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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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?

Northanger Abbey

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

Related posts

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

In the society of Jane Austen (December 2019)

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In the society of Jane Austen

Don’t we all have something that we are very enthusiastic about? I hope so. Enthusiasm is a great thing. For some people it is steam trains; for others its chocolate or wine; I know people who enthuse about football. For me it’s the books of Jane Austen and even Jane Austen herself.

I own copies of all her novels, even those she did not complete. Some in duplicate. And the collection of her letters. And several biographies. And a lovely book called Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 300 years of classic covers by Margaret Sullivan.

I have visited her house at Chawton, looked at her legendary writing table and the patchwork bed quilt she made with her female relatives. I own and use a Penguin Pride and Prejudice mug

I am not a fan of tv or cinema adaptations of the novels. For one thing they focus on the story and must occasionally take liberties by showing details where the text would explain all. For example, some people may be surprised to learn that Mr Darcy did not dive into his pond wearing a loose shirt just before he met Elizabeth Bennett at Pemberley. And adaptations can limit the imagination. It is hard not to see Colin Firth at Mr Darcy, and it even made a jolly good joke when filming Brigit Jones. And the adaptations focus on story, story, story, leaving out so much. 

And I’m not a fan of sequels or finishings off of the unfinished. However much we want to write fan fiction I think it is better left unpublished. Nor am I a fan of some covers. What scene in Pride and Prejudice does this cover depict? 

And is this your view of Captain Wentworth of the red face?

Jane Austen Society

But I do love to talk about her novels. And I like to read them. And I like to hear other people talking about them and about Jane Austen herself. And so I joined the South West branch of the Jane Austen Society. There are more than 80 of us. We meet four times a year, and we listen to two people talking to us about some Jane Austen-related things. 

There are lots of things I enjoy about this group. There are some very well read people, scholars and experts in the group. And the officers arrange for experts from other parts of the country or even from abroad to address us. We learn about such things as dress and its social implications in Bath, her schoolteachers, the seaside, members of Jane Austen’s family, and her interest in music. We enjoy close textual appreciation, or hearing about the fate of the many editions of her books since they came out of copyright. 

It was with 27 other members of the society that I went to Kent in search of Jane Austen and wrote about it on a post, wondering why we undertake cultural tourism. I’m going on another trip next year. 

The friendliness of the group, mostly women, mostly of my age, all sharing an enthusiasm, is another reason to enjoy this group. 

And it’s a wonderful place to overhear remarks:

I didn’t even know there was a Jane Austen Society until I was having lunch with a friend.

I have a friend who’s very keen on Jane Austen.

I need to belong to the Migraine Society.

And to pick up useful bookish phrases:

… read to bits …

Cheap books lead hard lives.

Smoocher (meaning a borrower but not returner of small things, C19th)

And to gather reading suggestions. 

And following our most recent meeting I have started to reread Northanger Abbey

Does anyone share my enthusiasm for a writer in the same way?

Related Posts on Bookword

Lady Susan by Jane Austen (April 2015)

Pursuing Jane Austen (June 2019)

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At the Queen’s Gallery …

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At the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace I meet again the companions of O level History – the Tudors and Stuarts and some of their European contemporaries. There’s Erasmus, and Durer’s Rhinoceros, Henry VIII, some of his wives and courtiers, Martin Luther, and some fabulous silverware, chalices mostly. They feel like family friends, and I’m calling in on them to catch up, finding them reassuringly unchanged. (The Northern Renaissance, Durer to Holbein – until 14th April 2013.)

After that thought comes the idea of late evening in the gallery. The Queen in her pink fluffy dressing gown and soft slippers is padding down to her Gallery with a mug of cocoa. Behind her is a footman with an upholstered chair (red velvet, of course), which he places in front of her favourite picture of the moment. A second flunky discretely positions a footstool. A corgi flops down to wait, its chin on its paws, at ease with this routine. Tonight she contemplates Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, a rather mean-faced man dressed in ermine and holding a pool cue (actually the gold baton of Earl Marshal). He has become familiar to readers through Hilary Mantel’s novels: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Strangely, in the Gallery he is not being played by a well-known English stage actor, but takes his embellishment from his costume and his staffs of office.

The Queen can visit her gallery at any time, have an insider’s view into its quiet night-time secrets, then glide back to her cosy bed. Perhaps librarians can do the same? They can indulge in putting the newspapers back in order, shaking them so that the front page is neatly ready for recycling. They can alphabeticize the encyclopaedias, in reverse for once. They can find that secret volume they slipped behind the ranks, page marked with a slip RETURN THIS BOOK BEFORE THE DATE STAMPED BELOW OR RISK A FINE. PEOPLE OVER 60 AND UNDER 16 PAY NO FINES. Or replace the books in the stacks ready for readers in the morning. Or read in the special quiet of a room full of books.

But what of writers? Did Jane Austen sip her tisane nightcap while considering what gothic horrors she would avoid inflicting upon that silly Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) the footsteps on the stairs, the disturbances in the attic, the scraping at the window and the voice on the wind calling ‘Cathy, Cathy’?

Writers visit their books, their stories, their characters before they sleep. They mull over who will tell this story. Ishiguro says he interviews each character to arrive at his decision. They consider the next scene, its pulse, its tension, its connection with the previous scenes and the next. They search for the image to catch the reader’s attention, to show their characters’ reactions. They change the sex of their protagonist, their marital status, their occupation, date of birth, location. Sitting at the computer or the notebook, the glass of whiskey close by, the darkness looming beyond the pool of their desk lamp, writers exercise their dominion over their subjects.

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