Posted on 10/16/12 10:11 PM
The Nineteenth Century Equivalent of Slash Fiction
This is in fact the second version of this in the library's collection, which is why we're getting to it so late. I didn't want to do two at once, after all. However, I did not review the first one at all, and that isn't because it isn't in the system, which I didn't know until today. No, it's because the other one was so very bad that I turned it off. For some reason, IMDb does persist in telling us where else the costumes of things were used, but the costumes from that one would have stood out here as not being anywhere near as good. The sets were fine. The filming was that old BBC style, where it was clear that they used different cameras inside and out. What finally made me turn it off, however, was that the music was both bad and anachronistic. It sounded, in short, like the Soft Jazz station I listened to for a couple of years of my childhood, and that isn't Jane Austen at all.
Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) is a girl of no particular fortune. Her parents (Gerry O'Brien and Julia Dearden) have a whole brood of children, none of whom are particularly attractive. But Catherine, out of all probability, grows to be something like pretty. She is also addicted to reading the dreadful gothic novels so popular at the time. She is invited to Bath by family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Desmond Barrit and Sylvestra Le Touzel), who have no children of their own. Catherine is thrust into society, where she befriends first Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) and then Eleanor (Catherine Walker) and Henry (JJ Feild) Tilney. Their father, General Tilney (Liam Cunningham), invites Catherine to come stay with them in the family home, Northanger Abbey. It is a large, foreboding building, and the general is so unpleasant a person and Catherine so obsessed with her novels that she immediately decides that it is haunted and the general killed his late wife.
As with all Austen, the important thing to keep track of is who has money. I must admit that I missed some of it, and so some of the plot was a bit confusing to me until I got it all figured out again. Yes, her novels are romances, but they are very much of their time for all that. Jane Austen was concerned with Class, that most British of subjects. In American fiction of the same general ilk, not that there really was such a thing at the time, the servant-girl might conceivably rise in station and marry the heir of the manor. That does not happen in Austen; like as not, the servants don't even get names most of the time. The least a heroine can be is impoverished but genteel; presumably, the family had money somewhere previous, and there is a reason it does not anymore at the time the story starts. This is only reasonable, given when and where she was writing, but it is the one thing I find most tedious about Austen, this concern of who has how much money a year.
Still, the story reminds us, it could be worse. Catherine is completely willing to believe that Northanger Abbey is haunted, when Henry implies ominously that it has its secrets, but at least she is able to draw the line at believing that there are vampires. She has been reading so much of the wrong kind of fiction that she has suffered from a certain kind of rot of the imagination. For better or worse, at least the kind of stories that Jane Austen wrote were grounded in reality. Oh, there are plenty of problems with believing too much in them; you don't want to hear my rant about what, exactly, is wrong with the kind of books popular among girls. (Seriously--is there any girl in the last thirty years who didn't have a group of friends on a V. C. Andrews kick at one point or another?) Indeed, arguably Catherine would have been more prepared for life if she'd read Austen; she would have known then how serious her lack of a fortune was in certain circles. Probably how to tell if she was in one, too.
In the end, Catherine's flaw is only partially how many gothic novels she reads. Part of the problem is that her parents, for whatever reason, sheltered her from reality. No wonder those novels were so interesting to her; it was better than another afternoon of playing cricket (or baseball, apparently) with her siblings. I do so hope that Catherine was able to provide those younger siblings with a little grounding in reality, whether they read novels or not. I have not, I confess, read much Austen. It's on my list, but my list of books to watch is actually longer than my list of movies to read, and neither list ever gets any shorter. And even I am not mad enough to try a book project akin to the movie project that's got me watching Northanger Abbey in the first place. It's all those afternoons wasted reading V. C. Andrews, I guess. Why couldn't my friends have been obsessed with Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters instead? Though I suppose someone might have expected me to finish Wuthering Heights in that case.