Truth in trifles. Rereading Jane Austen

IN a brief preface to ``Northanger Abbey,'' Jane Austen notes that 13 years have elapsed since the novel's completion in 1803, and she speculates, not without a frisson of frustration, why ``a bookseller should think it worthwhile to purchase what he did not think it worthwhile to publish.'' She then goes on to apologize to the public for ``those parts of the work which 13 years have made comparatively obsolete ... during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.''

How ironic seem those words now. Despite the ``changes'' to which she alludes, ``Northanger Abbey,'' Austen's glittering, prismatic satire of the Gothic romances that were so much in vogue around the turn of the century was finally published posthumously in 1818. And despite its topical focus, the novel has preserved in our century both its charm and status among Austen's more celebrated classics, such as ``Pride and Prejudice'' and ``Emma.'' In light of the revival of interest and startling popularity of historical romances that burgeoned in the 1960s and continued into this decade, the novel seems even less dated.

The novel copies the formula of the Gothic romance with a plot that concerns the love of an innocent young heroine, Catherine Morland, for a handsome, mysterious hero, Henry Tilney, a clergyman whose ancestral home is, of course, an abbey.

Catherine meets Henry while taking the waters at Bath for six weeks with an elderly couple who are friends of her family. This is the first time Catherine has ventured away from the protection of her family and her provincial village, and although Bath with its inane social rituals and conventions is the epitome of a hermetic, artificial society, to Catherine it is the world laid bare.

And in a sense it is, for it is at Bath that Catherine not only falls in love for the first time but also confronts the grim reality of social vice, personified by her effusively loyal but perversely duplicitous friend, Isabella Thorpe.

Both Catherine and Isabella are steeped in the heady brew of Gothic romances and wallow in discussions of lurid tales of horror and the supernatural in which vulnerable virgins wander about medieval ruins or haunted castles in pursuit of or in flight from their malevolent masters. Their professed favorite is Ann Radcliffe's ``The Mysteries of Udolpho,'' which seems for Catherine at least to be her primer on the world.

These novels, unleavened by experience or information (Catherine admits an aversion to history and information), have inspired a gaggle of romantic misconceptions and expectations about love. When confronted with the ``real thing,'' Catherine nearly destroys it with her perfervid imaginings about Henry, who, though far from dull, is about as sinister as a loaf of bread; Henry's father who, she convinces herself, either murdered his late wife or incarcerated her in the abbey; and the abbey itself, which is about as medieval in appearance and menacing in atmosphere as your average motor lodge.

Naive to the point of obtuseness, Catherine is the perfect foil for all this nonsense, and Austen clearly enjoys poking gentle fun at her as well as the literary genre. But Austen also makes the more serious point that all these wild notions have blinded her to the real moral turpitude that surrounds her.

Catherine's awakening is not only to a more realistic and even prosaic understanding of love but also to a disillusioned view of human nature and social conventions. It slowly dawns on Catherine, and I mean slowly, that ``romantic'' Isabella, as magnificent a monster of hypocrisy and deceit as ever walked a Moli`ere stage, is a conniving opportunist who is bent on marrying for money and doesn't care whom she exploits in the process, even it it's Catherine and her brother.

Catherine even sees her own prospects of marrying Henry jeopardized by his father's disappointment at her ``being less rich than he supposed her to be.'' Austen sardonically implies that had not Henry's sister married well financially, the father never would have given his consent to Henry's less lucrative choice.

We might tend to look down on these considerations as archaic, but at a time when prospective two-career couples are signing prenuptial agreements and anticipating the cost of sending prospective progeny to college, it is perhaps naive to assume that they are not also looking at the size of paychecks and future inheritances.

Austen has a matchless gift for perceiving truth in trifles and the meaning in the mundane. Her social observations, which she makes in a witty, epigrammatic style to which Wilde, Shaw, Waugh, and even Dorothy Parker are perhaps more indebted than we realize, extend beyond the ephemeral manners and mores of the period to a realm of psychological perspicacity that is timeless.

Consider, ``Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim,'' or her description of a conversation between two women ``in which there was scarcely any exchange of opinion and not often any resemblance of subject, for Mrs. Thorpe talked chiefly of her children and Mrs. Allen of her gowns.''

Austen once described herself as a miniaturist, and the comparison is apt, for in the intricate, exquisitely drawn social tableaux of Northanger Abbey, she seems to telescope the endless panorama of human folly.

Diana Loercher Pazicky is a free-lance writer.

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