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 sensibility. On the other hand, she finds herself easily coerced into doing things with her brother and the Thorpes because of her affectionate nature and her desire for adventures. Repeatedly, Isabella and John manipulate Catherine into breaking engagements with the Tilneys in order to “chaperone” Isabella on her encounters with James. One such venture is a proposed trip to Blaize Castle, the source of great fascination for Catherine. While she strongly desires to satisfy her imagination with this trip to a “real castle,” she has already made plans with the Tilneys. Despite the violent arguments used by her brother and the Thorpes, Catherine breaks away from them and joins the Tilneys on a walk in the countryside above the town. They discuss the merits of reading history, which exercises both the imagination and the reason, and of reading fiction, which exercises only the imagination.
Catherine, who has been learning important social and literary lessons, now has that education put to the test. First, she is puzzled and concerned as she witnesses Isabella turn cool toward James and begin a flirtation with Colonel Tilney, Henry’s brother. She knows that Isabella is acting with impropriety, but she is unable to influence her. Second, she is invited by Eleanor to visit Northanger Abbey, an invitation which fantasy-prone Catherine excitedly accepts. On the way to the Abbey, Henry playfully tells Catherine a gothic tale of mystery and mayhem about his home. Catherine discovers, however, that the Abbey is more an ordinary home than a truly gothic abode and that the tantalizing chest and cabinet in her room contain only linens and a laundry list. Still desiring to solve a gothic mystery, Catherine seeks to unravel the obscure circumstances of Mrs. Tilney’s death, believing that General Tilney, like a true gothic villain, murdered his wife.
Catherine’s last days at the Abbey are unpleasant ones. She learns that Isabella has been a false friend. Then, when he learns of her sleuthing, Henry chastises the mortified, and incorrect, Catherine for her speculations. Finally, the general, who has heard that Catherine is not an heiress, unceremoniously forces her out of his house. She is sent home, abject, penniless, and alone. In the end, however, Henry comes to the wiser and more mature...
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Catherine and proposes. The novel happily closes with the promise of their impending marriage.
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. 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 Tilney, is a widower and an unsympathetic character, and Catherine builds a fantasy of the unhappy life of his former wife, leading her to suspect that the woman died under painful circumstances—perhaps even that the general himself did away with her. Catherine also imagines that Tilney’s wife may still be living—imprisoned somewhere within the abbey. However, when Catherine actually visits the former Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, she is surprised to discover how pleasant and modern it is; indeed, it is one of the most attractive rooms in the abbey. She subsequently learns the prosaic truth about Mrs. Tilney’s illness and death and is embarrassed by her own wild imaginings. The truth destroys most of her fantasy-based ideas about Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey is an amusing parody of gothic novels, with their mysterious castles and abbeys, gloomy villains, incredibly accomplished heroines, sublime landscapes, and supernatural claptrap. Austen’s satire is not, however, pointed only at such novels; the exaggerated romantic sensibility of the gothic enthusiast is also a target. Northanger Abbey is a comic study of the ironic discrepancies between the prosaic world in which Catherine lives and the fantastic shapes that her imagination, fed by gothic novels, gives to that world. Throughout the novel, the author holds up the contrast between the heroine’s real situation and the gothic world she fantasizes.
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.
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 Art of Memory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Explores the literary and intellectual influences of Austen’s own reading on her novels, demonstrating how Northanger Abbey drew upon John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Contains a bibliography and an index.
Jones, Vivien. How to Study a Jane Austen Novel. London: Macmillan, 1987. Designed to help students develop their own critical skills, this text offers practical advice about how to read, understand, and analyze literature. Jones uses selected passages from Northanger Abbey in her discussion of the power of the authorial voice.
Lauber, John. Jane Austen. New York: Twayne, 1993. Discusses Northanger Abbey quite extensively. Especially interesting is Lauber’s discussion of the connections between Northanger Abbey and Austen’s juvenilia (works she composed between the ages of twelve and eighteen). Includes a chronology, bibliography, and index.
Monaghan, David. Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision. London: Macmillan, 1980. Monaghan examines the use of and attitude toward formal social ritual in Austen’s novels to reveal how Austen viewed her society. He devotes one chapter to Northanger Abbey.
Pinion, F. B. A Jane Austen Companion: A Critical Survey and Reference Book. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. The first part of the book includes chapters on biography, historical background, each of Austen’s novels, her letters, and her literary reputation. The second part includes a list of people and places in Austen’s fiction, as well as a glossary of unusual or outmoded words. Also contains a variety of maps and other illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
Sulloway, Alison G. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Places Austen within a female tradition of “outsider” satire, written by those rejected and devalued by society. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Thompson, James. Between Self and World: The Novels of Jane Austen. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. Examines Austen’s portrayal of the disparity between individual and society within the context of its historical, social, economic, and literary circumstances. Includes an index and extensive footnotes.
Watt, Ian, ed. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963. A valuable collection of fourteen essays divided into three categories: general Austen criticism, studies of particular novels (including North-anger Abbey), and discussions of special topics. Also includes a chronology and a bibliography.