1 & 2: Northanger Abbey and If I Were You

No matter how much I loved my degree – and I really did – there’s no getting around the fact that it got in the way of two sorts of reading which I always enjoyed. The first was reading non-fiction for general interest; the energy required for intellectually challenging reading was more or less (though not entirely) directed at philosophy. The second was the more obvious complaint, beloved of humanities students: fiction for pleasure.

While I’m trying to remedy the first by digging in to some serious works, the second has inspired a real challenge to myself. In one year, I intend to read three hundred and sixty-five novels or novel-equivalents (that means sufficiently substantial collections of short stories count). The mathematically-minded among you will realise, of course, that this works out to one book per day.

I know I can read a book in a day – indeed, the challenge sprang from my realising that a PG Wodehouse novel didn’t take much more than the one-hour train to London. The question is whether I can keep that average up for an entire year. The rules are as follows: as well as amassing a total of 365 in a year’s time from now, I also have to keep up an average of seven per week. This will prevent me from doing two weeks’ reading in a single sitting, something which I reckon I could manage if provided with enough tea. I’m allowed to revisit books, but no book may count twice in the final reckoning. I decide what counts, though I’ll try to be reasonable. Don’t expect War and Peace to feature. Poetry (even epics like Paradise Lost) doesn’t count. The deadline is midnight on the morning of Monday 18 September 2017. For my own ease, my weeks begin on Mondays. [Boxing Day 2016 update: this seven-per-week restriction was quickly jettisoned as unhelpful. I now just keep an eye on the moving target and stay as up-to-date as I can.]

My first novel is a revisiting of Northanger Abbey. I adore this book. It was Austen’s first novel, and remained unpublished until after her death, when it and Persuasion were published together. There is no description of Northanger Abbey other than to say that it is a reader’s novel, a novel-lover’s novel. It is self-consciously a novel, from the very beginning (“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine,” Austen first tells us, and continues in her opening pages to sketch all the ways in which her heroine “fell miserably short of true heroic height”). Austen’s clear delight in demonstrating how far the Morland family are from the proper concerns of the families of heroines – not once, she observes in affected horror, do they warn their daughter against noblemen and baronets – serves chiefly to remind us what it is that we are reading. Then there is the early polemic; Austen as reader and novelist defends novels as having “only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them” and decries fellow novelists whose heroines despise novels; and later, in the mouth of Henry Tilney, she declares: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.” (I might just have found a tagline for this blog…)

Other than that, there is, of course, the plot. I’ll not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it (although shame on you); suffice it to say that, once past the halfway mark, it becomes clear that our heroine has read one too many novels herself; her nature, ingenuous, credulous and good-natured to a fault – and revealed particularly in her interactions with John Thorpe, braggart extraordinaire, which alone would be worth the price of admission – betrays her. Catherine’s knowledge of the world is drawn entirely from the realm of fiction. By the time she is at the Abbey and thinks “how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicion” which crosses her mind, we know her well enough to know she means literary examples, and that she does not have a clear sense of that distinction.

And then we have Austenian wit, sparkling and fresh. She delights in the careful construction of the story, and of the characters; in the teasing dialogue, promised and delivered by Henry Tilney on the grounds that “nothing advances intimacy so much”, which in character if not content is echoed by romantic comedy everywhere; in the playful narration, already so arch and wry it almost hurts. “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune to know anything, should conceal it as well as she can,” we are told. Fortunately, however, some men are so intelligent that they do not need a woman to display actual imbecility in order to find her attractive; mere ignorance is quite sufficient. “An excellent satire on modern language!” says Tilney in congratulation to Catherine’s “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.” Her satire may be accidental, but Austen’s is not; people say what they do not mean and mean what they do not say, and characters avow with one breath what they reject with the next. A deathtrap of a coach becomes safer than one’s own bed at a word, and a single speech introduces a surprise visit and fixes it for quarter to one on Wednesday. “Why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?” The genius of the author mocks Catherine and Henry and the writers of histories and the reader with no more venom than Henry displays as he delights in wrong-footing his sister and Miss Morland. Austen’s later wit may be more refined, gentle, mature; here we have a novel, a witty novel, unashamedly a novel, whose characters luxuriate in their wit as only characters, who know that everything will come right in the end, can do. Catherine Morland’s mistake is not thinking that she is in a novel, or that her world obeys the rules that novels do. That is all true. She simply got the genre wrong.

This novel is a love-letter to the medium and, like all the best love-letters, it is impossible to read it without falling in love with the subject all over again.

Novel number two is PG Wodehouse’s If I Were You. My father described this to me, as I began to absorb the opening pages this evening, as Wodehouse’s worst novel, and while it has good lines and some recognisable (and, indeed, excellent) Wodehousian characters, it certainly lacks whatever it is that characterises the truly vintage efforts of old Pelham Grenville. The plot, promising though it initially appears, never really comes together in any very satisfactory way, and the strands are not tied off properly. There’s one rather jarring discontinuity (call it what it is: an admittedly minor plot-hole) which contributes to the feeling that Wodehouse’s fabled sweat-of-the-brow approach to the meticulous construction of his novels – usually so intricate that the slightest dropped stitch could render the whole thing unrecoverable – has been skimped on. Nothing is ever really thrashed out; Wodehouse has written other novels whose narrative arc is essentially the switching of a bad engagement for a good one, but the process here is not given any real meat or charm. The bad motives of the first entanglement are betrayed rapidly and readily, and no real explanation is offered of why it should present any further issue. In 1931, Blandings Castle had been introduced; every Psmith book had been published; Jeeves, Ukridge, Galahad and Mr Mulliner had all been created. Wodehouse had long ago made the shift from school stories to farcical romantic comedies as the mainstay of his output, so this is not an easily-excused early effort. It just doesn’t quite work – a shame, because a Wodehouse at the top of his form could have produced a truly spectacular story from the basic plot. (This, I might add, is a risk attendant upon writing standalone works which bear more than a passing likeness to one’s more well-known series. Hewing too close must be avoided, but deviations – like the often-overdone London accents – can be hit-and-miss.)

Northanger Abbey
Author Jane Austen
Published 1817 (written 1798)
Pages 173
Best word Quiz, both as noun and verb. Noun: a peculiar person, either in appearance or behaviour; or, a peculiar-looking object. Verb: to mock or deride.
Best character Henry Tilney. “Your mind is warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and, therefore, not accessible to the cool reasonings of family partiality, or a desire of revenge.”

If I Were You
Author PG Wodehouse
Published 1931
Pages 154
Best character Meech. Tony’s tale of his fall from Truefitt’s can hardly be credited, but anyone who proposes in a cemetery by asking the young lady in question “how she’d like to see my name on her tombstone” is not of the common breed.


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