Another Jane Austen novel is being dusted off for the big screen. This time, Miramax films is co-producing Northanger Abbey. It’s a $9 million feature adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel. Shooting begins this fall in Bath, an historic city to about 150 kilometres southwest of London and well-known to Austen. Bath is noted for its handsome 18th century architecture.
May 25, 1998 CBC Infoculture
Such was the news in 1998. Now, nearly ten years later, Northanger Abbey has finally made it to film, albeit on the small screen. The story of how it finally made it to television is not unlike Jane Austen’s original difficulty in having her book published!
The manuscript for Northanger Abbey (written, according to Cassandra Austen, in 1798-99) was sold by the Rev. Austen to Richard Crosby & Co. in 1803 under the title Susan. It was the first of Austen’s stories to be sold and commanded the princely sum of £10. It is clear that Crosby & Co. had no idea of its value. Though they advertised it as a forthcoming work, they let it rest on their shelves, unread and unpublished. After the sale of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen was at liberty to buy back her work, though under an assumed name. Crosby & Co. should never know how close they came to success.
After retouching the work and writing a preface explaining to her readers why they might find some of her story antiquated, she set the work aside. Though Austen called the work Miss Catherine in private, it would not be printed until after her death in 1817, when it was retitled Northanger Abbey and bundled, by her brother Henry, into a four volume set which also included Persuasion.
Andrew Davies was first noted by Jane Austen fans for his Emmy nominated adaptation of Pride and Prejudice(1995) and Jane Austen’s Emma in 1996. The idea for writing one of Jane Austen’s works came after previewing the 1986 version of Northanger Abbey. He remembers the evening well: ‘It was an interesting, quirky adaptation and afterwards Sue [Birtwistle – Producer of Pride and Prejudice and Emma] turned to me and said: “I know what I’d like to do: Pride and Prejudice and make it look like a fresh, lively story about real people…..Would you like to adapt it?” It’s a favorite book of mine, so I said, “Yes,” and that was that.’
Regarding Jane Austen’s works, Davies says, “there is a certain amount of liberty that you can take. You can’t change the actual story, but there’s always some hidden scenes in the book that Austen didn’t get around to writing herself, and it’s nice to fill in some of the little gaps.” Davies says he had great material to work with, since Austen “writes the best plots and characters, and her dialogue is terrific. So while there’s this little craze I’m just going to take advantage of it for all I’m worth.”
Northanger Abbey was his third attempt scripting one of Jane Austen’s novels and fans around the world eagerly awaited the fruit of his labor. As Austen biographer Deirdre Le Faye put it, “The 1986 version was awful. Andrew Davies certainly could not do worse than that.”
By 1998, Davies had written a script for ITV which was then purchased by Miramax Pictures, producers of Emma and the soon to be released Mansfield Park. Davies looked forward to the opportunity to see his work on the big screen, but after the failure of Mansfield Park in 1999, Miramax shelved all Austen projects. It was a disappointing time for Davies as his script was no longer his to command.
For years afterward, rumors flew rampant about the upcoming production of the film—- first that actress Rachel Leigh Cook had been signed to play Catherine, and later, that Martin Amis had been hired to redraft the script— still—no action was taken. It was not until 2005 when Pride and Prejudice finally made it to the big screen that a new Austen film phenomenon began to take place. Suddenly there were four versions of her novels being filmed for television and a new biopic headed for theaters.
Miramax claimed that though they were thrilled with the original script from Mr. Davies, they were unable to find a director for the picture. Whatever the case, the script was eventually reacquired by ITV in 2002 and relegated to a back burner until the spring of 2006. At that time ITV began plans for their Spring 2007 Jane Austen Season to feature all new adaptations of Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and finally, Northanger Abbey, perhaps the most anticipated film of all.
A cast of Austen newcomers was assembled and filming began with Ireland standing in for Bath and the surrounding countryside. Felicity Jones was signed to play Catherine Morland and JJ Field took the part of Henry Tilney. A few familiar faces appeared in the guise of Mrs. Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel, Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, 1983) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan, Kitty Bennet in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice).
Running a scant 93 minutes, Northanger Abbey manages to hit the high points of Austen’s novel, retaining it’s sometimes comic feel and satisfying, romantic ending. Changes have been made and purists will cry out at some of the plot rearrangements. The Mysteries of Udolpho, so central to the original story, though mentioned here, has been replaced by The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 horrifying gothic novel with Faust like overtones. Catherine’s imaginings, well recalled from the 1986 version, are alive and well here, and give the film it’s TVPG rating.
William Beck makes a suitably obnoxious villain as John Thorpe and Mark Dymond’s brooding Capt Tilney a satisfying match for Isabella’s wayward heart. The rest of the Tilney family is also well cast, with Liam Cunningham as an aging General Tilney and Catherine Walker as Henry’s retiring elder sister, Eleanor. Her romance is hinted at when we receive a brief glimpse of a clandestine meeting with her beloved. The Morland children are shown en masse and we can well imagine Catherine’s simple, happy childhood. Hugh O’Connor gives a convincing portrayal as her elder brother, James Morland, a man who loved ‘not too wisely, but too well.’
The costumes are lovely and the scenes sumptuous with period details abounding. There are numerous country dances danced and a variety of Regency past times portrayed. All in all, Northanger Abbey, while not a definitive portrayal of Jane Austen’s first novel, remains a delightful way to spend an hour and a half. The timeless romance of the story is left intact and the acting well above the average in a television movie. To quote Mr. Davies, “Felicity Jones was just about perfect as Catherine…and JJ Field made a very persuasive Henry Tilney.” Few would disagree with that!
Northanger Abbey is available in Region 2 DVD format from Amazon.co.uk. It is set to air in the United States in November during Masterpiece Theater’s Fall/Winter schedule on PBS. Check your local listings for dates and times.
Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets and reticules in the Regency style. Sources for this article include The Making of Pride and Prejudice, by by Susie Conklin and Sue Birtwistle, as well as personal correspondence with Mr. Davies.