Sally Prue has worked in a paper factory and as a piano teacher. She now writes for children. Her books include Cold Tom, which won the Branford Boase Award and the Smarties Silver Award, Ryland's Footsteps, Goldkeeper, and The Truth Sayer, which has been shortlisted for this year's Guardian children's fiction prize. Below, Sally writes about Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
Sally Prue on Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen's novels to be accepted for publication, but the last (with Persuasion) actually to be published. Messrs Crosby, having paid £10 for the manuscript, never got any further. They may have seen this as a shrewd move: Messrs Crosby were making a lot of money out of Gothic Romances, and surely no one who had read Northanger Abbey could ever feel the same about quivering heroines in haunted houses. By the time Northanger Abbey was finally published, in 1818, the craze for the Gothic was diminished and Jane Austen, apologetic at presenting to the public that sad thing, a burlesque of an eclipsed art form, had described the book as 'comparatively obsolete'.
As it turned out, she was premature: most fortunately for this sparkling and loveable work, here we are, 200 years later, still eagerly hoovering up horrid and sensational fiction. It is true that our most lurid tales are now more likely to be set in Albert Square or a Police Telephone Box than in the grim castles of the Alps or the haunted monasteries of Italy, but, even now, so powerful is our continuing enthusiasm for all things Gothic that Halloween has become a major event on the social calendar, and IKEA has even produced a night light, presumably intended for the reassurance of small children, that is made in the shape of a ghost.
In any case, Northanger Abbey is not only a burlesque; it also, delightfully and lightly, examines our relationship with all fiction, a task at least as important now as in 1803 when Messrs Crosby accepted Northanger Abbey, for it seems that we have become rather worse, if anything, at distinguishing between the almost endlessly fascinating world of fiction (which is generally based in logic and probability, but not necessarily on reality) and the quite endlessly fascinating world of fact (which does the reality, of course, but often falls down most inartistically on the logic and probability fronts). Even our News Media fail to resist the lure of the lurid, and sleeping potions, murders, bandits, and abductors are so widely believed to be prevalent, even in the Midland Counties of England, that there are people who really are afraid to leave their houses at night. We live in a soup of sensationalism: everything proclaims that we inhabit a world of evil, violence and ruin and we can very easily find ourselves adopting a dismal habit of general suspicion. It may be that Northanger Abbey is more important and relevant now than it ever was.
But, of course, as this is Jane Austen, nothing is going to be easy or straightforward, because she is an author whose irony quite largely depends on the presentation of paradoxical truths. Northanger Abbey does have a heroine, though her heroism requires a courage of a very different order from that required in a Gothic romance; villains do exist, though they are more subtle in their tactics than their horrid fictional counterparts. If people are more prosaic than Catherine imagines, they are also more complex; and, while she must learn to distinguish fact from fiction, she finds that the boundaries between them are much less rigid than she has ever supposed.
But with what a joy is all this presented! Northanger Abbey is very funny, full of truth and wit, and inhabited by fascinating characters. And was there ever a more endearing pair of principals to engage us than Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney? It is true that Catherine is a goose, but, as she discovers, she is not nearly as stupid as she thinks; in fact, she is not stupid at all, though admittedly sadly ignorant. She has a generous heart and sound principles, but her education has been lacking, for she has formed no intellectual model for quotidian evil. Her troubles are caused firstly by diffidence, which makes her slow to take notice of her generally sound instincts in recognizing a bad'un; and then by her innocence, which makes her misinterpret motives and aspirations hilariously and wildly when she begins at last to suspect that something really might be amiss.
In Henry Tilney, though, despite everything, she wins the most marriable of Jane Austen's heroes. Henry is kind, courteous, considerate, teasing (though always affectionately), cultivated and charming. He sees Catherine for what she is, misguided, naïve and enamoured, and falls in love with her because her default option of honesty, candour and trust stimulates a mind which is in danger of becoming cynical, and brightens his world. What a joy it is to see Henry, he of the formidable intellect and nice vocabulary, dazed with prosperous love, talking 'at random, without sense or connection' to Mrs Allen - who, fortunately, will have been too busy arranging the folds of her muslin gown to best advantage to hear what he was saying, or understand what was going on if she did.
As if this isn't enough for a quite short novel, we have three splendid and very lively and varied villains. (Isabella has been dismissed as a caricature, but she is alive and well in any shopping mall near you. In fact, compared with many of the young ladies in this year's Big Brother house, for instance, Isabella is a model of logic and restraint.) We also have a beautifully controlled plot, a long look at High(ish) Society, and a building of great antiquity which, if not haunted, pretends to be so really rather well. (By the way, the other ancient edifice which Catherine longs to visit - Blaise Castle - is, pleasingly, a fake. It is only about 20 years older than Catherine is.)
What else? Well, there are hundreds of jokes, a murder mystery of sorts, a happy ending, and satisfying, though not universal, justice. For Jane Austen is not at heart a prescriptive, but a descriptive, moralist - and a writer in whom, above all, a deep affection for humankind shines in the most sublime way.