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Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Recently there has been a considerable fascination with angels in popular culture. Sometimes reverent, sometimes whimsical, these winged beings adorn a surprisingly wide variety of art. But what is an angel?

The English word "angel" comes from the Greek angelus, meaning messenger, which in turn was a loan-translation of the Hebrew mal'akh, when used specifically in the sense of a divine emissary, a heavenly being superior to humans but subordinate to God.

In the earliest parts of the Biblical narrative (particularly Genesis), the distinction between God and his angels is often blurry. Several of the Patriarchs interact with supernatural entities that could be understood as angelic or as God himself coming to earth in the appearance of a man. However, as the Prophets propounded a more transcendental view of God, we see a frequent re-interpretation of these ambiguous passages such that God himself no longer walks the earth and interacts face-to-face with his creations, but instead sends angelic messengers to humanity. A further development of the Jewish conception of angels took place during the Captivity, as the Jewish people were exposed to Zoroastrian dualism and its elaborate hierarchies of supernatural beings who participated in the eternal war between Good and Evil.

The Roman conquest of the post-Exilic Levant brought the Jewish people into contact with Greek neo-Platonist thought, an important element in the development of Christian angelology. The medieval Scholastics spent a considerable amount of time discussing the nature and functions of the various types of angels, and they were often the subjects of prayers petitioning various divine favors, rather like the saints. In many areas the popular cults of certain angels became so strong that the Church had to take steps to ensure that the ordinary people understood that angels were not gods in their own right, but were created beings who existed to serve God.

Although the Protestant Reformation rejected much of the Catholic veneration of the saints, the presence of angels in the Biblical text meant that angels would not be consigned to oblivion. However, angels were increasingly portrayed as entirely one-way, special purpose emissaries carrying very specific messages to particular humans selected by God. There would be no more asking angels to carry human messages to God's ear, because it was far too easy for it to mutate into inappropriate reverence of these supernatural beings. As a result, over the following centuries the popular image of angels became increasingly diminished and prettified away from the mighty beings of Scripture. Rather like the fairies, who by Victorian times had become thumb-sized sprites who danced on the edges of garden pools and napped in tulips, angels had increasingly become charming little winged babies or slender young lasses with white nightgowns and long golden curls.

And it's this sort of angel that our young protagonist Catherine Moreland suddenly becomes able to see and hear one day as a result of a blow to the head. Tiny, delicate creatures, cheerful, beautiful, and very, very Good -- but pretty much ineffectual. These are not the majestic beings that could wipe out whole cities at the Lord's command, but prettified versions of the emissaries of divine goodness whose chief usefulness is to warn a young lady that her bonnet is awry or that her attire otherwise presents a less than completely becoming appearance. Angels not with Hebrew names of splendid rolling syllables, but with prosaic English names -- Lawrence, Terrence, and Clarence.

Yes, Jimmy Stewart fans, you heard that last one right. It's a little chuckle, and it's not driven into the ground to wring every possible laugh out of it. But it's there, and people who have particularly fond memories of It's a Wonderful Life will smile and nod at seeing it. Just like there are several other places where twentieth century popular culture is obliquely referenced in nudge-nudge wink-wink fashion.

And that's the great strength of Vera Nazarian's Austen mashups. Unlike the first Austen mashups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it doesn't rely primarily on shock value for its humor. There isn't the feeling that the posthumous collaborator is going for the cheap laugh of seeing a dog take a dump on a collection of valuable watercolors accidentally left lying on the floor. Instead, we have a wry and subtle wit poking fun at the absurdity of life through the juxtaposition of dissimilar elements and a careful, if often surreal, development of their implications.

Perhaps more than any of Jane Austen's novels, Northanger Abbey is particularly ripe for this sort of treatment for the simple reason that it was a satire to start with, in which Miss Austen was poking some gentle fun at the fashionable obsession among young ladies of good breeding with the gothic novels then popular. Novels in which lovely young ladies of impeccable background are alternately courted and menaced by brooding men of mysterious past, often in isolated castles or manors full of secret chambers and skeletons both figurative and literal tucked away in various closets. Oh how the young ladies' hearts beat more swiftly at the intimations of possible terrible fates that might befall the protagonists of these novels, whether simple ravishment and loss of reputation or imprisonment and even murder. But of course in the end the protagonist would be suitably rescued and married off to a man of equally impeccable reputation, so it was just barely acceptable to be reading them, if not exactly approved by those adults who would far rather such young ladies be reading improving literature.

Unlike the many fictional books and their authors that populate the pages of other works of fiction, Ann Radcliffe and her various gothic potboilers are all completely historical. Given the attention to detail with which the plots are discussed, it's fair to surmise that Miss Austen probably did her fair share of perusing those books, even if only as "research" so she could show -- quite humorously, one might add -- just what can happen when a flighty and impressionable young woman gets just a little too caught up in such fiction and starts seeing the people around her through its lens. Particularly when that young woman goes off for a visit to an old abbey which has been renovated as the home of a country gentleman -- which also gives Miss Austen the opportunity to poke some ever-so-gentle fun at the fondness for ruins and the like among the Romantics.

So what's the closest parallel to those lowbrow gothic novels in our present day literary scene? One obvious candidate would be the various novels of Dan Brown, like Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code. Stories with predictable plots and characters so thin they do well to become two-dimensional on a good day, but read with great excitement because of the lure of becoming privy to ancient conspiracies and learn the real secrets behind the convenient falsehoods we've all been taught in school for generations. Because while the characters and situations may well be fictional, we are solemnly informed by the author that all the places and the information upon which these stories are based is in fact real, and that publication is possible only because the fig leaf of fiction mollifies the Powers That Be, convincing them that nobody will be able to use it as a source document for anything serious.

And that is exactly the sort of thing Ms. Nazarian is making fun of with the delightful Udolpho Code which Miss Catherine Moreland thinks she has come upon. An elaborate cypher woven into seemingly harmless light entertainment, but in fact providing the key to secrets and mysteries that lie hidden all around her. The idea of such a code actually goes back at least to certain anti-Stratfordian Shakespearists, who tried to prove their case by picking out individual letters from particular phrases in order to spell out their favored candidates for the composition of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. There were even some Jewish mystics who used similar methods to pick out words and phrases they held to be magical, including various forms of the True Name of God which supposedly would give its user power over all creation.

But here it's all for fun -- the further Catherine delves into her Udolpho Code, the sillier she looks. Cows and root vegetables and other prosaic items litter her grand conspiracies -- and even when she actually encounters an entity of the darkness, it's amidst a bunch of utterly prosaic business correspondence that lay forgotten in a desk as a result of a careless steward's mismanagement of the estate.

Yet paradoxically Ms. Nazarian manages to also slip in some remarkably philosophical material about the nature of our being prior to our mortal existence, and of the nature of love. While we're so busy laughing at the absurdity of Catherine's quest to find a truth that exists only in her imagination and her cloud of ineffectual angels, it slips right in without ever becoming clumsy or didactic, unlike all that "improving" literature that was so highly praised as good for its readers.

Review posted February 20, 2011.

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