‘The story’s unlikely heroine is Catherine Morland, a remarkably innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey? Can she trust Henry, or is he part of an evil conspiracy? Catherine finds dreadful portents in the most prosaic events, until Henry persuades her to see the peril in confusing life with art.
My first Austen for an age – and I’m not sure I ever read this one – has revealed itself to be delightful: genuinely funny and literate with a well fleshed out protagonist and a surprisingly knowing and assured narrative voice – for a novel written when the author was but 28.
What I Liked
- The knowing parody of literary tropes in both Catherine Moreland as a romantic heroine and in Northanger Abbey as a Gothic manor.
- The very real social satire and genuine humour and fun that Austen seemed to feel writing the novel.
What Could Have Been Different
It was whilst I was reading this that it hit the Telegraph that the novel had been given “trigger warning” by the University of Greenwich. Cue, all the predictable furore – to all of which I shake my head in distant amusement! Was it actually a trigger warning? Was it? Does it matter if it was? Did the novel merit it?
Personally I found the novel to be charming and witty. Catherine Morland seemed to strike a chord for me: being young, unexceptional, born into a safe county town with a comfortably middle class family, she escapes the tedium of her upbringing with reading and novels. Her description is
a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.
And even from here on page one we see Austen identifying traditional gender roles, in order to satirise exactly those pursuits that ‘society’ and ‘novels’ might expect of a romantic heroine. And that satire continues throughout the novel. As she escapes the confines of her country home to the exoticism and romance of Bath – and perhaps to see Bath as exotic and romantic highlights the limitations of her home – with family friends, she makes new friends in the Thorpes and the Tilneys. Mr Tilney himself is a fantastic character: his first conversation with Catherine mocks and satirises the conventions of courtship and of society as he
suddenly addressed her with—“I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent—but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.”
And he proceeds to grill her in a simpering voice and affected exclamations, consciously and self-deprecatingly until he exclaims
“I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—“I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”
“But, perhaps, I keep no journal.”
“Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal…!”
Over the following chapters, the Thorpes try to inveigle their way into Catherine’s affections: initially she is befriended by Isabella and then her brother John Thorpe who has already befriended Catherine’s brother, James. Whereas Henry Tilney mocks his society conventions, John Thorpe is bound to them and therefore mocked by Austen – I found his pompous and irritating monologues on the pedigree and prowess of his horses hilarious, which was just as well as that seemed to be the only real conversation he was able to offer.
The pairs of siblings that the novel offers up – Catherine and James Morland, Henry and Eleanot Tilney, Isabella and John Thorpe – and the friendships and romantic entanglements and pairings off that occurred – Catherine and Isabella and Eleanor, James and Isabella, Catherine and Henry, John and Catherine – gave the novel a rhythm that felt a little like a dance at times. Rivalries and machinations grew, petty points were scored, successes achieved and marriages matched and withdrawn from.
Henry Tilney – spoilers – wins our heroine’s heart and affections and invites her to spend time at his family mansion, the eponymous Northanger Abbey. It is here that Austen really turns her attention to the second subject of her satire, the gothic novel. Isabella and Catherine had been reading The Mysteries of Udulpho by Ann Radcliffe and thrilling over the Gothic delights and extremes – so when invited to an Abbey, Catherine assumed that it would be run down, with broken spires, mysterious passageways and secrets waiting to be discovered. And Henry Tilney, riding with Catherine delights in teasing her further
“No, certainly. We shall not have to explore our way into a hall dimly lighted by the expiring embers of a wood fire—nor be obliged to spread our beds on the floor of a room without windows, doors, or furniture. But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed, of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance? Will not your heart sink within you?”
I found the way that Catherine – disappointed in the cleanliness and modernity of the Abbey once she actually arrives – pursues her fantasy of a gothic secret to the point where she assumes that the Tilney’s father had murdered or immured their mother fantastic! And the excitement that we see in her when she discovers a secret compartment in a chest containing a parchment was almost sexual: her heart “beat quick”, her cheek “flushed”, her heart “fluttered” and her knees “trembled” and her had was “tremulous” and “unsteady”. As the storm rages outside and her gothic imagination flowers, we are told that she is so aroused that “to retire to bed, however, unsatisfied on such a point, would be vain”. Racy things for a Georgian novel.
One of the things I enjoyed about Henry Tilney as a character was that he was a mimic and an actor, slipping from the voice of a society gent in Bath to that of a gothic narrator and later to that of a sexist bigot as he says
Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.
And it is clear that Henry Tilney is not himself any of these things, no more than Austen is. In fact, the moment we see the real Henry Tilney is when all these masks fall away when his father – the overbearing but not murderous General Tilney – summarily dismisses poor Catherine from the Abbey. His challenge to his father, his determination to love where his heart falls rather than where his father thinks fiscally prudent, his courage was wonderful.
All in all, as a reader who did not remember enjoying Austen at University, as a thin, awkward and unpropitious for heroism myself. Maybe I was not quite ready for her at the age of eighteen because I did thoroughly enjoy this novel.
Jane Austen, an English novelist known primarily for her six major novels, which interpret, critique, and comment upon the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century. Austen’s plots often explore the dependence of women on marriage in the pursuit of favourable social standing and economic security. Her works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century literary realism. Her use of social commentary, realism and biting irony have earned her acclaim among critics and scholars.
2 thoughts on “Book Review: Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen”
I haven’t read this one yet. I’m slowly going through Jane Austen’s list.
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I don’t think this one gets enough love! Austen is so witty, and this one shows that to the full.
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