Why did I want to read it?
I’d only read Emma and Pride and Prejudice of Austen’s novels, and when I heard that Northanger Abbey was a sort of satire of the gothic novel, I was intrigued. I also visited Bath last year, where much of the novel is set.
When was it published?
Northanger Abbey was first published in 1818, posthumously, though it was one of the first novels Austen completed. My edition is the 2003 Penguin Classic with an informative introduction by Marilyn Butler. There are many editions available.
What’s it about?
‘Our heroine’ (referred to as such by the author within the novel) is Catherine Morland. She is young, impressionable, and experiencing Bath, and fashionable society, for the first time. There’s a sort of rivalry for her friendship and love between two new sets of acquaintances, the Thorpes and the Tilneys. The novel is also a very early example of metafiction, where the author is present and the characters have conversations about reading, the worth of a novel, fiction versus nonfiction/history, women writers, and more. The plot and events are also (seemingly fondly) parodic of both Gothic novels and ‘novels of sensibility’.
Tell us more about the author.
Jane Austen was born at Steventon on 16 December 1775. Her family moved to Bath when her father retired in 1801. When he died in 1805, she moved around with her mother. I learnt, when I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, that after her father died her family had quite a difficult time, financially. She certainly got to see Bath and its ‘fashionable society’ from different points of view, and she was more productive living quietly at the family home before and after Bath (at Chawton). She received a marriage proposal while there, and accepted (one can assume, thinking of her family) but the next day withdrew her acceptance. She wrote to her niece, Fanny White: ‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection’. It is believed much of Austen’s genuine feelings on this subject are due to the true-love relationship of her parents. There is so much more to say about her, but I’ll keep this brief (see this blog for all the info you could ever need on Jane Austen). She is undeniably one of the warmest, cleverest writers who ever lived, and was modest about her own genius. She died at the age of 41 on 18 July 1817.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
Northanger Abbey is generally considered to be Austen’s most ‘light-hearted’ novel, and the characters certainly don’t stick in your mind as much as, say, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. However, Catherine Morley’s innocence (and almost transparence) is a deliberate method on the part of the author—Catherine is both a parodic character and a vehicle for the reader. The reader is also stumbling, wide-eyed, into this strange and undeniably shallow world (Mrs Allen, with whom Catherine stays, is obsessed with clothing, fashions and second-hand remarks). But the reader is also allowed distance by the intrusive, authorial voice. In one of my favourite parts, Catherine allows herself to be whipped into a kind of grotesque fancy by Henry Tilney’s comparisons of Northanger Abey to the settings of Gothic novels. She then spends a sleepless night wondering what could possibly be in the locked drawer of the cabinet! The reader (permitted ironic distance) knows it will be something ordinary, but we still can’t help but wonder.
Though it may be more ‘light-hearted’ than other novels by Austen, Northanger Abbey’s intellectual engagements and layers of meaning (and humour) are hugely impressive. I’ve read modern metafictional novels like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winters Night a Traveller and I didn’t realise Austen had beat them by about 150 years, winking to her readers. She even acknowledges (and rallies with) her fellow writers of novels, encouraging them to create heroines who read novels (the layers!):
Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure [turn over a novel’s insipid pages with disgust], and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.
Catherine and Henry Tilney have a sparring relationship throughout the book. They debate the merits of fiction versus nonfiction/history, and have an exchange about women’s writing which cleverly inverts an idea and reveals Austen’s feelings on equality (we know she contradicts this in some ways, in her work, but I see her as being both within and ahead of her time). The exchange is as follows:
Catherine tells Tilney that she does not keep a journal and he thinks she must be lying. He says (among other things): ‘How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal?—My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalising which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female…’ He goes on a little. Catherine baulks. She says: ‘I have sometimes thought… whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen! That is—I should not think the superiority was always on our side’. Very wry. The superiority is no doubt not always on the side of one sex or another in other matters, too.
But it is still this bullying fellow that Catherine begins to fall for. Maybe it shows that her character isn’t really so impressionable, that she enjoys a little intellectual sparring (and will grow to enjoy it more—the reader, as the reader of novels, often would side with her in these debates). Maybe she is more imaginative than impressionable, though the extent of what she imagines possible does result in her putting her foot in her mouth at one point…
Northanger Abbey’s cleverness impressed and delighted me at times, but the overall story is a little disjointed, and I was a bit underwhelmed at the end. I think the romantic hero is much less memorable than, say, Mr Darcy (*cough*). But there aren’t many endings that satisfy (on a specific level) as that of Pride and Prejudice. That said, it’s actually not one of my favourite books. That was another reason for trying Austen again. Emma is the best of hers I’ve read, and though everything about Austen and her work can be appreciated—she was undeniably ahead of her time, intelligent, genuine, clever—on some level my personal tastes swing more towards the (admittedly, often flowery) dramatic and romantic Gothics…
Perhaps, on that note, I should read a Bronte next, or Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles? I’m also slowly making my way through Hemingway’s To Whom the Bell Tolls.