So I haven’t actually got around to starting my reading. I know, I know, three days in, and I haven’t hung out with Catherine Morland yet. But in my defense, I’ve done so before. Repeatedly.
Northanger isn’t my favourite of Austen’s novels – that honour is shared between Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion, I think. But really, they’re all awfully close. I can only choose one or another as favourite from a distance, you know, when they’re lined up on the bookshelf in my bedroom, and I haven’t read them in a while. But while I’m reading, the one I’ve got in the works is my favourite for that moment. So let me amend that statement: Northanger is my favourite – for right now. Even though Catherine is a bit young, and more than a bit silly. Or she tries to be, but not all that successfully. And that’s what makes her such an excellent heroine: her silliness is almost entirely due to her age. We’re all silly when we’re teenagers (well, okay, I was. I won’t presume to speak for you – you were probably a fount of wisdom and maturity at seventeen. Yey for you). Catherine is no sillier than most, and what’s more, her innate common sense just keeps rearing its head and making its voice heard. By the end of the book, it’s taken over altogether, and Catherine gets her Happily Ever After, even with a couple of years of teenagehood left.
Incidentally, that’s one of the things I find fascinating about reading Austen: the ages of the characters, and what they mean. Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood and Fanny Price are all of seventeen at the beginning of their stories – but unlike today’s high school girls, these are young women. In spite of some residual teenage silliness, they’re quite capable of entering a life-long relationship, becoming homemakers and mothers. Henry Tilney is twenty-four to her eighteen when he and Catherine hook up. Today we’d look slightly askance at a girl of eighteen going out with a young man of twenty-four – a bit of a cradle-snatching feel to that, wouldn’t you say? Because it would be just that, a girl of eighteen and a man of twenty-four. But Regency ladies did grow up by eighteen. Catherine and Henry, in today’s ages, are probably more like twenty-four and twenty-eight or so. Age was different in Ye Olden Dayse. As was money, but that’s a topic for another day.