This is my favorite Jane Austen novel.
People who hear me say that generally look around in surprise to see where the crazy person is. This is not a book that even people who say they've read Jane Austen have read, and it gets very little attention compared to her others (and obviously comparatively no attention versus Pride and Prejudice).
The thing is, though, is that it is a whole lot of fun.
This is probably Austen at her most mischievous. Here, she is not just tweaking her nose at society and conventions and the kind of people who can get along in them, the kind of fools that are considered to be completely socially acceptable and even superior, as she is in her other novels. Now she's playing with gothic literature as well, and with the effects reading can have without a dose of common sense to restrain it.
Catherine Morland is an adorable heroine, and her love of books and reading, and the very real not just pleasure but almost fangirl-excitement she gets from them is something that most bookish girls can probably relate to on some level. She can't put books down, loses sleep over them, wants to read what her friends are reading so they can talk about them, and is always asking for and getting (and even reading!) book recommendations.
Her problem is that she also takes what she reads perhaps a little too seriously in her naiveté, and thus does not recognize things happening right under her nose and assumes that life is going to be an awful lot like the books she reads.
This is quite possibly also a problem most bookish people can relate to. (Raise your hand if you ever knocked on the back of a cupboard for Narnia? Or spent your 11th birthday miserable without your Hogwarts letter? Is that everyone, then?)
I fully admit to not being a fan of many of the more old-school gothic romances. I can't explain why, except that they all seem a little too much for me--suspension of disbelief rarely holds (though I do admit I need to give another try to some of the classics--it's going on the list, honest!). Catherine has the opposite problem. She is positively convinced that haunted abbeys, deranged wives locked in attics, and murder carefully hidden all exist in everyday life, and that she is quite likely to stumble upon them.
Given this is an Austen novel, guess how well that goes for her?
Watching her grow up and learn is a charming process, and she is definitely on my list for favorite Austen heroines. She always means well, but lets her imagination get away from her. What's not to like?
Henry Tilney is my favorite Austen hero. Yes, I mean more than Mr. Darcy, more than Colonel Brandon, even as played by the late and lamented Alan Rickman, more than anyone in any Austen novel at all. He is fantastic, and he makes this book amazing.
Henry manages to be clever and funny (his explanation of the similarities between dancing and marriage may be one of my favorite passages in a Jane Austen novel ever) and bookish and loving to his sister and not at all concerned about his vanity or manliness without ever being a fop or a pain or untrustworthy. He couples his bookishness with the common sense that Catherine lacks, and thus goes from being simply fun to read about to being a genuinely good match for her.
At this point I am attempting to rein in the fangirling, but it is hard, so please understand my sacrifice.
Added to all of this is what would be, in the hands of many other authors, a genuine gothic romance, and a plot that suits it to some degree, though Austen certainly adds her own twists.
If you liked any other Jane Austen novel, read this. If you weren't quite sold on Pride and Prejudice, still read this. If you like gothic novels and are willing to poke a bit of fun at them, read this. This is a fantastic book by a genuinely great author, and it's loads of fun besides. A special shout-out to the fantastic narration by Juliet Stevenson, who is always going to be my go-to narrator for Jane Austen, because she manages to get everything pitch-perfect.