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Northanger Abbey: An Overview

Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed for publication, though she had previously made a start on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. According to Cassandra Austen’s Memorandum, Susan (as it was first called) was written about the years 1798-1799. It was revised by Austen for the press in 1803, and sold in the same year for £10 to a London bookseller, Crosby & Co., who decided against publishing. The bookseller was content to sell it back to the novelist’s brother, Henry Austen, for the exact sum that he had paid for it at the beginning, not knowing that the writer was already the author of four popular novels. The novel was further revised before being brought out posthumously in late December 1817 (1818 given on the title-page), as the first two volumes of a four-volume set with Persuasion.

Northanger Abbey follows seventeen year old Gothic novel aficionado Catherine Morland and family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen as they visit Bath, England. Catherine is in Bath for the first time, and is excited to spend her time visiting newly-made friends, such as Isabella Thorpe, and going to balls. Catherine finds herself pursued by Isabella’s brother, the rather rough-mannered dandy John Thorpe, and by her real love interest, Henry Tilney. She also becomes friends with Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s younger sister. Henry captivates her with his view on novels and his knowledge of history and the world. General Tilney (Henry and Eleanor’s father) invites Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey, which, from her reading of Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, she expects to be dark, ancient and full of Gothic horrors and fantastical mystery.

Northanger Abbey is fundamentally a parody of Gothic fiction. Austen turns the conventions of eighteenth-century novels on their head, by making her heroine a plain and undistinguished girl from a middle-class family, allowing the heroine to fall in love with the hero before he has a serious thought of her, and exposing the heroine’s romantic fears and curiosities as groundless. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin speculates that Austen may have begun this book, which is more explicitly comic than her other works and contains many literary allusions that her parents and siblings would have enjoyed, as a family entertainment—a piece of lighthearted parody to be read aloud by the fireside. Some have considered the novel to be Jane Austen’s best work, as it is, in fact, the least like Jane Austen’s greater corpus than the remainder of her oeuvre. There is real significance in this observation, due primarily to the fact that Austen’s works are generally characterized as naïve and overly simplified, having no real connection with the real world.

Northanger Abbey exposes the difference between reality and fantasy and questions who can be trusted as a true companion and who might actually be a shallow, false friend. It is considered to be the most light-hearted of her novels.

Plot summary

Seventeen year old Catherine Morland is one of ten children of a country clergyman. Although a tomboy in her childhood, by the age of 17 she has become interested in clothes and balls and is excessively fond of reading, especially Gothic novels of which Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho is a favourite.

Catherine is invited by her wealthier neighbours in Fullerton, the Allens, to accompany them to visit the resort town of Bath and partake of the winter season of balls, theatre and other social delights. Although initially the excitement of experiencing Bath is dampened by her lack of acquaintances, she is soon introduced to an intriguing young gentleman named Henry Tilney, with whom she dances and converses. Catherine does not see Mr Tilney again for a few days after their first meeting, though her attention is quickly engaged when she makes friends with another young lady, Isabella Thorpe. Isabella tries to make a match between Catherine and her brother John, a rather crude young gentleman fond of hunting with dogs, saying “damn” and driving around at speed in his carriage. Catherine is as yet very naive and innocent and does not realise that John is pursuing her.

Catherine is soon introduced to Henry’s younger sister, Elinor Tilney, who is a very sweet, intelligent and respectable young lady. Elinor provides a contrast with the manipulative Isabella. Catherine also meets the Tilney’s father, the imposing and intimidating General Tilney.

The Thorpes are not very happy about Catherine’s friendship with the Tilneys, as they (correctly as it happens) perceive Henry as a rival for Catherine’s affections. She tries to maintain her friendships with both the Thorpes and the Tilneys. John Thorpe continually tries to sabotage her relationship with the Tilneys, which leads to many misunderstandings, which upset and confuse Catherine. Eventually, Catherine convinces the Tilneys that she is interested in a friendship with them.

Isabella announces her engagement to Catherine’s brother James Morland. James applies to his father, Mr Morland, for financial assistance to help the young couple marry. Mr Morland offers James a country parson’s living worth a modest sum, which he will be able to have in two years, allowing him to marry then. Isabella is disappointed and dissatisfied because James is not the rich young man she had previously thought him to be. She claims, however, that her disappointment stems only from not being able to marry James immediately. At a ball, whilst James is away, Isabella meets Henry’s older brother, the dashing and charming Captain Tilney. Captain Tilney is a womaniser and Isabella immediately starts a flirtation with him. Innocent Catherine is upset and cannot understand her friend’s behavior, but Henry understands it all too well, as he knows his brother’s character and habits. The flirtation continues even when James returns, much to James’ embarrassment and distress.

The Tilneys invite Catherine to stay with them for a few weeks at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine, who has read too many Gothic novels, expects the abbey to be large and frightening, and Henry encourages her fears in order to tease her. Her first night there is very stormy; she discovers mysterious manuscripts in her bedroom, and her candle suddenly goes out. The next morning, she reads the papers eagerly, only to discover they are prosaic laundry lists. She is disappointed that Northanger Abbey is pleasant and positively un-Gothic. However, there is a mysterious suite of rooms that no one ever goes into: Catherine learns that they were Mrs. Tilney’s, who died nine years earlier. Catherine, with her overactive imagination, decides that since General Tilney does not seem affected by his wife’s death now, he must have been indifferent or perhaps hostile to her. Perhaps he murdered her. Or she may still be alive and imprisoned in the house!

Catherine persuades Eleanor to show her Mrs. Tilney’s rooms, but General Tilney suddenly appears. Catherine flees, sure that she will be punished. Later, Catherine sneaks back to Mrs. Tilney’s rooms, but is startled by Henry, who is passing in the corridor. Panicked, she admits her speculations about his father. He is horrified but, surprisingly gently, corrects her wild notions. She leaves crying, fearing that Henry is angry and will want nothing to do with her.

As Catherine is suffering these fears, James writes to inform her that he has been deceived by Isabella, and that he broke off their engagement because she flirted so determinedly with Captain Tilney. The Tilneys are shocked; Catherine is disenchanted with Isabella and expresses the wish that she had never known her. The General goes off to London and Eleanor becomes less inhibited and shy away from the imposing presence of her father. In General Tilney’s absence, Catherine passes several enjoyable days with Henry and Eleanor until he returns abruptly, in a temper. Eleanor tells Catherine that the family has an engagement that prevents Catherine from staying any longer and that she must go home early the next morning, in a shocking, inhospitable move that forces her to undertake a frightening journey alone by public stagecoach.

At home, Catherine is unhappy and confused. She has no idea what went wrong or why General Tilney threw her out of his home. She convinces herself that Henry must have told the General that she suspected him of murdering his wife. Several days later, Henry pays a sudden unexpected visit, and explains what happened. General Tilney was enchanted with Catherine and wished her to marry Henry, but only because John Thorpe (who was infatuated with Catherine at the time) had misinfomed him that she was the heiress of the wealthy Mr Allen. In London, General Tilney ran into Thorpe again, who, angry at Catherine’s refusal of his half-made proposal of marriage, said instead that she was nearly destitute. General Tilney, who did not want his son to marry a poor woman, returned home to evict Catherine. Henry tells Catherine that he has broken with his father and that he still wants to marry her despite his father’s disapproval. Catherine is delighted.

Eventually, General Tilney acquiesces, because Eleanor has become engaged to a wealthy and titled man, and he discovers that the Morlands, while not extremely rich, are far from destitute.

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