My Year with Jane Austen: “Northanger Abbey”

Book: “Northanger Abbey”

Publication Year: 1817

Book Description: Jane Austen’s first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen’s fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

“Northanger Abbey” was written long before it was published, likely around 1798 or 1799. Austen then shelved the novel and didn’t even send it to a publisher until 1803 for 10 pounds. And there it languished, even though Austen has been assured it would be published soon. After six years, Austen wrote to the publisher under a pseudonym to complain. She signed it thus:

I am Gentlemen &c &c                                                                 

– MAD.

She was given the option to buy it back, but couldn’t afford to do so until several years later. At this point, Austen was concerned that the novel would be as relevant as many of the gothic novels and authors that are referenced in the book were decidedly of the time when it was originally written, now over a decade earlier. Austen was also focused on her new novel, “Persuasion.” Shortly there after, Austen passed away. The book along with her others and the copyrights to the published novels passed to her sister. After some negotiation, “Northanger Abbey” finally came to the public in December of 1817 almost twenty years after it was originally written.

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Catherine Morland comes from a large but perfectly normal family. But adventure makes its way to her in the form of a trip to Bath with some wealthy family friends, the Allens. Once there, she is ready to view the world through the lens of her gothic novels that she loves to read. However, life seems rather ordinary, if still more exciting than her small-town. Luckily, a hero enters her world in the form of a gentleman named Mr. Tilney who is very lively and perfectly suits Catherine. Her social circle then extends further with the introduction of the Thorpe family and the eldest daughter, Isabella, who quickly becomes Catherine’s fast friend.

While Isabella’s temperament is much more lively than Catherine’s with much nonsense about hating flirting while flirting constantly herself, Catherine is happy to have a friend. Soon after, Isabella’s brother, John, comes to bath bringing with him Catherine’s own brother, James. It becomes quite clear that James has been in love with Isabella for some time (having met the family earlier that year). Catherine is informed that John is a good man more than she sees it herself, often finding him to be loud and verging on rude. Her biggest complaint comes at a ball where she is forced to uphold a commitment to dance with John at the detriment of her greater desire to dance with Mr. Tilney. She does make the acquaintance of his sister Miss Tilney and makes plans to go on a country walk with the two of them the following day.

The next morning, however, she is bombarded by James, John, and Isabella to join them on carriage rides out to visit a castle. Catherine informs them that she has previous plans, but they continue to badger her on and on. Eventually, John informs her that he saw the Tilney’s heading off in their own carriage, so they clearly meant to skip the walk based on the early morning rain. Catherine doesn’t know what to do, but eventually gives in, more in the hopes of seeing the castle than spending more time with John in his carriage. But shortly after setting off, Catherine sees the Tilneys walking down the street towards her house. John refuses to stop and let her out, however, and Catherine ends up trapped on the trip. They don’t even make it to the castle, and Catherine ends the day very upset knowing the Tilneys must be confused and hurt by her behavior.

The next day, she goes out of her way to track down the Tilneys and explain the situation. She’s so earnest and clearly upset that they both quickly forgive her. She also meets their father, General Tilney, a stately man who Catherine saw John speaking to earlier. He is extremely gracious and urges the friendship on between Catherine and his son and daughter. Soon after, they are able to schedule their walk, and Catherine grows closer with Miss Tilney and continues to enjoy greater attachment to Mr. Tilney.

Soon, Isabella approaches Catherine with exciting news: she and James are engaged! Catherine is thrilled, though confused by Isabella’s worries that she is not James’s financial equal. James quickly makes his way home and returns with glad tidings that his parents approve and will be able to give him a decent, though not large, amount of money and living in a few years. Isabella is greatly put-out, but insists she never complains. Much to Catherine’s dismay, however, she sees Isabella behaving more and more poorly by flirty with Mr. Tilney’s older brother who has also come to town. Catherine sees that this behavior hurts her brother and doesn’t know what to make of it.

She is diverted to more pleasant things when she receives an invitation to visit the Tilney’s at their home of Northanger Abbey. Catherine is thrilled, not only to be spending more time with her dear friends, but also at the prospect of wandering through such a dramatic, gothic location that is sure to hide all sorts of dreadful mysteries (per her novels, of course). Mr. Tilney laughs at her anticipations, and Catherine is happy enough to laugh at herself, too. But upon arrival, she can’t help but become intrigued by mysterious, old chests and wardrobes set up in her room. All she discovers, however, are old washing lists and the extent of her own silliness.

Life at the Abbey is ruled by the strict schedule of the General. While still very gracious to Catherine, he also has strange habits and refuses to let Eleanor show Catherine the deceased Mrs. Tilney’s rooms. Catherine begins to become more and more suspicious of the General’s relationship with the dead Mrs. Tilney. Is she even dead at all, or locked up in some drafty corner of the Abbey? Catherine decides to explore on her own, but is caught by Mr. Tilney in Mrs. Tilney’s very normal-looking rooms. He immediately figures out what Catherine was up to and chastises her for letting her imagination rule her. Catherine is extremely ashamed of herself and upset that she has lost Mr. Tilney’s respect forever. However, he goes out of his way to make her comfortable over the next few days, and Catherine comes out of the ordeal having learned a much needed lesson about sensational novels and real life.

During her visit, she receives an upsetting letter from her brother James saying that the engagement between him and Isabella is off. He hints to her behavior being increasingly concerning and notes that Catherine will soon hear news about Isabella’s upcoming attachment to the Tilney family. Both Miss and Mr. Tilney are sure that whatever poor behavior has taken part, it is very unlikely that their older brother will become engaged to someone as poor and lowly as Isabella. Sure enough, Catherine does hear from Isabella who pleads with Catherine to intercede with James on her behalf fearing there has been some sort of “misunderstanding.” Catherine is appalled and, now finally seeing Isabella for what she is, swears off the friendship forever.

Her happy visit comes to an abrupt and confusing end, however, when the General returns from a trip and insists that Catherine leave at once. She is practically forced out the very next day and sent home alone and by post. Catherine is confused and upset. Eleanor is beside herself at the poor treatment of her friend. And Mr. Tilney is from home when it all happens, so Catherine doesn’t even get to say goodbye to him. She arrives home safely, but is much out of spirits, to her parents’ great dismay.

Shortly after, however, Mr. Tilney arrives to clear matters up. He confesses that General Tilney is a bad tempered man who only wants his children to marry fortunes. He was deceived by John Thorpe into thinking that Catherine was very wealthy, hence his immediate approval of her. Later, a bitter John also exaggerated just how poor Catherine’s family was which lead to her dismissal from Northanger Abbey. Mr. Tilney proposes to Catherine, and while they are happily in love, they worry about their future, needing the General’s approval to marry. Eventually, however, Miss Tilney becomes engaged to a very rich man and insists that her father approve of Mr. Tilney and Catherine which he grudgingly does, and the two get married.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Catherine Morland is the quintessential heroine. For all that she’s the main character in a book that is largely a satire of the popular Gothic novels of the time, she’s still a very likable, undestandable character in her own right. She both acts her age, but is also not overly silly and dramatic. Especially against the backdrop of Isabella’s behavior, Catherine’s own nonsense is all kept well in check for the most part (silliness at the Abbey aside). It’s easy to see how both Tilney siblings would be drawn in by her earnest, naive goodness. She’s truly bewildered when coming up across the Thorpe’s and elder Tilney’s of the world, having very little ability to anticipate the foibles or meaner streaks of others. The reader easily sees through both Isabella and John, but not poor Catherine.

She does make her fair share of mistakes, but they all are of the type that seem to come from her young age rather than anything else. She also always pays a price for her poor choices. We see her get talked into the carriage ride with Isabella, James, and John. Though to be fair to her, this is only after she resists for quite a while and then is lied to. But, again, she’s so earnest in her apology to the Tilneys, so not bothered by laying all of her feelings out in the open, it’s easy to understand why she is quickly forgiven. Later, when John Thorpe tries to pull a similar move, she’s even stronger and immediately corrects the situation.

Obviously, her behavior at the Abbey is her at her worst, though even there much of her nonsense is contained to her own antics in her room. But she is discovered by Mr. Tilney in her grim imaginings of the late Mrs. Tilney and is quite chastised by him. One can only imagine how humiliating this entire situation would be. It’s a credit to both of them that they recover as well as they do. From there, one can only expect that Catherine has gotten most of her nonsense out of her system and will grow into a very proper young woman. At her heart, she’s clearly a good sort of girl. She’s definitely the most simple of Austen’s heroines, but this doesn’t make her less compelling. And, as an excuse if she even needs one, she’s definitely the heroine of the most straight-forward story. There is very little drama, confusion, or general angst that she must deal with. And thus she’s allowed her simple flaws and her vast reward at the end.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

While it can be argued that Edmund rather deserves to be one of the more forgotten Austen heroes, what with his main love arc being with an entirely different woman than the one we’re rooting for, it’s unfortunate that Henry Tilney is routinely also falls in this lesser-known category. Unlike Edmund, Henry has his head on straight from the very beginning, and beyond that, he is probably the most likable hero we’ll find in Austen’s entire catalog. He’s definitely the best humored. We don’t have pride, or restraint, or shyness, or prior bad decisions that are haunting him, etc. etc. No, he’s gallant, funny, and likable from start to finish. The worst that can be said for him is that he probably comes to love Catherine largely due to her initial interest. And this speaks more to Austen’s clear-eyed view of how love affairs often go than to any actual flaw on Tilney’s part.

Probably one of his best moments in the book is how he handles discovering Catherine’s wild suspicions about his father. Of course, he’s been teasing her about her love for gothic novels (though admits to devouring them himself, as well), but it had to be truly shocking to see her take her imagination that far. He’s fairly frank in his assessment of her behavior and tells her so. But then…but then! Austen goes into great detail to describe the effort that Mr. Tilney puts out that evening and over the next couple of days to make Catherine feel comfortable again. It shows not only great awareness on his part, understanding how awkward and uncomfortable she must be feeling, but also just a truly kind spirit who does not hold things like this against a young Catherine.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

For villains, we have the Thorpe siblings and Colonel Tilney himself. The Thorpes are both the more obviously rotten apples from the very start. This is where poor Catherine is truly let down by the shoddy guardianship of Mrs. Allen. Most of Mrs. Allen’s foibles are contained to silliness about clothes and not having much to say, but in overseeing her young ward’s new friends, she really drops the ball. Isabella is less obviously bad, but John Thorpe shows his colors almost immediately. He’s rude, brash, and generally unpleasant. The wildness of many of the group’s plans are also clear warning signs to any good guardian, and even Catherine goes so far as to express surprise that Mrs. Allen didn’t say anything about whether the planned carriage rides were all together proper. To her credit, Catherine is never convinced that John is quite the thing from the very start and even wonders a bit at her brother’s praise of him. And then, of course, the shock and horror of finding out that John thought she was encouraging him!

Isabella is a tougher nut to crack, and it’s easier to see how Catherine could have the wool pulled over her eyes easily by a young woman who so quickly proclaims Catherine dear to her. Up to the point where Catherine meets Isabella, it’s clear that she is quite lonely. So a firm friend with almost built-in intimacy was sure to be a great temptation. And it would take some very clear thinking to really dig through all of Isabella’s grand speeches about her own values and compare them, clear-eyed, with Isabella’s actual behavior. But Catherine is still quick to see that something is not right in Isabella’s treatment of her brother and with her flirtations with the elder Tilney. While we feel for Catherine’s distress when it all comes crashing down, the reader at least feels a good amount of smug approval at the way Isabella’s blatant scheming leaves her ultimately with nothing.

Colonel Tilney fulfills the more traditional villain role as the one to keep our hero and heroine from each other. Of course, this only after he spends a good majority of the book pushing them together. We later learn, of course, that his behavior, first at encouraging the couple and then evicting Catherine, all come from John Thorpe’s big mouth. But these are still actions of a selfish, hard-hearted man. The Mr. Tilney and Miss Tilney’s clear discomfort when around their father is the first clue, and even Catherine notes that his presence a

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

This is the most straight-forward romance in all of Austen’s books. Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl does something foolish, but boy quickly forgives her with no misunderstandings or drawn-out angst. Father tries to interceded, but boy and girl get married in the end. But it’s also a testament to the fact that a good romance story doesn’t need to be mired in drama, lack of communication, and unnecessary misunderstandings. Mr. Tilney and Catherine are sweet, likable, and the reader is invested in their relationship from the very beginning.

Of course obstacles are put in their way, but even those are few and far between and often fairly quickly dealt with. Any early misunderstandings between the two of them are quickly rectified by, shocker!, actually talking about the situation. Catherine goes out of her way to track down Mr. Tilney and explain what happened over the missed engagement for their country walk. And when Catherine is caught in her nonsense and the Abbey, Mr. Tilney is quick to go out of his way to reassure her that his attachment to her is unchanged. And, of course, after Catherine is banished from Northanger, Mr. Tilney quickly follows to make his apologies to her and her family and declare himself to Catherine. From their, being a Jane Austen novel, the rest of the couples problems are succinctly dealt with while also assuring that Eleanor Tilney also gets her own happy ending.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Before she shows the depths of her true character, Isabella Thorpe is good for some laughs early in the book. Unlike Catherine, the reader quite quickly picks up on the disconnect between Isabella’s statements and her actions. There is an especially funny moment when Isabella starts bemoaning two gentleman that she claims are plaguing her with their unwanted attention. But then they leave, and she essentially drags Catherine after them in a chase to catch up to them once again and regain their attention.

Mrs. Allen is also a pretty good comedic character. She doesn’t have a ton of page time, but we still get a pretty good picture of her personality. Constantly fretting about her clothes and repeating the same useless sentiments over and over again followed by no change in her actions, it’s easy to see how Catherine could be quickly taken in by the excitement of a new companion like Isabella Thorpe.

And, like I said earlier, Mr. Tilney himself is pretty funny. More than any other Austen hero, we see Tilney poking fun at Catherine as well as himself throughout the story. We also see a lovely sibling relationship between him and Eleanor Tilney, with Eleanor often stepping in to explain her brother’s ridiculousness to a bewildered Catherine. We’ve seen a lot of good sibling relationships, but Eleanor and Mr. Tilney stand out in being the most equal-seeming and essentially teamed up against the trials of their family life. Catherine really strikes gold in them both, ending up with an excellent husband and a supreme sister-in-law to boot.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

“[I]t is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.”

I’ve always loved this quote and have used it as a touchstone in my own life at points. It’s just such straight-forward, good common sense. And a nice reminder to not let any one thing or person becoming too defining in our own life. Of course our loved ones are at the center of it all, but our happiness is not reliant on them. Happiness is entirely our own responsibility, not someone else’s, and with that in mind, why not give yourself the best chance of success by finding happiness in a wide range of things?

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

This is a quote from Mr. Tilney and one that is immediately followed by Eleanor Tilney’s continued scolding/teasing that he is misrepresenting himself to Catherine. It’s a funny comment on its own, and a good example of Mr. Tilney’s excellent sense of humor.

“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”

Another good, short quip that I always wish I could remember to pull out at just the right moment. Alas, I cannot speak well enough to quote literature at the perfect moments.

Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

I’m not going to go into much as far as final thoughts for this book. Funnily enough, “Northanger Abbey” had previously been probably one of my least re-read books of Austen’s, but I’ve now read and reviewed it in some form or another twice in the last year and a half! That, and because the book itself is fairly short, is why I’m only devoting one post to reviewing this book. But for some more general thoughts from both me and Kate, check out our Bookclub Review of “Northanger Abbey.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the 2007 movie “Northanger Abbey.”

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