Wed 24 Apr

Northanger Abbey ‘a writers note’

Zoe Cooper has adapted Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey in this bold new reimagining staged at Theatre by the Lake in 2024, a co-production with Orange Tree Theatre, Octagon Theatre Bolton and Stephen Joseph Theatre.

‘There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist.. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “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…”’ Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I first read Northanger Abbey at nineteen, at roughly the same age Catherine Morland is when she goes to Bath. I was on my second attempt at going to University and I felt very out of place, awkward and grubby in the posh University town I found myself in. It had turrets and quads. It was full of people who knew which cutlery to use at a formal dinner and what a quad was. Who couldn’t wait to go to actual balls and who had the right sort of frocks to wear to said actual balls. And who often said cutting things to me in tutorials which I only realised long after the event HAD been cutting, often while walking across what turned out to be a quad. And getting shooed off the grass.

I was there to read English Literature and the books we were tasked with debating in those tutorials were generally very male, very white, and very heterosexual, and also, not unrelatedly, Very Important. I’m actually not quite sure how Northanger Abbey made it onto one of those reading lists printed on orange paper and shoved into what I found out were called pigeonholes. Perhaps we grazed past Austen on our way to other maler, more Important writers. I do have a vague memory of someone in a gown lecturing us on how it was a satire on (silly female) gothic novels. And that was why it was quite clever. Although, I am sure he went on to say, not as clever as if it had been written by and was about men.

‘Northanger Abbey is absolutely a book about invention. It revels in layers of fictionality, of  imagination. I have loved spending time in it again. I will have a hard time leaving it.’

But in any case, I felt instantly at home in that weird, lumpy gothic first novel. It was about a girl who loved books and had a big imagination and whose love of books and imagining brought her to a city where she felt out of place and awkward and othered. But also over excited and often quite badly behaved. And latterly, how that same imagination got her into lots of quite cringey and awkward scrapes which were a bit spooky. But not too spooky, thank-goodness, as I was (and am) very much a scaredy cat and was dodging reading anything properly gothic or spooky at the time – not good to have to walk past turrets after reading about ghosts.

I liked that the very flawed heroine was a bookworm who thought herself into a series of fictional realities. How those fictional realities started to fight actual reality (reality-reality, if you will…). It reminded me of how I used to love being devoured by books before I learned to debate them. How I was able to live inside them. As Catherine says of a book at one point…

‘“Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”’

There was another reason I liked it too and that reason was a bit more secret. It felt a little bit naughty: It had a friendship in it I thought I recognised. The passages that described the quick and quickly growing friendship between Catherine and Isabella felt familiar: ‘Here Catherine and Isabella, arm in arm, again tasted the sweets of friendship in an unreserved conversation; – they talked much, and with much enjoyment…They passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness, that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian names.’

At one point another (rival?) friend is described by Isabella as: ‘“…netting herself the sweetest cloak you can conceive. I think her as beautiful as an angel, and I am so vexed with the men for not admiring her! I scold them all amazingly about it!…Yes, that I do. There is nothing I would not do for those people who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not in my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong.”’

And finally, that moment in all normal platonic friendship when one friend exclaims to the other:

‘“I am determined at all events to be dressed exactly like you.”’

In contrast the relationship between Catherine and Henry felt less romantic to me, less charged, less hormonal, although still full of love. The sadness in Henry and the transgenes of his knowing a lot about women’s dresses and being very close to his sister interested me. It felt and feels like an echo of the sort of friendship that can exist today between a mouthy messy woman and a gentle man…but which is rarely to be found between the covers of books or in films or TV shows for that matter.

“I do think that a lot of queer readers will have had versions of this experience of reading.”

The moments when we think we have found versions of ourselves in texts we have been excluded from, either by the writer, or (more often) by other readers who tell us how to read those books, what is there and what most definitely is not.

I am thirty-nine now, I’m married to a woman and I am a mother myself. And I find myself sometimes tasked with standing in front of students, telling them what to think about books and plays. What is to be found there and what is not. And my relationship with Catherine Morland has changed. I feel very protective of her, and the mistakes she makes. The person I think she is. But it still feels a bit naughty to be able to see those versions of myself and my friends at nineteen and twenty in this now widely accepted Very Important writer’s work. I am delighted that Jane has made her way very belatedly into the literary canon, but she must feel quite wobbly about being there and I feel wary of doing anything that might draw attention to the otherness I find in her writing. The bits of her that don’t quite seem to fit the narratives people have created around her and for her.

However, I think the permission to find those other stories in her books is in what she writes. At one point Catherine dismisses books of history: ‘“I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books”’

Northanger Abbey is absolutely a book about invention. It revels in layers of fictionality, of  imagination. I have loved spending time in it again. I will have a hard time leaving it.

Zoe Cooper, December 2023