The opening paragraph – the first paragraph, not the opening chapter – of “Northanger Abbey” is 777 words long. I know because I just finished counting them.
Those are more words than most people write in a week. Coincidentally, that is the length of time it would take an awkward reader to understand and appreciate Austen’s opening paragraph. And in the 700-some words, nothing happens. NOTHING of consequence HAPPENS.
As a profile of the novel’s heroine, however, the paragraph is brilliant. It is witty, colourful, intelligent, witty, beautifully phrased, artfully structured, witty, dazzling, complicated, plainly expressed, and witty. And, need I say it? . . . witty.
All of which escaped me as a teenager. I just found it boring. Now, of course, I can appreciate that Austen was writing for accomplished readers. But today, I’m afraid, there are few accomplished readers who will invest the time to ingest Austen. There’s just too much good writing out there – and our understanding of “good writing” has undergone a sea change since the 18th century.
Since my high school days, in fact.