Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bad Gothic, Good Novel

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, Read by Librivox Readers, Public Domain

The good folks at Librivox, doing yeoman’s work in bringing literature (and otherwise) in the public domain to listeners for free are saints, living saints. Let me just say that firstly (and that’s no indication that I intend to savage them). Their goal is noble, their cause is righteous, and if I won a mega-million lotto jackpot, they would definitely share in the winnings.

On a more realistic scale, had I but the time, I too would join in their mission. Also if I had decent quality recording equipment and a room for said decent audio equipage and ways to guarantee complete and uninterrupted silence while I read.

For there are the three most specifically and consistently distracting features when listening to a Librivox recording. For my very first listening adventure, I chose Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, her ripping good satire on the corny but fashionable Gothic novels of her day. Austen, with her tendency toward full societies of characters, might have been the wrong choice for beginning.

The most prominent quality control issue to be found listening to this book is how frequently we shift from one reader to the next. Hardly ever in the course of the novel does the same person read successive chapters. While this isn’t an absolute necessity, it does make early chapters more bearable as it allows you to make the acquaintance of the major characters with consistent vocal inflection and characterization. When the first fourteen chapters are done by different voices each time, some confusion sets in. I understand Librivox’s mission and its limitations, so I can sympathize with their policy of accepting whatever recording they get save those with severe deficiencies, but perhaps someone at the assignment desk might consider parceling things out in a little more blocky fashion.

The range of the readers in this book runs from the great to the not-so-good. No one was terrible, but again, aiming for consistency, one might consider lumping Australian accented women together for a patch, then American women, then the British. It just gives things additional smoothness. Librivox’s open policy allows for the misplaced readings by men to show up within, further undermining any sense of consistency or rightness.

Since these are volunteer efforts too, the quality of the microphones in use and the means of recording likewise restrict Librivox. A few readers’ efforts were marred by audible tape hiss or equipment hum while more than one reader fumbled with their microphone disturbingly. As the very last generalized complaint associated with this, on occasion off mic elements came into play. Cars driving past honking horns, a child calling for its parent, a phone ringing in another room, and most memorably what I quite adamantly believe was someone watching television nearby.

All of which is just petty griping. These people are providing you with a free service.

I’ll admit, I listened to two Austen books in one week, so this review will form the third Jane Austen book review in a row. Mansfield Park rounds out the recent quartet of Ms. Austen and I rather wished I had started with that one first. Compared to Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park follows at least the outline I’ve suggested above of giving readers larger blocks of text.

Austen's novels, while comic and often filled with much to laugh at, are generally quite serious in comparison to this book which is much lighter and sillier than the others. Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s funnier books as is witnessed by this wry introduction that starts things off in fine skewering style:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard -- and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings -- and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on -- lived to have six children more -- to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.

From here we follow plain Catherine Morland as she sets out with family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen for the resort town of Bath. Everyone expects that this will prove exciting for her and that something will actually happen for or to her of consequence there. Where naturally it does. She meets two brother and sister pairs, one good, one bad, and both men after their fashion court Catherine. This is a Jane Austen novel after all.

Complications ensue, as they must, but eventually Catherine secures an invitation with the (good) Tilney family to come and stay at their family home of Northanger Abbey. Her imagination fired by her frequent reading of Gothic novels, Catherine sees mystery where there is little, notes intrigues that don’t exist, and reads motivations into characters where their real direction is far less melodramatic.

The character of Catherine is a little under drawn, a little bit of a dullard, though she manages to only once or twice let herself be taken advantage of before she begins to resist. At first she leans a little more toward the passive end of the spectrum, but not so much that we inwardly loathe her docility, but she eventually repairs that flaw. Partly this is due to the spunk of Gothic novel heroines transferring itself to her, but partly this is just her own nature. In either case, one usually doesn’t get characters as deeply drawn in satires as one might elsewhere, so that’s neither here nor there.

What always surprises — hell, astonishes — me every time I read this book is just how the Thorpe’s (the bad brother and sister Catherine falls in with) expect to get away with their plans. They really operate as if no one could see through their BS and no one will ever wise up to their scheming ways. It’s remarkable to me how Austen makes them so audacious; calculating enough to rarely overtly offend, always staying just barely to the weather side of caution, but reckless enough that discernment will suss them out. And yet, they come across as remarkably believable and wonderfully entertaining.

Northanger Abbey starts out as a Gothic satire and continues to keep that aspect alive throughout the novel, but it rarely goes after the genre with as much force as one would hope. Typical Jane Austen plot lines seem to distract the story from making the most of its advantages in this realm. After a while you get the impression that Austen’s heart isn’t really into taking on those novelists as much as it is in defending novels in general, and the book loses some momentum making its defenses. Perhaps in its ambling away from one of its most central points, Austen’s novel suggests to us that life isn’t like a book, always so straightforward; sometimes the goal is less clear than it seems at first.

There are so many readers here, over ten at least, that to remark on them alone would be to leave out book reviewing entirely. Standouts include Patricia Oakley’s near professional quality rendering; Sage’s thoroughly enjoyable and also professional skills as she delivered characterized readings that were a marvel of clear, crisp entertainment; Kristen McQuillin and Kristin Luoma also shine with readings you’d never suspect you or someone else hadn’t paid for when you hear them. All four of these readers are head and shoulders above their compatriots for fine quality, distinct reading and pronunciation, and their facility navigating Austen’s longer sentence structures.

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