Northanger Abbey: Part 1 (The Weird One)

Northanger Abbey was written by Jane Austen some time around 1798 or 1799 and sold to a publisher in 1803 under the title of Susan. She purchased it back a few years later. After her death, her brother, Henry, had it published under it’s current title in 1817. It would surprise some people to find out it’s a novel I find quite enjoyable because it’s so silly and because it’s poking fun at the Gothic Romance novels of Austen’s youth. When I first read this novel, I didn’t quite understand how truly funny it was until I read the works of Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and Maria Edgeworth. Reading the novelists who wrote the Gothic romances referenced by Austen in this novel (and in a few of her other novels) helps me understand her better as a writer. Jane isn’t making fun of these writers as paying homage to them. They clearly inspired her to pursue writing and she, in turn, wrote a funny, brilliant comedic love letter showing  her appreciation for how engaging their works are. I do believe we would have a better understanding of this novel (and more adaptations) if the writers whose works inspired this tale were finally adapted as well. Personally, I would love to see Romance of the Forest or The Italian (both by Radcliffe) adapted. There’s only so many times we can adapt Dracula and yet no one wants to adapt The Monk, even though it deals with sorcery, lust, sex, murder and mayhem (it’s really quite good). So, it’s quite disappointing that there’s been only two adaptations of Northanger Abbey.

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Katherine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland.

This version is from 1987 and was adapted by Maggie Wadey. I refer to it as the Weird version and you will soon realize why. I own it because it comes as part of the Classic Jane Austen DVD collection (of which the 1971 Persuasion I recommended is part of). It starts off fairly pleasantly with Catherine daydreaming with a book in her hand, which I frankly don’t mind. Considering the novel is about a girl who confuses real life with the world of Gothic novels, it makes complete sense to start off that way. I don’t particularly care for her hair being down (it becomes an ongoing issue throughout the adaptation), but she looks sweet, young, innocent. The weirdness starts right off with the unusual choice of techno beats laced with orchestral music reminiscent of 1985’s Legend (so I think it may have inspired the musical score for this).

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One of the “daydreams.”

As for the daydream, and subsequent daydreams, I think they are meant to be erotic in nature. Sort of like a sexual awakening. Catherine features in them and is usually in a bedsheet or a voluminous gown being threatened with rape, being kidnapped, or menaced in some way. Some of them are supposedly based on drawings from the Gothic novels she is reading, but the drawings date from the Victorian Era (I looked them up) because the novels she would have been able to read at that time did not have illustrations (so, bad historical research guys). Also, she fantasizes about everyone. And I do mean everyone-from Henry Tilney to his dad to John Thorpe. It’s just bizarre in a Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe sort of way (but without the awesome Vincent Price).

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Googie Withers as Mrs. Allen.

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Isabella Thorpe (Cassie Stuart) and Catherine at a Ball.

I find it hard to pinpoint the style of the dresses or the time frame being used because of the issue of wandering waistlines and mysterious fullness. Waistlines in this version go from under the bust to a few inches below bust and have practically no fullness in front to being very full in front. So I am unsure if this is taking place around 1800 (when round gowns would have been worn) or around 1817 (when the novel was published) and fullness would have been confined to the sides and the back. I feel that many of the gowns were probably pulled from stock and adjustments were made to fit the actresses with little regard to whether the gowns were from the same time period or not, which really angers me as a Costume Designer and as a Historian. I can understand giving a five year time frame when pulling costumes (because I’ve done that), but twenty years is ridiculous and should be chastised. Mrs. Allen is a wealthy woman and would not be wearing fashions that out of date. Mrs. Thorpe, being a widow, would wear a dress about 5 years out of date (but perhaps has been altered and refreshed with new ribbons). That is the difference between a designer whose done a half-assed job and one whose done the research and understands the complexity of the social structure of the time period.

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John Thorpe (Jonathan Coy) and Catherine in Bath.

Now, I do like the very Dandy outfit they have John Thorpe in (see above) at one point because it is so ridiculous and loud. It’s hideous and fits his personality. He’s been written in this version to be a bit like a Gothic villain. He sexually appraises Catherine’s body upon first meeting her and considers her to be his possession. He does act this away in the novel, but having him act even more like the archetypal villain, being even more devious with his sister, Isabella (making her the female counterpart) plays off on this idea of real life mimicking one of Catherine’s Gothic stories. In the novel, he and Isabella go to great lengths to sabotage Catherine’s friendship with the Tilneys and that isn’t really shown here. It would have been a good use considering they are setting up these siblings as the bad guys in this real life Gothic tale-only to cut short their time to waste it on the creation of a new character for who knows why. It was a disappointment.

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Why bonnets in the bath?

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And food?

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And men?!

Now for the really, completely weird bath scene. In the novel, Catherine is introduced to Elinor Tilney in the Pump Room. This got moved to a bath. I have no idea why this occurred. First, why are they wearing bonnets? No really, I want to know who believes wearing hats in a warm, steamy environment where silk, velvet, buckram, fur, and feathers coming into contact with WATER is a good idea? Not just any water, freaking MINERAL WATER that smells of SULFUR! Rotten Eggs! Awesome! Which brings us to the next question of the plates of pastries hanging about the necks of the ladies. Now, in my twenty years of research, women did have an area in Bath to bathe in the waters. It was called the Queen’s  Room. They were provided with a linen shift (think oversized nightgown), not the jumper they are wearing here. They would not wear a bonnet and would definitely not be eating in the bath. Hygiene issues, crumbs, plus wrinkly skin smelling of sulfur-gross. And there would DEFINITELY not be MEN mixed in with the LADIES! What is the point of this scene? Besides some sexual titillation of seeing actress in wet garments, there is no point to this. I understand that there is this fascination with sex. I get it. We are sexual creatures by nature. But for God’s sake, don’t put sex into Austen when there isn’t any. She would have cringed over such a scene and I cringe for her. It’s tasteless and has nothing to do with the story.

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Henry Tilney (Peter Firth)

Peter Firth isn’t a bad Henry Tilney. His hair is terrible. It’s too short and I think if it were longer, he’d look better as a Regency gentleman. There’s a scene when he’s on the lake with his sister and Catherine and he’s flirting with Catherine. It’s the most awkward flirtation I’ve witnessed on film. It’s sexually awkward and I’m not sure if it’s meant to be that way. He’s given quotes by Jane Austen herself to spout, which is odd. He gives a good performance. At one point, he’s singing with the daughter of a made up character, which is a nice scene, but pointless. Is it meant to show us (the audience) the actor’s talents at singing, or that the character has more than one lady he’s flirting with?

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Elaine Ives-Cameron as the Marchioness.

This brings us to the character that was created for this version-the Marchioness, or as I like to call her, the General’s Goth Girlfriend. She appears at one point in Bath, then shows up again at the abbey along with her two daughters and a black boy, who is also her servant. She is supposedly to be a widow who’s husband was guillotined the previous year in France, which would have taken place during the Reign of Terror (1793-1795), which gives us a year of 1796 and the fashions still don’t fit that at all. I don’t understand why 15-20 minutes of time was devoted to this character at all when that time could have been used on the Thorpe siblings instead. She has no purpose in this version. She doesn’t exist in the novel. There is zero justification for the creation of this character and her two daughters. Plus, she just adds another layer of weirdness to this whole thing.

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Catherine looking very Gothic.

Now, there are a few positive things about this version I should point out. They show men using snuff (finely cut tobacco they shoved up their noses). Men did use it and carried it around in little cases. Having Henry carry around a little case then share it with his older brother is a nice touch. Showing people being carried around in Bath Chairs (or Sedan Chairs) in the background outside (and even inside buildings) is also a fairly nice touch. People forget that besides walking and carriages, sedan chairs were also available for hire in Bath. And while the little boy was shown as a servant to the Goth Girlfriend, it does show a person of color existing in England in the late 18th-19th Century. Yes, we existed in England folks. Believe it or not, black men served in the Royal Navy and Army during the Napoleonic Wars. They did a good job with mentioning that people could lose fortunes with gambling (even though that isn’t an issue in the novel, it did happen to many historically).

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Northanger Abbey

Problems of a historical nature (besides ones already addressed): at one point, Catherine is surprised to see a pet Canary. Apparently never having seen one before. Now, being the inquisitive soul that I am, I had to then spend 40 minutes researching the history of Canaries only to find out that the breeding of canaries started in Spain in the 1500s. By the late 1700s, it was fairly common to purchase canaries as they were being breed in Italy, Spain, Holland, Russia, England, Switzerland Germany, France and Elba (yes, that Island Bonaparte ended up at). So, I am quite at a loss as to why a bird that was being sold and seen in the homes of most middle to upper class people (such as the Allens) would be a surprise to Catherine considering people also had PARROTS as pets at this time. The other issue is the makeup. While women did wear makeup during the Regency, the makeup being worn in this version is very much theatrical style makeup meant for the stage and not for realism. It’s too harsh for characters such as Mrs. Allen and too comical in the case of the Marchioness. Wigs on the gentlemen ranged from Georgian styled powdered to underpowered to “Beetovhan” to Doc Brown. Not all the older gentlemen would wear wigs. Just because some would doesn’t mean all would. And for a town (Bath) that is notorious for being a Naval town, not one BLUE coat was spotted. Many red coats (Army) were seen, which is fine given General Tilney and his son, the Captain, wear red for Army, but this is Bath. Bath is a Naval town. If this is set after 1815, this would be awash is everything Lord Nelson. Even if this is before then, Bath was popular with the Royal Navy and to not see any of that is simply wrong.

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A Sedan Chair-Historic UK

Finally, Catherine burns a book. Books were expensive back then. She comes from a family of ten children. That book cost money and was most likely borrowed. Burning it was WRONG.

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Awkward Flirting. Oh well.