Like many people, I find Northanger Abbey the least interesting of Jane Austen’s big six novels and the one that has proved most resistant to successful television and movie adaptations. Austen did not publish the novel herself—it appeared posthumously—and one wonders whether she was holding off because it didn’t live up to her high standards. Austen is noteworthy for the depth of her heroines, and Catherine Morland is in danger of being little more than a vehicle through which Austen satirizes the gothic novel.
That being said, the 2007 Masterpiece Theater version, which I watched for the first time yesterday, doesn’t do a bad job with this interesting work. The director has focused on a submerged theme in the novel and elevated it through adding dialogue that does not and could not have appeared in the Austen text.
The novel, as you probably know, is about an avid reader of Ann Radcliffe gothics. (Radcliffe was the Anne Rice, Stephen King, or J. K. Rowling of her day.) Because Catherine sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between fiction and real life, however, she commits a serious faux pas by suspecting hero Henry Tilney’s father, General Tilney, of having murdered his wife. Henry remains in love with her anyway, however, and she grows out of her adolescent love of gothics to become a responsible young woman. They marry and live happily ever after.
For a long while, scholars saw the novel as little more than a maturation drama. Feminist criticism, however, made us aware that General Tilney, while not a conventional gothic villain, nevertheless has some of the attributes of one. In Madwoman in the Attic, for instance, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert note that the laundry list that Catherine thinks is a dark clue is indeed a dark clue—not of a woman chained in a dungeon but of women’s domestic oppression. In another wonderfully titled work, Loving with a Vengeance, Tania Modleski notes that it was women’s social powerlessness that bred the paranoia that attracted women to gothic romances. If one feels metaphorically imprisoned, then one seeks out stories of women actually imprisoned. It makes sense that Catherine would see Tilney as a gothic tyrant because he is, indeed, a tyrant.
In the Masterpiece Theater version, we have Henry Tilney explicitly talking about his father’s vampiric tendencies and telling Catherine that, although she was wrong in thinking him a murderer, her instincts were otherwise right: his father did indeed sap life out of his wife. This discussion is not to be found in the book because Austen is not this kind of overt feminist.
On another matter, Austen also doesn’t have Isabella Thorpe pulling a Lydia Bennet and actually sleeping with the older Tilney brother. But that variation worked for me as well as the vampire references. I see film adaptations of novels as theatrical interpretations of plays and am willing to allow changes as long as sufficient respect is accorded to the original text.
This is one reason why I am so critical of Patricia Rozema’s film version of Mansfield Park, which I have written about here. Rozema’s mistake is that she doesn’t think that Fanny Price is an interesting enough heroine and so makes her more of an Elizabeth Bennet figure, thereby missing out on Fanny’s depth.
Luckily, the recent version of Northanger Abbey doesn’t think that it has to correct Jane Austen. Just accentuate one of her concerns.