Northanger Abbey occupies a strange place in the Austen oeuvre. It was the first of her major works to be completed in full (1803), but it wasn’t published until after her death (1817). The first half of the story is a comedy of manners, the second is a satirical spin on the Gothic novel. Her heroine is plain and annoying, but still wins the love of the hero in the end. If the Austen novels were a family, Northanger Abbey would be the weird cousin who never says anything in the group chat.
It would seem that, in writing Northanger Abbey, Austen took her frustration with the tropes of Gothic novels (the shrinking violet heroines, the spooky haunted houses, etc.) and turned it into a story of her own. The Introduction to my edition cites “Austen’s deep-seated dislike of pretension… [and] the absurdities of contemporary literature” as sources of inspiration as well. Basically, Austen wanted to send-up the schlocky novels of her day – something like My Best Friend’s Exorcism would be today’s equivalent.
So, instead of a beautiful young woman who faints at a whiff of excitement, Austen chose for her heroine Catherine Morland, a particularly-naive and over-eager bookworm. She’s a middle-class middle child (of ten!), undistinguished and generally unremarkable. If I had to summarise the central thesis of Northanger Abbey‘s opening chapter, it would be: “This bitch! I mean, she tries, but damn.”
The narrator tells us directly that Catherine is “not really” a heroine. That’s another thing: the narrator’s position in Northanger Abbey is unlike any of the others I’ve read so far of Austen. It’s third-person in the sense that the story is told from an outside perspective, not by one of the characters involved, but at the same time it’s not an omniscient or fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, either. The narrator – slash Austen herself – makes little asides to the reader throughout, offering her own commentary and insights into what’s going on and what the reader should make of it all.
The “inciting incident” is Catherine’s invitation to join some family friends on a sojourn to Bath. Of course, she accepts, and while she’s staying with them, she befriends the world’s most Extra supporting character, Isabella. She’s all “oh, you simply MUST come for a walk with me, or I will DIE, I will be DECEASED, for you are my BEST FRIEND IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD and without YOU I would meet an UNTIMELY DEATH!”, on every damn page. Still, Catherine doesn’t seem to find her as exhausting as I did; she joins Isabella at balls, at the theater, at the baths, and so on.
Shortly thereafter, Catherine also meets Henry Tilney – our leading man. He’s not as dashing or charismatic as other Austen heroes, but he’s got his own kind of charm. The blurb for Northanger Abbey described him as “irresistible but unsentimental”, which is bang on. Catherine immediately falls head-over-heels in love with him – even goes so far as to befriend his sister Eleanor, in an effort to get closer to him – but he seems just mildly entertained by her (well, until the happily-ever-after).
You know who’s more-than-mildly entertained by Catherine? John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. He’s crude and gross and would definitely have sent Catherine dick pics if he’d had the technology. He never shuts up, either. Catherine doesn’t want a bar of him, but ends up kind-of accidentally stringing him along, in an effort not to hurt his or Isabella’s feelings. Whoops.
Catherine’s own brother, James, joins them in Bath for a bit, and decides he’s in love with Isabella. She’s keen on him too, and accepts his proposal of marriage… only to come down with a ghastly case of cold feet, coincidentally around the same time as she finds out he’s not rich. She starts trying to flirt her way into a more fruitful marriage, but by the end of Northanger Abbey she gets her comeuppance and James gets away scot-free.
Once the party’s over in Bath, Eleanor invites her new friend Catherine to come and stay with her and her brother (Henry, the hottie, remember?) at their place, the titular Northanger Abbey. Catherine, having read a lot of Gothic novels, expects a spooky haunted house filled with ghosts of long-ago traumas and whatnot. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. She stays there safe and happy as a welcome and beloved houseguest, until Eleanor and Henry’s father boots her.
That’s very bad news for Catherine, given her plan to seduce Henry and marry him and love him forevermore. Turns out, his father had had the same idea, which is why she was invited to the abbey in the first place, only Daddy thought his future daughter-in-law was wealthy. When a (scorned) John Thorpe told him she was practically a pauper, he quickly tried to pull up the seeds he had sown.
Henry’s not having a bar of that. He flips Daddy the bird, and rides like the wind to Catherine’s side, to tell her that he does love her after all (rich or no) and they’ll be married (with Daddy’s approval or no). Oh, and Eleanor manages to marry rich, too, which goes quite some way to assuaging Daddy’s concerns. Badabing, badaboom, there’s your happy ending!
So, as far as Austen novels go, Northanger Abbey is more bold and bawdy than some of her more-renowned offerings. While it hits a lot of the same notes as your Emmas and your Pride And Prejudices, it hits them a lot harder, and holds the pedal down for good measure. Take, for instance, the very obvious moral position with regards to literacy: all of the “good” characters of Northanger Abbey love books and talk about them at length, while all of the “bad” characters turn their noses up at them. I wonder what Austen was getting at with that, hmm?
(I feel I should also mention – though it was hard to work out where, so this will have to do! – that there are a couple of instances of blatant anti-Semitism, which I found really jarring, having not encountered that particular type of antiquated nastiness in Austen’s work previously. Just a heads up!)
I think I preferred the subtlety of Austen’s later work, but there’s something to be said for the explicit humour of Northanger Abbey – her other works made me nod appreciatively, while this one made me literally lol. I suppose it depends what you’re in the mood for as to which side you come down on. Still, I found this a cracking good read, and any Austen fan worth their salt should give it a go.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Northanger Abbey:
- “I think she’s just freaking herself out.” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
- “Jane Austen is a very proficient writer indeed.” – revrich333
- “This book was like purposefully watching a terrible documentary to help you fall asleep. Every time I picked this book up I fell asleep. This is not a book I would recommend unless you need sleep.” – Andrea
- “Not really a book about a heroine. No heroine here just a girl that lucks up marrying the man she liked. Boring.” – KTWeed
- “it was okay I guess, I liked the wishbone version better” – toyherb