Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

NorthangerAbbeyNorthanger Abbey

Jane Austen

I read the free Amazon Kindle version.  The introduction describes it as the Signet Classic Text edition.  182 pgs.

Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in 1797-98, referring to it as both “Susan” and “Miss Catherine.”  In 1803 she sold the manuscript to the London publisher Crosbie & Co., but the book was never published.  In 1816, Jane bought the book back from Crosbie and made some revisions to it, but put it “on the shelf.”  Her brother Henry finally had the novel published in 1817, the year of Jane’s death. 1.

Other books I’ve read by Austen:  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility.  These masterpieces were written well after Northanger, and I noticed immediately how undeveloped this novel is when compared with the later works.  Perhaps Austen knew best when she “shelved” it in 1816.  I still need to read Mansfield Park and Emma to complete all the Austens on the Guardian list.

One other bibliographic note.  The main character, Catherine Morland, is a big fan of the gothic novels of her day, especially the works of Ann Radcliffe.  Radcliffe’s 1794 block-buster, The Mysteries of Udolpho (also on the Guardian list!), serves as both a point of discussion for the characters in Northanger and a sort of counter-plot.  The theme of literature (as in, what is good?  are novels bad?) winds throughout Northanger.  Remembering that this book is really part of Austen’s juvenalia, I could almost hear the young Austens enthusing about the horrors of Udolpho and urging sister Jane:  “You could write something even better!!!”  Fun thoughts.

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Now, the plot.  Our heroine, Catherine Morland, is a young, innocent and earnest young lady who is taken on a pleasure trip to the resort town of Bath by kindly Mr. and Mrs. Allen.  Catherine’s function is to act as a companion to the flighty and clothes-obsessed Mrs. Allen.

To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanities of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.  — Northanger Abbey.

Catherine’s brother James, who is on holiday from Oxford,  joins the party in Bath, and the two younger people are soon caught up in what I would imagine would be equivalent to a modern U.S. spring break in Daytona Beach — but with long dresses, chaperones and a big emphasis on drinking Bath’s medicinal waters instead of Bud Light.  Catherine and James form a sudden and intense friendship with brother and sister Isabella and John Thorpe.  Isabella is on the make for a rich husband and her maneuverings are obvious to anyone a mile away — except for the innocent and gullible Morlands.  John Thorpe is just a crazy maniac whose talents are limited to gossip and bragging.  At the same time, Catherine also meets the refined and fascinating Tilney family — brother and sister Eleanor and Henry, and their father, doughty General Tilney.

Bath from Beechen Cliff

City of Bath, view from Beechen Cliff. Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/945985. Creative Commons license by Derek Harper.

Catherine is very attracted to the handsome and kind Henry Tilney, and anxious to get away from John Thorpe.  She finds that Henry enjoys reading as much as she does and endorses her love of the gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  — Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Catherine is excited to think that the Tilneys live in an old Abbey, and imagines lots of mysterious adventures there.  She is ecstatic to be invited to stay at  Northanger Abbey for a kind of extended sleepaway party by Eleanor Tilney.  Once installed at Northanger, Catherine has several “gothic” adventures based more on her over-heated imaginings rather than any real hauntings.  She is brought soundly back to earth by some real-life gothic horrors that haunted young ladies of that day:  the powerlessness of poverty, the inability to find true love when one’s reputation is questioned, and the cruelty of so-called gentlemen.  Austen does provide a happy ending, but not after some true mysteries are brought to light.

I enjoyed this read, despite its rather skimpy plot.  Several main characters (Eleanor Tilney and General Tilney, for example) hardly ever speak, and their motivations are somewhat clumsily described second-hand by Austen.  Austen’s satiric gifts are present, but they will be more fully displayed in her later work.  For example, the ridiculous characters of Mrs. Allen and John Thorpe seem almost frantically portrayed; they will reappear skillfully drawn as Mrs. Bennett and Cousin Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  The gothic theme is carried through about three-fourths of the novel, but then abruptly dropped after Catherine is lectured by Henry about her imaginings.

Fun fact:  Northanger Abbey contains the first known reference to the sport of baseball. 2.

Northanger Abbey was another title that I probably would never have read, except for the Guardian Challenge.  I’m not sure I’m up for following this with The Mysteries of Udolpho, although that would make sense.  We’ll see!

Notes 1 & 2:  The Republic of Pemberly, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janewrit.html#northabbey.

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