liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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Re-reading Classics: Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park

As part of my campaign to read classics of literature as an adult (thank you bargain bins at Borders and Barnes and Noble!), I've just completed Northanger Abbey and am in the middle of reading Mansfield Park, both by Jane Austen.

My reaction to both books couldn't be more different.

Northanger Abbey cracked my shit up to no end. I'm talking wall-to-wall giggling because, get this, everyone who's ever been involved with any kind of fandom knows Catherine Morland, her wanky friend Isabella Thorpe, and the laid-back reality-based fans represented by the Tileneys.

Northanger Abbey: So that's what 19th Century Fangirls looked like!

Okay, I need to back up here. Catherine (in the book) is a voracious reader of horror novels. From the background you can glean in Northanger Abbey, horror novels had, well, a fandom. A heavily female fandom where the most popular books are primarily written by women and primarily devoured by women. But because they're "just novels", and because the audience is primarily women, manly men do not admit to reading them.

Catherine is the fanniest fan who ever fanned. She views herself as "the heroine" in her own novel, despite the fact that she's a normal girl, with normal siblings, and perfectly nice parents. She views everything through the prism of her fandom. Everything. Even to the point of randomly starting conversations about horror novels in the middle of conversations that have nothing to do with horror novels, leaving everything else in the conversation to wonder what the hell is wrong with her.

You know these fans, right? You see them at conventions and deal with them online all the bloody time. They live and breathe their fandoms to the point that they can't talk much about anything else. They assign meaning to their fandom that probably wasn't there to begin with. They're operating in a completely different universe.

Of course Catherine has an excuse. She's 17 when the novel starts and 18 when it ends.

Catherine's fandom-made blindness is so strong that she hooks up with wanky BFF Isabella Thorpe, who is herself a fan, albeit a more reality-based one, without realizing that Isabella is a bit of a fandom shark. Isabella uses their mutual fandom to try and get things she wants out of Catherine. Sometimes it's just someone to hang out with, access to Catherine's brother (who Isabella thinks is rich), and then access to someone who is richer (which results in her dumping Catherine's brother).

You know this fan, too. They're the fans who are really into fandom, but unlike the fandom-blinded they've got a more reality-based view of the world. These are the fans who go around taking advantage of other fans to get what they want. Like iPods, or "loans" of money, or a place to stay "for a few days" that turn into a few months. They're kind of like fandom's sharks.

Catherine eventually meets up with the brother-and-sister Tileney duo. Now, they too are fans. In fact, part of the reason why Catherine starts falling for Henry is because he willingly admits that he's a fan without any shame. However, unlike Catherine who's lost in her head, and unlike Isabella the shark, they're the sane fans. They enjoy what they enjoy without shame, but when it's time to put down the book and head back to reality they cheerfully do it.

You know these fans, too. They're the ones who watch the TV shows, maybe get involved in some fandom discussions online, and attend the occasional con. They view fandom as "all in good fun", and maybe a good way to meet people with similar interests, but it doesn't consume their world.

In the course of the novel, Catherine eventually gets it through her head (with the help of the Tileneys who really do like her despite the act that she's kind weird) that reality =/= fandom. In fact, she finally sees that her fandom glasses had blinded her to some realities that she really, really needed to see. Luckily, she rejoins the real world before permanent damage is done and, thanks to the fact that her family and her new friends are amazingly level-headed people, she's able to shake off her embarrassment at being such a no0b.

Not that she isn't going to continue enjoying her horror novels despite that.

What I really love about the book is that I knew exactly where Austen was coming from. See, Austen herself is a fangirl and she name-checks those horror novels and authors with wild abandon throughout the whole book (and they are real books and real authors!). What seems to drive Austen wild with irritation are the hardcore fans that have circumscribed their worldview to such an extent that all they know is fandom.

I think me and Austen are of one mind on this one, because nothing drives me crazier than the fan who keeps changing the subject of every conversation to the object of their obsession, whether it be a fandom overall, a specific character within a fandom, or a specific ship. I've always said that obsessed fans will do more to turn me against a character than the depiction of a character itself. (Cases in point: Spike from BtVS, the Buffy/Angel 'ship from BtVS, Methos in Highlander, Rose/Ten in Dr. Who fandom, Kara/Lee shippers from BSG fandom, pretty much all of "Firefly" get the idea.)

Northanger Abbey is one of Austen's first books and it kind of shows, but that doesn't stop the book from being unrelentingly hilarious. I recognized every single one of those characters — hell, I've dealt with every single one of these characters in real life — and could easily translate everything to the modern age without batting an eye.

I like to think of myself as a Tileney-like fan (although I suspect that some people might disagree). Even so there are some things that made me wince in recognition when it came to Catherine, although I was admittedly a hell of a lot younger than the character when I lived in that mindset. I'm kind of grateful that there was no Internet when I was a wee one. I'd hate to have my awkward childhood easily Googled.

Seriously, though. If you want to read the funniest depiction of fangirls and fandom in general that you'll ever read, as well as a heartwarming story about how even the most awkward fangirl can grow up to be a real a person while still being a fan, Northanger Abbey is the go-to book.

Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery to me. I'm really not entirely sure what Austen is going for here, although it could be because I'm only 70 pages into the book. It's...irritating me, despite the fact that I can't seem to put it down.

Mansfield Park: Ms. Austen tells those damn kids to get off her lawn. I think.

Like I said, I'm only 70 pages into the book and I'm still not sure what to think. One of Austen's charms is that you pretty much know where she's coming from within the first few pages, but it's not entirely clear here.

For a start, the "heroine" Fanny Price is a wet noodle. While "the bad girl" Mary Crawford is your typical Austen heroine.

Okay. Fine as that goes. Austen's turning her usual on its head. Good for her.

Except I don't get the impression that Austen likes Fanny very much (at least so far). The girl's completely useless, colorless, not very bright, and has no personality. Unless you consider non-stop whining "personality".

Meanwhile, Mary Crawford is funny as hell, witty, smart, and just plain fun to be around. You can tell that Austen really likes this character.

However, I get the impression that we're supposed to be on Fanny's side here, with her colorless moralizing and how she's so put-upon by everyone — despite the fact that some people don't actually intend to hurt her, but somehow manage to do it anyway because she's such a Goddamn special snowflake.

*whams head against a table*

Give a choice between a passive-aggressive twat (Fanny) and a frank if somewhat bitchy person (Mary), I'll take the frank if somewhat bitchy person any day of the week.

In any case, I'm getting the sense that Austen really has a dim view of young people (she was pushing 38 when she finished novel) because, really, all of the characters strike me as pretty shallow.

I'm choosing to assume that there's a twist here, or Austen is making some kind of point how the landed gentry aren't really all that. At least I hope so. If I read to the end of the book and Fanny is still a special little snowflake, I might be tempted to throw Mansfield Park across the room out of sheer disgust.

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