This appears to be a Jane Austen year for me and I can't say I'm unhappy about that at all! My first time reads of her works actually mirror almost exactly my previous reads. I found S&S meh and adored P&P. Now, I adore Persuasion and find Northanger Abbey meh. At least there's consistency.
There were many things I liked about this novel, the first being its satirizing of the Gothic romances that were popular at the time. Hidden histories, plots and schemes, romantic heroines, and mysteries galore: sensationalism to the extreme. That's not to say they weren't enjoyable and Austen clearly had a deep working knowledge of them - research I'm sure - but there were many people who derided them and calling them not respectable reading, particularly for young ladies. If I remember correctly, Mary Bennett's reading material Fordryce's Sermons denounced novels. Here, Austen takes all the tropes of the genre and turns them on their head. Her heroine is not an extraordinary beauty who though poor, through happenstance gains money or favor. She does not face every hardship with strong courage and she doesn't get rewarded for her snooping! Instead, Catherine is human: not always making the wisest decisions and sometimes allows her imagination to run away with her.
The other part I enjoyed is twofold: first how Austen takes a stand for novels and two the narration. It takes a great author to satirize a genre and in the same breath argue the positives of reading novels. Her arguments, from both sides, remind me of those used to decry and acclaim YA today.
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. ... Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers; and while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior...are eulogiesed by a thousand pens, there seems almost a genral wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the preformances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.
As for the narration, it felt as if Austen were reciting the tale to you in person. Her "voice" was a great addition to the story.
However, all this didn't make up for some glaring issues with the book. The major one was the characters. I might argue the setting and satire overwhelms them - they do - but they are able to because there's simply not much there. The only well-formed characters in the story are the villains: a brother sister duo who managed to rise high on my Austen's villain's list. He is a manipulative, lying, scumbag and she almost rivals Lucy Steele in my amount of loathing! But what of our main characters Catherine Moreland and Henry Tilney? They are...good people, she's young, and allows her imagination to run away with her while he has a family living close by the Abbey and is kind and well read. But we learn little of them and are given no time to care for them. I like the characters of S&S, it's the story set up I dislike, while here it's the opposite. I didn't in the end particularly like them even!
So in the end, what can I say? I'd read this again as I love what she was trying to do but I can't say I'm excited to visit Catherine and Henry again!
I did, however, rather like Miss Tilney.
I'll leave you with another quote about novels.
“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”; or, in short, 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.