In their talk at the December 2018 JASNA Southwest meeting, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield explored “The Unfilmable Austen: The Case of Northanger Abbey,” focusing on Austen’s interest in capturing modernity and cultural shifts, and the challenges this caused not only for her in revisiting this early work, but also for filmmakers later attempting to adapt the novel.
“Austen uses the word modern more often in this book than in any other … and considering this is her shortest novel, the density of usage is even more remarkable,” Greenfield said. “To her, we think this was a book about modernity.”
Troost and Greenfield contend that Austen’s emphasis on modernity may be one reason the book was not published in her lifetime. While today’s audiences tend to think of the Regency era as a unified period, significant cultural shifts were at play. What was cutting-edge in 1803 when Northanger Abbey (then titled Susan) was first accepted for publication but failed to see print had changed dramatically by 1816, when Austen bought back the copyright.
Her authorial note appended to this shelved work demonstrates Austen’s worry that Northanger Abbey was no longer timely. She referred to certain parts of the manuscript being made “comparatively obsolete” over those 13 years. “During that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes,” she wrote.
“Gothic novels waxed and waned in popularity between 1798, when Austen started composing the novel, and 1817, when she put it on the shelf,” Troost said. “They changed in style, too (it’s worth noting that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was also published in 1818, the same year as Northanger Abbey).” By 1817, not only were the novels Austen referenced no longer considered modern, but Shelley, with Frankenstein, was about to refashion those dated gothic elements into a new era of horror, as well as science fiction.
However, at a distance of 200 years, “the passage of time has worked in Northanger Abbey’s favor by flattening out time, showing us a novel that transcends time,” Troost said.
“Any potential film audience will be so aware of the split between our present world and Austen’s world as the past that it becomes difficult to portray on screen Austen’s concern with defining modernity in Northanger Abbey,” Greenfield said. “How do you capture modernity that is 200 years old?”
According to Troost and Greenfield, this challenge is beyond even the most skilled adapters. “What a film cannot do as well as a novel … is capture the awareness of change that someone living in a cultural moment in the past can,” Greenfield noted. “In no other book, except perhaps Persuasion, does Austen register social change so much as in Northanger Abbey — moments that, I fear, we cannot see anymore.”
Thus, instead of Austen’s observations about changing times and tastes, screenwriters and directors amplify the gothic elements. “We, as well as Catherine, are being lured into thinking General Tilney a Gothic villain of some kind,” Troost and Greenfield said, in reference to the 2008 ITV version adapted by Andrew Davies (whose credits also include the famous 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). “The point of the films seems to be to make Bath and its visitors look as dangerous and exotic as a Gothic novel to unify the tone,” Greenfield added.
Yet, in the novel, General Tilney’s reputation seems so unsullied that Isabella tells Catherine, “I know no harm of him.” She does not even suspect the pride that Elizabeth accuses Darcy of having in Pride and Prejudice.
Instead of the filmmakers’ strategy of setting up suspense through perceived threats, only to undercut them later, Troost and Greenfield observed that Austen “unites the two halves of her novel through what is mundane, not through what is exotic and menacing, which is much funnier.”
Alas, it is also harder to portray on screen. So the joys of the novel must remain distinct from those of its filmed adaptations. Northanger Abbey, the speakers concluded, is “a book about modern life, modern literature and modern language, and period costume drama about the modern is a contradiction in terms.”
Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield both hold their PhDs from the University of Pennsylvania, and together they edited Jane Austen in Hollywood, the first book about the Austen film phenomenon. Together and separately, they have published many articles on Jane Austen and lectured in the United States, Canada, England and Australia. In spring 2015, they spent several weeks at the Chawton Library as Visiting Fellows. Troost is chair of the English Department at Washington and Jefferson College and, until this academic year, Greenfield chaired the Humanities Division at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where he teaches. They are both life members of JASNA and have been married to each other for 36 year.