Classic Literature

Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

On the day after Valentine’s Day, who better to review than Jane Austen — especially as my last review, Dorian Gray, was about as far from a love story as I can imagine.  I wouldn’t actually call this a romance, although it falls in that genre.  Northanger Abbey has a very different feel from Austen’s other works; it is shorter, lighter, and more humorous.  It is actually Austen’s first novel but was one of the last published.  In fact, it was co-published posthumously in 1818 with Persuasion, by Austen’s brother.

The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland, a young woman who has little experience outside her own country village until she is invited to Bath with family friends, the Allens.  In Bath she befriends two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys.

The Thorpes are Isabella and her brother John. Isabella is in a relationship with Catherine’s brother James, and John and Catherine make the group a convenient foursome.  Catherine finds John self-centered and boring, but at the same time she wants to please these new friends and wants to be loyal to her brother.

The Tilneys are older brother Henry, younger sister Eleanor, and their father, General Tilney.  Catherine is instantly drawn to Henry Tilney, and his affection seems to be returned.  Unlike the rather simple-minded John, Henry can actually talk to Catherine about books they both enjoy (which for me is definitely an indicator of the person you ought to spend your life with).

Austen begins this book with a detailed description of naïve, inexperienced Catherine who views herself as the “heroine” of her favorite gothic novels, in which life is full of romance, drama, and mystery.  In contrast, however, Catherine impressed me as someone who speaks her mind and expresses how she feels.

This is demonstrated by the bad behavior of the Thorpes, who actually go to some length to separate Catherine from her new friends.  They seem to resent any time she spends outside of their little group, if only because her presence allows James and Isabella to spend time together while properly chaperoned.   Increasingly, they lie to her and put her in situations where she appears to be very rude to the Tilneys.  Fortunately, Catherine stands up for herself and is quick to go to the Tilneys and explain the deception.  There are several misunderstandings with the Tilneys that could be disastrous, but are quickly resolved by Catherine’s honesty and willingness to confront problems head-on.

Given her growing friendship with Henry and Eleanor, Catherine is thrilled to be invited to visit their home at Northanger Abbey.  She loves old buildings, particularly gothic, ruined castles and abbeys, and is anxious to explore all of its “mysteries”.  Henry teases her by building a scenario in her head where she stumbles across mysterious passageways and locked drawers holding long-lost notes.  Unfortunately, though she knows he is teasing, these things influence her perception of the Abbey.  Without going into too much detail, she becomes concerned about the fate of Eleanor and Henry’s mother, who died when they were children.  She begins to imagine horrible crimes committed in the house, even the possibility that General Tilney has her locked up in the house somewhere.

As Catherine is sneaking around trying to uncover the mystery, she runs into Henry and (with only minimal prodding) tells him of her suspicions.  Henry scolds Catherine for jumping to ridiculous conclusions based on the silly novels she reads.  Catherine immediately sees her error and is devastated at losing Henry’s good opinion.  But as both characters have time to reflect, they mend their friendship.  This is the really nice thing about this novel –rather than prolonging the misunderstanding, or leaving Henry and Catherine to simmer and worry, they just talk and come to know each other better. Catherine grows as a human being with each incident that shows her that life is not as dramatic or mysterious as the novels she reads.

As a love story, I don’t think Catherine and Henry are up there with Elizabeth and Darcy or Emma and Knightley.  This book doesn’t develop Henry’s character as much as it could, and their relationship is not the main focus of the story. Catherine also doesn’t have the extreme personalities of the other Austen heroines – she’s not as responsible as Eleanor Dashwood, not as brilliant as Elizabeth, not as passionate as Marianne, and not as independent as Emma Woodhouse.  Still, she’s a very likable character – she is honest, stays true to herself, cares greatly for her family and her friends, and her worst quality is an overactive imagination.

What this novel does effectively is parody the gothic novels of the time with wit and humor.  Austen also focuses on the development of a single character, rather than a complicated relationship story.  Which is not to say that Catherine and Henry’s path is easy — as always, Austen navigates issues of income, societal expectations, family approval, and the many misunderstandings that can arise between two people (especially with so many less-than-honest people around them).

I didn’t find this to be Austen’s best book, but considering that she only published six novels, it’s well worth reading, if only to compare her style over time.

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