraordinarily above average. Behold the following extract:
With some difficulty, Annette led her to the bed, which Emily examined with an eager, frenzied eye, before she lay down, and then, pointing, turned with shuddering emotion, to Annette, who, now more terrified, went towards the door, that she might bring one of the female servants to pass the night with them; but Emily, observing her going, called her by name, and then in the naturally soft and plaintive tone of her voice, begged, that she, too, would not forsake her.
This sentence is 82 words long and contains 19 commas and one semicolon. It could have been elegant, but as it is, I find it exhausting.
However, the book is not all bad: the plot is quite interesting. It is a hybrid between a mystery novel and a romance novel, all very gothic and angsty. The main character is depressed, scared, horrified or crying most of the time. But when not interrupted by landscape descriptions, it still kept me wanting to turn the page and see what happens next. There are also a few good themes and associated morals, including a strong warning against superstitions, which I thought was somewhat avant-garde for the late 18th century.
In conclusion, while I do think there are some excellent elements in this book, I can also understand why it’s only ever mentioned nowadays as context for Northanger Abbey. I’m glad I read it because it does make Northanger Abbey funnier than it would have been otherwise, but I’m also glad to be done with it.
Who would I recommend this to? Crazy fans of Jane Austen’s like myself, writers (alongside Northanger Abbey) and maybe history lovers.