I’d apologize for dragging you on my rereading of Jane Austen’s novels . . .
. . . but I’m not sorry.
Especially for this one!
Northanger Abbey is somewhat of an anomaly in Austen’s canon because it was one of her first novels. Hence, the tone and style are noticeably different from her other novels. However, Austen’s family had the novel published after her death alongside her last finished novel, Persuasion. Therefore, if a reader believed that between Emma and Persuasion, Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, they might fall under the impression that she lost her mind a little.
Like many of the things Austen wrote as a young person, the story includes a tone that is so tongue-in-cheek; clearly, Austen dreamed up Catherine Morland long before she concocted Elizabeth Bennett.
When Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, Gothic Romance fiction was at the height of its popularity. What is Gothic Romance? Did you forget what you learned in English class about it? (I’m looking at you, American Studies alum!) Never fear: check out my guide to Gothic Romantic fiction that I use in American Studies every year!
The most popular Gothic Romantic novels included The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.
It is Udolpho that the heroine of Northanger Abbey — Catherine — is obsessed with. It is the Gothic Romance genre that Austen mercilessly satirizes throughout her own novel. However, she doesn’t criticize; she clarifies that reading novels is an excellent way to learn more about ourselves and the world.
“I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding . . . in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”Austen 39-40
As Catherine learns on her journey to Bath and then to the mysterious Northanger Abbey, too much of a particular genre (*cough* Gothicism *cough*) leads to disheartening ramifications.
“After all that romances may say, there is no doing without money.”Austen 164
Catherine, seventeen, lives a sheltered life with her parson father and mother, who has many children to care for. So when her wealthy neighbors, the Allens, invite her to Bath, she believes her future as a heroine is about to begin. Because, of course, Catherine hopes to be like the heroines of her Gothic novels.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”Austen 11
“It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen to books. . . . But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine”Austen 15
“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”Austen 16
Unfortunately for Catherine, Mrs. Allen is preoccupied more with the latest fashions than helping Catherine lay the foundations for heroine-hood. Of course, it doesn’t help that once in Bath, Mrs. Allen reconnects with her friend, Mrs. Thorpe, and her children, John and Isabella.
“Mrs. Thorpe talked chiefly of her children, and Mrs. Allen of her gowns.”Austen 38
Isabella gives off an air of sophistication and heroine-ness, which is why Catherine falls so quickly under her wing. Their shared love of Gothic novels helps them become fast friends.
“Their conversation turned upon those subjects, of which the free discussion has generally much to do in perfecting a sudden intimacy between two young ladies: such as dress, balls, flirtations, and quizzes.”Austen 34
However, Isabella will prove what Austen’s contemporaries would call a coquette or a flirt. I fear our own lexicon has less generous terms for her. Austen often writes about how the lack of a solid education for women as laid out by thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft can lead to women leading unfulfilling, shallow, coquettish lives. Isabella is a prime example of that.
“So pure and uncoquettish were her feelings that, though they overtook and passed the two offending young men in Milsom Street, she was so far from seeking to attract their notice, that she looked back at them only three times.”Austen 50-1
John is no help. He constantly flirts with Catherine, believes his friendship with her brother, James, and assumes that her traveling with the Allens means she will inherit their fortune. But, really, he’s just into her for her money and annoys her with his attention the whole time.
“Every young lady may feel for my heroine in this critical moment, for every young lady has at some time or other known the same agitation. All have been, or at least all have believed themselves to be in danger from the pursuit of someone whom they wished to avoid, and all have been anxious for the attentions of someone whom they wished to please.”Austen 84-5
Thank goodness for the Tilneys! Well, thank goodness for Eleanor and Henry (the hero), at least. Their father, General Tilney, and their older brother, Captain Tilney, are different matters entirely.
“Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”Austen 16
Catherine meets Henry at a ball in Bath. His quick wit, generosity, and affinity for reading capture her heart. When she meets his sister, Eleanor, Catherine feels safe in Eleanor’s good sense and kind heart. From the get-go, the Tilneys represent Austen’s voice. Henry is satirical, and Eleanor is practical. From them, we hear Austen’s warnings about education, high society, social status, and — of course — novels.
When the Tilney’s invite Catherine to return back to their estate, Northanger Abbey, she jumps at the chance. She believes the manor will be like those mysterious, medieval structures from her Gothic novels, and she cannot wait to explore.
“Northanger Abbey! These were thrilling words, and wound up Catherine’s feelings to the highest point of ecstasy.”Austen 158
This is where Catherine’s overdosing on thrillers leads her into trouble. With a “fevered imagination,” she develops a most ungenerous story about how Henry and Eleanor’s mother died, putting her budding romance with Henry and her vital friendship with Eleanor in peril.
“‘Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’”Austen 228
Through her blundering, Catherine must learn how to temper her reading with other types of writing and thinking.
“She felt humbled to the dust.”Austen 197
“The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. . . . The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears — could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express.”Austen 228
I like to think that Austen realized when she wrote Northanger Abbey that even though books like The Mysteries of Udolpho were entertaining and influential, novels still needed something more fundamental. Readers needed characters more like themselves to engage with.
“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps the human nature . . . was to be looked for.”Austen 229
Because, as we know, from Northanger, Austen went on to create characters who are hopelessly flawed, entirely redeemable, and so well-loved that we could see ourselves in them.
Why else are we reading her books two hundred years after they first hit bookshelves?