I have heard it said that Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s least good novel, not their favourite. Such readers suggest that it has a soggy middle as Catherine Morland is carried away by her novel-inspired imagination. Northanger Abbey has the reputation of being a satire on the contemporary popularity of the gothic novel, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (mentioned in the text).
I have heard people say that Henry Tilney is the perfect hero, deserving of the love of a good woman because of his patience and tact. And I have read that it is a novel about novels and novel readers. Do any of these views capture the value of Northanger Abbey? Are these the reasons to reread it yet again?
Catherine Morland is seventeen, unworldly and from a large family of adequate means who live quietly in Wiltshire. She is taken to stay in Bath by a friend of the family. The scene is set for Catherine’s adventures to show up some truths about Bath and the world.
Under the care Mr and Mrs Allen she experiences the fashionable life of Bath, at first not knowing anyone, then befriended by the Thorpes. Isabella becomes her best friend. Isabella’s brother John Thorpe sees the world as he wants, and he assumes that Catherine is interested in him, although she is soon bored of his bragging company.
She prefers Henry Tilney who was introduced to her by the Master of Ceremonies in the Lower Assembly Rooms. He danced with her when she knew no one. She meets his sister and Eleanor quickly becomes a better friend than Isabella. Under the misapprehension that she is an heiress, thanks to John Thorpe’s bragging misinformation, General Tilney encourages his son’s attentions and Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey.
The General returns from a trip to London where he has been disabused of his ideas about Catherine and turns her out of the house. Henry follows her and declares his love. All are reconciled.
Believing what you want to believe
A number of people in this story believe what they want to believe. Catherine wants some mystery and drama and so mistakes what she finds in the Abbey. The General has expectations for Catherine in Mr Allen’s imaginary fortune. And when he learns her true situation he is unable to admit to his own mistakes and treats her shockingly. While she was wrong about his capacity for murder, she had rightly suspected that he was capable of great cruelty.
Isabella and John Thorpe both believe the best of themselves, larding their conversations with Catherine with obvious untruths and self-flattery. And their selfish and careless behaviour places her in some embarrassing and unwanted situations.
Of all the people that Catherine meets it is only the Tilneys, Henry and Eleanor, who do not use her to flatter themselves or to fulfil their wishes. And Catherine herself, when she relies on her feelings rather than her wild imagination has good judgement. She also learns from her own hot-headedness and from the betrayal of her ‘friend’ Isabella Thorpe.
And the writing tells us …
Much of the book is written in the negative: what you shouldn’t think about the heroine or her story, how her origins are not mean, her experiences not dire, and how the story does not end. It is an achievement to have made a novel about a heroine who is hardly remarkable, indeed has many faults. The first page is a teasing account of all the reasons why Catherine does not make a good heroine. She has attractions however, which we finally learn on p 41, with a light twist in the final line.
…her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and when in good looks, pretty – and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is. (41)
And this teasing continues throughout the book, especially when Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her.
And throughout, Jane Austen reminds us that in novels we are often invited to expect the unreasonable and the heroic. When General Tilney sends Catherine away, without even a servant to accompany her on a complicated journey, it will look to the world as if she is in disgrace. The author takes a moment to remind us that Catherine is not a romantic heroine.
A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all triumph of recovered reputation and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise-and-four, behind her is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell: it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows. – But my affair is widely different: I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of sprits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. Swiftly therefore shall her post-boy drive through the village, amid the gaze of Sunday groups, speedy shall be her descent from it. (230)
There is a great deal in Northanger Abbey about books and reading and Catherine’s excitement at the latest sensational novel and at the prospect of visiting a real Abbey is evidence of her lack of judgement.
The author herself has a short rant about how novels and novel-reading are disrespected by reviewers and readers and aspirational society. Towards the end of Northanger Abbey Henry contradicts Catherine’s suggestion that reading novels is not undertaken by gentlemen …
‘… because they are not clever enough for you. Gentlemen read better books.’
‘The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ (121)
And I might just draw your attention to Jane Austen’s very post-modern device of drawing attention to the novel’s structure and devices as you read, in other words, adding a little meta-fiction.
A British film adaptation was made in 2007, screenplay by Andrew Davies and directed by Jon Jones. I have not seen it.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen first published in 1818. I read the Penguin English Library edition from 1972. 252pp
Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)
Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)
In the society of Jane Austen (December 2019)