“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”
“You have been abroad, then?” said Henry, a little surprized.
“Oh! no, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho.’ But you never read novels, I dare say?”
“Because they are not clever enough for you–gentlemen read better books.”
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid…”
(from Northanger Abbey, page 99)
Jane Austen sold a manuscript titled “Susan” to a publisher in 1803, but she bought it back in 1813 because it had never been published. It is uncertain what, if any, changes were made to the manuscript after it was again in Austen’s possession, but her brother, Henry, changed the name to Northanger Abbey when it was published in 1818 after Austen’s death in a volume that also included Persuasion.
Northanger Abbey is the story of 18-year-old Catherine Morland, who we are told from the beginning was never meant to be a heroine. The novel shows her evolution from a naïve child into a young woman with more mature sensibilities. The daughter of a clergyman and one of 10 children, Catherine is given the opportunity to spend some time in Bath, accompanying Mr. and Mrs. Allen, a childless couple who own most of Fullerton. The Allens are wealthy, and Mrs. Allen is a flighty woman obsessed with shopping and clothes. When in Bath, Catherine is introduced to a clergyman, Mr. Tilney, and his sister, and she feels a connection to them right away. She also meets Isabella and John Thorpe, the love interest and friend, respectively, of her older brother, James. Isabella is a self-centered flirt, and John spends much of his time bragging. Catherine, however, is oblivious to their true nature.
The book is basically divided into two sections, the first covering Catherine’s stay in Bath, where much of her time is spent socializing and reading gothic novels. While in Bath, Catherine’s friendship with the Tilneys deepens, and her attraction to Henry grows. In the second half of the book, Catherine is invited by Henry’s father and sister to stay with them for a time in their home, Northanger Abbey. Here is where Catherine’s fascination with gothic, romantic novels gets the better of her.
Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney–and castles and abbies made usually the charm of those reveries which his image did not fill. To see and explore either the ramparts and keep of the one, or the cloisters of the other, had been for many weeks a darling wish, though to be more than the visitor of an hour, had seemed too nearly impossible for desire. And yet this was to happen. With all the chances against her of house, hall, place, park, court, and cottage, Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun. (page 132)
It’s almost as if Catherine imagines herself in a gothic novel, and the night sounds, dark crevices, and secret rooms of Northanger Abbey both intrigue and scare her. Catherine’s curiosity about Henry’s father, General Tilney, and the death of his mother causes her imagination to run wild, and she makes an assumption that causes Henry to chastise her and help her understand the necessity of a clear line between fact and fiction.
Northanger Abbey is an entertaining novel that makes fun of gothic novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed the bantering between Henry and Catherine — especially their conversation before arriving at Northanger, when he teases her about her expectations that his home will be like those in the books she loves. Like other Austen novels, Northanger Abbey is about love and misunderstandings, marriage and money, but the latter are not trivial topics as women didn’t have much of a future if they couldn’t marry well. Austen’s omniscient narrator — one could assume it’s the author — takes an active role in the narrative with such statements as, “I leave it to my reader’s sagacity to determine…” (page 231) and even engages with readers. Although it doesn’t top Persuasion as my all-time favorite Austen novel, Northanger Abbey is humorous and witty, with romance and drama, and is one of her best. A must-read for Austen fans, and a novel I imagine I will re-read in the not-so-distant future.
Disclosure: Northanger Abbey is from my personal library.
© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.