Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the tradition of the late eighteenth century sentimental and gothic novels which it parodies, Northanger Abbey presents its heroine with a series of increasingly difficult trials that she must overcome in order to achieve self-knowledge, knowledge about the world, and the hand of her true love. Yet Catherine Morland is an atypical heroine, and her adventures are less than heroic.

The novel covers a period of approximately two months, six weeks of which are spent in the resort town of Bath, where the seventeen-year-old Catherine goes with Mr. and Mrs. Allen, her well-meaning but ineffectual chaperones. After an initial period of discomfort and loneliness, Catherine meets Henry Tilney, who immediately charms her with a parody of the affectations of Bath society. Catherine’s happiness is increased by meeting Isabella Thorpe, who quickly becomes her intimate friend. The girls passionately share opinions on novels, thoughts on fashion, and gossip. Then Catherine’s brother, James, and Isabella’s brother, John, arrive in Bath. Even though Catherine discovers that John is not entirely pleasant, she becomes part of a foursome established by Isabella and James. To complicate matters further for Catherine, Henry Tilney introduces her to his sister, Eleanor, with whom Catherine also desires friendship.

Catherine is pulled between these two quite different sets of friends. Henry and Eleanor offer Catherine intelligent and reasonable companionship, guiding her mind and her social...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Fullerton. English parsonage in Wiltshire, about eight miles from Salisbury, that is home to seventeen-year-old Catherine, whose father is the local rector. The family is relatively prosperous, and Catherine is introduced as rather attractive, but “ignorant and uninformed.”


*Bath. Resort city in western England famous for its hot springs and Roman ruins. Catherine visits Bath for several weeks at the invitation of the Allens, owners of Fullerton. At first, Catherine experiences the discomfort of being in such a crowded place without knowing anyone else there; however, she has Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novel to occupy her mind as she begins to meet people. A whole new world opens to her at Bath; she is delighted with the social life of the colony. There, she meets the more worldly Isabella Thorpe, who takes it upon herself to instruct Catherine in the ways of society. Isabella also introduces Catherine to her brother, John Thorpe.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey. Old country home of the Tilneys, who invite Catherine to come for a visit. Catherine is thrilled because reading Radcliffe’s novel makes her expect to find subterranean tunnels, haunted rooms, and medieval furnishings in the abbey. Her overnourished imagination moves her to begin her stay by trying to open old cabinets in her room and imagining the medieval manuscripts she may find. Her host, General...

(The entire section is 450 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

By the end of the eighteenth century, the novel came to be seen as primarily a middle-class, female genre, written by women for women who had the leisure time to spend reading. This fiction included sentimental novels; gothic romances, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794); and novels of adolescence, such as Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Such works were seen as exerting a powerful influence on their readers: They could be useful educational tools for young women, or they could dangerously encourage overactive imaginations and produce insatiable desires for romance and adventure. In Northanger Abbey, Austen draws on both of these convictions about novels. Woven into the narrative of Catherine’s adventures, and against the background of sentimental and gothic conventions, are the threads of Austen’s comments on female education, novel reading, and oppressive social conventions.

In an important way, Northanger Abbey is about female education and reading: There are numerous comments, from both the characters and the narrator, about reading and novels in terms of entertainment and social value. The novel is a kind of rational corrective to the sorts of books which it parodies. Readers—Catherine included—learn the importance of giving precedence to judgment rather than imagination and to reason rather than fancy.

More significantly, reading in this novel entails interpreting correctly other people and social situations. Trained only by the books that she reads, Catherine is unprepared for the actual social dangers that she encounters. She learns that life is not as frightening as it is in gothic novels, but the lessons that she learns about human nature are frightening in some ways: Beautiful expressions of friendship and sentiment can hide a shallow, manipulative nature; men can be cruel and abusive; and a young woman’s position in the world is rather precarious. Catherine must learn how to judge character and to make the right decisions if she is to survive in the world.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. The first part of this two-part study describes the political and feminist controversies of the period. The second part examines Austen’s novels within this historical context and demonstrates her conservative politics. Includes an index.

Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 1989. A good basic reference for the general reader. Dwyer suggests that Northanger Abbey is the novel that gives the best introduction to Austen’s worldview and writing style. Includes a selected bibliography.

Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel. London: Macmillan, 1983. Fergus differs from many critics in considering Austen’s early novels to be primarily intended to instruct the readers. The chapter on Northanger Abbey considers the novel from this perspective.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. This feminist study examines Austen within a female literary tradition, arguing that Austen balances her criticism of male-dominated social structures and her feminine submission to those same structures.

Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen’s...

(The entire section is 571 words.)