Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Northanger Abbey

One of the side-effects of having my GPS stolen out of my car is that I had occasion to dust off the MP3 player that I used to play audiobooks in my car before I acquired my Garmin. One of the audiobooks loaded on that player is a reading of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (Read by Elizabeth Klett.) I've mentioned this audiobook here several years ago but it seems worth revisiting.

Northanger Abbey was one of the first books Jane Austen wrote and one of the last to see print. Miss Austen sold the rights to Northanger Abbey to a London publisher for £10 very early in her career but it was never published while she lived. After her death her brother (and literary agent) Henry Austin bought it back from the publisher for the same ten pounds they had paid his sister many years before. The publisher was apparently unaware that Miss Austen was, by then, the anonymous authoress of four very popular novels. Northanger Abbey was finally published the year after Miss Austen's death.

It is Austen's most overtly comedic book and is the book where we most clearly hear her voice as author. In her later, more mature, works she stands back and speaks only through her characters, but in this early, somewhat self-indulgent book she is very much a presence, commenting wittily on her ingenuous heroine, on the virtues and uses of novels, and on the literary scene as a whole. The prose is much more playful than in her later work and parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny. Here's a bit where our heroine, Catherine, is greeted by her friend, Mrs. Allen, who is something of an air-head:
Catherine found Mrs. Allen just returned from all the busy idleness of the morning, and was immediately greeted with, "Well, my dear, here you are," a truth which she had no greater inclination than power to dispute...

Elizabeth Klett's reading of the book is very nearly perfect. Her intonations are spot on and she does a very good job of giving each character a subtly distinctive voice that helps the listener sort out who is who in long multi-way conversations. She reads at a good pace and never stumbles over any of the peculiar phrases or odd word orderings that sound strange to modern ears and tend to trip up other readers. Her Northanger Abbey gives testament to just how good a volunteer-produced, public-domain audiobook can be.

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