By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 13 2020 01:00PM
Remind me: How many novels did Jane Austen write, again?
Just kidding! Yes, of course, the answer is six. But if you didn’t know that already, you might be confused by the coverage of Rachel Cohen’s recently published memoir Austen Years, in which Cohen describes how her experience of new motherhood and her grief over her father’s death enriched her understanding of Austen’s books.
Not all of Austen’s books, though: Cohen’s subtitle is A Memoir in Five Novels. Which five? Oh, “all five of Austen’s major novels,” says the New York Times reviewer, a Princeton English professor. (“Major” novels? Says who?) “All but Northanger Abbey, generally regarded as inferior,” explains another reviewer. (“Generally regarded”? By whom?) “Not Northanger Abbey which is a farce of a Gothic novel,” says a book blogger. (Farce = skippable?)
Not everyone seems quite so clear about which books made Cohen’s cut and which didn’t. The Washington Post reviewer advises prospective Cohen readers to first tackle “at least four if not all six of Jane Austen’s novels.” (Which of the five “major” ones are we allowed to skip? She doesn’t say.) And the New Yorker’s excerpt from Cohen’s memoir, headlined “Living Through Turbulent Times with Jane Austen,” is subtitled “How six unexpectedly far-ranging novels carried me through eight years, two births, one death, and a changing world.”
I haven’t read Austen Years yet, but a quick Google search confirms that Northanger Abbey is indeed the book that Cohen voted off her island. Even while compulsively rereading the other five, she writes, “I only looked into Northanger Abbey. . . . To me, Northanger Abbey is still opaque. The wit is sometimes harsh, the characterizations are less subtle, the proportions are not complex and harmonic. Gilbert Ryle says, ‘It is the one novel of the six which does not have an abstract ethical theme for its backbone,’ no general qualities being considered in the light of different characters. I think Austen decided not to publish it because she had never found the way to rewrite it to her satisfaction.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the assumption that only five of Austen’s novels really count. Although many critical studies of Austen devote one chapter to each novel, with Northanger Abbey getting equal time, the book has drawn less interest from filmmakers (I know of only two screen adaptations) and probably also from fanfic writers (the pickings are slim). The only survey of Janeites that I’m aware of, conducted by Jeanne Kiefer in 2008 for the Jane Austen Society of North America, found that Northanger Abbey was the least favorite Austen novel for 40 percent of the 4,500 Janeites surveyed – a strong plurality, certainly, although not a majority.
Of course, Rachel Cohen is under no obligation to read, let alone write about, a book she doesn’t like. For me, too, Northanger Abbey is the least compelling of the six, although on a recent reread, I found it fresh, funny, and altogether charming. But I’m puzzled by reviewers’ offhand allusions to a taken-for-granted consensus. Who gets to decide this stuff? And how come I never got a vote?