In the essays collection A Truth Universally Acknowledged, one writer described Northanger Abbey as a ‘toddler’ in comparison to Austen’s other five completed novels. While I winced slightly, I could understand the sentiment. Northanger has always stuck out as an oddity. In The Jane Austen Book Club (only seen the film but not wildly impressed), the book club members worry that nobody will be prepared to take that book on. Indeed, my own mother warned me away from it when I was ten and in the first flurry of my Austen-mania. In comparison to its fellows, this is a story about a silly girl being silly and making a total fool of herself in the process. Tired from dealing with my own toddler, as I sat down to the novel, I wondered whether I was really going to have patience for Catherine Morland’s idiocy. Spoiler: I needn’t have worried.
The most important thing to realise about Northanger Abbey is that it is a total piss take. Too many people entirely misread Austen by failing to take into account that she was an ironist first and a novelist second but nowhere does this lead to more misunderstandings than here. From first line to last, Northanger is a parody and a pastiche. Austen has taken the common tropes of Gothic fiction and novel-writing in general and is essentially rolling on the floor laughing at how daft they are. If you miss that fact going in, this book is not really going to work for you.
In a Gothic novel, we would have a beautiful heroine who has come from difficult circumstances and who then sets out on a perilous adventure. Her parents (if they were even alive) would press her to be careful. She would go out into the world and encounter huge dangers but would ultimately cling to her virtue and Christian faith, learn a great deal and have her good conduct rewarded. Instead, we have Catherine Morland who has grown up as one of many siblings in a middling sort of country parsonage and who is delighted to be described as almost pretty. Her parents are so busy with the rest of the family that they just nod vaguely in approval when family friends invite her to accompany them to Bath. And off she goes.
On the one level then, Austen is skewering the ridiculous tropes of Gothic fiction and how they have nothing to do with real life. However. On the other level it is a spectacular double bluff. Because while Catherine’s adventures may bear little resemblance to The Mysteries of Udolpho, she does encounter danger and risk. She is carried away by a brute when John Thorpe lies to get her to travel in his carriage and then refuses to stop – it’s akin to the abduction of Persephone. Then she travels to Northanger Abbey and although her wilder ideas are inaccurate, Catherine’s instincts around General Tilney are absolutely bang on target. He is a domestic tyrant and his temper is frightening. His children live in fear. While the General may not have murdered his wife but he did not make her life an easy one. Even when Catherine searches her room for clues, she is so close to finding the truth, brushing against evidence of Eleanor Tilney’s forbidden romance. We mock Catherine for her flights of fancy but then Austen flips the action back round and shows us that the poor girl is wiser than she appears.
It’s been over a decade since the first and last time that I read the book. Unlike Austen’s other novels, I don’t know whole passages more or less by heart and so it felt like quite a fresh experience. I realise too that I’m also a much bigger Austen fan than I was when I studied this book all those years ago. It is easier for me to see the book in the context of Austen’s wider canon. Northanger‘s tone is a recognisable progression from the high-spirited absurdity of Love and Freindship while also managing to crawl out of the epistolary format that she had found so restrictive such as with Lady Susan and the early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Writing that sentence makes me feel terribly pretentious but there is no denying that there is an energy about this book which had definitely quietened down by Austen’s later novels.
It’s this which really made me ‘get’ this book in a way that I hadn’t before. The light came on and I suddenly saw what this book was about – the horror of being a teenager and trying to make your way in the world for the first time. I found the description of Catherine’s first visit to a Bath assembly to be excruciatingly vivid. Neither she nor Mrs Allen know a soul there so they wander aimlessly through the crowds and eventually come home disappointed. When I was about nineteen, I had a strikingly similar experience at a house party. It was one of those social agonies that time just does not heal. Then there’s the intensity of Catherine’s ‘friendship’ with superficial people-user Isabella Thorpe, plus her travails with John Thorpe, Isabella’s pushy brother. These are all things that you go through in that stage of life but in a weird sort of way, it’s only now that I’m out of that phase myself that I can see how funny all that was.
I remember, years ago, I was involved in my church group for people in their 20s and 30s. While we were cleaning up afterwards, two of the very youngest group members, back from university, were having a heated discussion about the behaviour of a mutual friend. I saw a look pass between two of the older members, who were themselves closer to 40. The look was deeply affectionate but the two of them were recognising that these two girls were getting worked up like this because they were actually still children. I had a similar experience last year when I was having a solo cafe excursion and happened to sit next to two students who were dissecting the recent break-up that one of them had gone through. Keeping my eyes glued on my book, I listened along and concluded that not only was the dumped girl well rid of the loser but also that she wouldn’t be getting as high-pitched about the experience in a few years time. Catherine Morland is in that phase of life where everything is at high stakes, everything is a drama or a disaster and your opinion must be heard at all costs. Again, if you forget this, you lose the point of the book.
There is a real pantomime quality to Northanger Abbey with the vixen Isabella and the ogre General Tilney. Again, I think that this was a deliberate move on Austen’s part since the novel is total satire but it does mean that there is less subtlety in terms of characterisation than in later works such as Emma. It is areas such as this which make readers feel less attachment to Northanger than they do to Austen’s other novels. We would all love to be as witty as Elizabeth Bennet or even as gentle-hearted as Anne Eliot. We may even wish to be an Elinor or a Marianne. Nobody ever aspires to be a Catherine Morland, consistently the last person in the room to ever realise what’s going on. Or possibly second last if Mrs Allen is in there too.
Strangely though, I had more sympathy for Isabella Thorpe this time around. She’s still a terrible friend but I understood her better as a twenty-one year old. She has no money, no prospects and no escape except for marriage. When James Morland crosses her path, she leaps at him. She praises him to the skies. But he is the first man (not a man, just a boy) who she has ever known. Then she meets someone else. Frederick Tilney is more handsome, more worldly – he’s cooler. The 2007 adaptation implies that Isabella allows Frederick to seduce her but in the book it seems more that she believes that he will follow through his flirtations with a solid proposal of marriage. Despite her bravado, Isabella is as naive as her little friend Catherine.
Isabella reminds me so much of a cherished friend of mine who broke up with her boyfriend because she thought she had the next guy lined up only for said guy to change his mind. At that time, she and Isabella were exactly of an age and I remember her sobbing on my shoulder that [substitute guy] had been a ‘security blanket’ to cling to and that now she was lost. She ended up getting back together with her original boyfriend for another three years. It’s fascinating to reflect and realise how very little sexual politics have really moved on in two hundred years – it is a lot easier to admit your insecurities about your relationship if there is an alternative available. Aside from being a truly hopeless friend, Isabella’s worst crime is to lose her nerve about commitment and she would hardly be the first to do so. Let’s collectively wish Isabella fair fortunes and hope that she found whatever it was she was looking for.
It would not do to forget the finest feature of Northanger Abbey – its hero, Henry Tilney. If you glance across the catalogue of Austen’s leading men, he is the stand-out star. Darcy? Lizzy’s welcome to him. Edward Ferrars? No thank you. Edmund Bertram? Double no thank you. Captain Wentworth? Lovely, but property of Anne Eliot only. Henry Tilney? Ahhh … he’s so lovely. He knows about muslins. He is kind to his sister. He is witty. He reads books. He graciously forgets when Catherine humiliates herself. It’s strange how many readers raise their eyebrows about the kind of person Jane Austen’s brother Henry must have been if she could create a character like Mansfield Park‘s Henry Crawford but then completely skip over the dashing Henry Tilney.
It’s here that we do hit a stumbling block though – are Henry and Catherine a believable couple? Does their ‘Happy Ever After’ have the ring of truth? Or are they more likely doomed to end up like Mr and Mrs Bennet in twenty years? Will Henry grow impatient as his every witticism sails over his wife’s head? Austen explicitly states that it was merely beauty and good humour that attracted Mr Bennet to his bride and that as these faded over time, so did his affection for her. I have never cared for Mr Bennet’s habit of humiliating his wife in public and hope that Henry would never stoop to such cruelty but marital disappointment – literally being unhappy in one’s home – would surely change a person. So many of those finale chapters in Austen’s novels leave me with questions – so many unbelievable relationships – yet Austen as narrator speaks sternly and with solid conviction. She says that they will all live happily ever after and so we must believe it. What other option do we have?
There is also an under-current throughout Austen’s fiction around marriage that suggests that the author was not herself overly distressed at having missed out on the institution. We repeatedly meet men who have become grumpy curmudgeons as result of mistakes in matrimony (Northanger‘s Mr Allen is only one such example). Yet what about the women? Henry Tilney may sternly tell Catherine that in a nice home such as his, she is wrong to imagine that there are dangers lurking but we can see that again, Catherine’s instincts are wiser than she knows. One biographer I read noted that for Austen and her fellow-women, hearing of a death in childbirth would have been similar to how in the modern era we hear about someone suffering from cancer. The risk was out there and everybody knew about it. If you got married, that meant sex and for all too many of Austen’s acquaintance, that meant going through labours into the double digits.
In Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, Helena Kelly argues that Catherine’s fears in Northanger Abbey are the manifestations of her secret worries about marriage and childbirth. Mrs Tilney’s death could very well have been related to childbirth or simply from a body that never quite recovered from going through it repeatedly. The 2007 ITV adaptation made it explicit that Catherine’s Gothic imaginings represented her repressed sexual longings and again in Secret Radical, Helena Kelly argues that the passage in which Catherine tries to open the lock on the chest is a metaphor for masturbation. The mixture of horror and thrills that Catherine feels about her reading seems to match her thoughts about sex.
Generations of readers have fallen into the misconception that Austen is a romantic novelist. In actual fact, she was a satirist and most of her couples are mere tools to illustrate a point that she was making. She also repeatedly lampoons the contemporary social conventions around courtship. In Northanger Abbey she whispers to the reader that Catherine dreamed of Henry most likely before he dreamed of her first. Here Austen is mocking Samuel Richardson’s idea that a nice young lady would never possibly love a gentleman until he had declared his own love for her first. Throughout Austen’s fiction, she repeatedly rolls her eyes at the idea of a man’s proposal awakening’s a woman’s heart on cue. Charlotte Lucas stage manages her own proposal, going out to meet Mr Collins ‘by chance’. Elizabeth Bennet refuses the rich Mr Darcy with disgust at the idea that she could be so easily bought. Fanny Price is appalled that she is suddenly supposed to love Henry Crawford out of nowhere. Emma Woodhouse is revolted by Mr Elton’s declaration of love, recognising it as a greasy attempt to get at her money. Perhaps – surely not – female affection is not as simple a matter as Richardson supposed. Maybe, just maybe, women are actually rational creatures with feelings of our own? Is our love in fact our own to give, not an emotion to be summoned forth on demand? Perhaps Henry and Catherine simply loved each other and were happy. Stranger things have happened before.
What I love most about Northanger Abbey is how it celebrates reading. It is the home of the fabulous quotation, ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’. It also includes that passionate passage in praise of the novel which comes directly from the mouth of the author herself:
And what are you reading, Miss -?” “Oh, it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame.-“It is only Cecilia or Camilla or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’.
I hear you, Jane, I hear you.
It is interesting too how Austen treats her characters who are readers. Eleanor and Henry both read widely from a variety of genres and are presented as well-rounded and sensible characters. By contrast, John Thorpe dismisses reading as a waste of time and denigrates Fanny Burney for having married a Frenchman. We know his opinion is not worth having. Yet poor little Catherine is not so very great a reader either. She and Isabella spend more time discussing their book than actually reading it. Between the balls and the assemblies and the paying of calls, Catherine never seems to actually finish The Mysteries of Udolpho however much she may have wished to. Is Austen’s point that novel-reading is the best kind of reading? Far better than that of Gothic fiction? I’m genuinely not sure. When Catherine returns home in a glum state, her mother tries to make her buck up by reading a moralising journal. The reader knows that this will not help, that the only cure will be the appearance of Henry Tilney and so it proves. Northanger Abbey is the most bookish of Austen’s novels and the author’s own love of reading shines through.
I think it’s clear that my return to Northanger Abbey was much, much more fun than I was anticipating. Being honest, it’s probably still my least favourite of the six but that still leaves it head and shoulders above 95% of the books that I have read in my life. The striking thing with Austen’s other novels is how carefully considered every single word is. If her books were people, there would be not one single hair out of place. With Northanger Abbey, we have more of a free-wheeling vibe. This feels like Austen letting her hair down. The tone of the book makes me think of the bubbles in champagne, fizzing with enthusiasm.
In truth, we cannot really tell whether the book we have here is the one that Austen truly wanted us to have. It started off life as Susan, only changing the name of its heroine so many years later. It languished in the back catalogue of an unscrupulous publisher. It missed its moment since the Gothic fiction craze had already passed by the time it did hit the shelves. In the alternative future of Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project, she suggests that a longer-lived Jane Austen would have substantially revised it. Somehow though this lamentable history makes me feel only a greater tenderness for this, Austen’s grubby-faced and least-loved literary child. Catherine Morland set out on her adventures and came home a wiser lady – this is truly the closest Austen ever wrote to a fairytale and on my revisit, I was smitten once again.
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Published by Broadview Press on April 29th 2002
Genres: Fiction, Literary
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