Northanger Abbey is not an Austen you often hear lauded; hardly anybody says it’s their favourite, and there are no Hollywood movie adaptations or fan clubs for its characters (why not? is my question. I’d buy an I❤ Tilney badge with pleasure!). It’s not even usually found in a stand-alone edition; many vintage or antique copies have it as a two-for-one with Persuasion, and today Oxford World’s Classics publish it with a selection of Austen’s unfinished work. Northanger Abbey seems to have long been considered an inferior novel, not worthy of attention in its own right; the focus on its tongue in cheek jibes at Gothic literature have overshadowed everything else about it, leading many to think of it as merely a bit of juvenile fun and a dry run for her longer, more polished works. I must admit that I was of this persuasion before I re-read it for the first time in ten years. I have always dismissed Northanger Abbey as second rate; I read it immediately after the soul wrenchingly beautiful Persuasion (as I had one of those two-for-one editions) and was disappointed by its brevity in comparison. Catherine was no Anne, and Henry Tilney no Captain Wentworth. Back on the shelf it went, and there it has stayed for almost a decade. I had forgotten absolutely everything about it, and last week, when a colleague at school asked me who the main characters were and I couldn’t tell them, I decided it was probably about time I gave it another go. No English teacher worth their salt can be without a comprehensive knowledge of Austen, after all.
I re-opened the pages of Northanger Abbey expecting to be thoroughly underwhelmed. Instantly, I realised I had been labouring under a misapprehension for many years. There’s nothing inferior about it in the slightest! Everything we know and love from Austen’s other novels is here; the wit, the sarcasm, a flawed yet loveable heroine, a knee weakeningly attractive hero, a couple of nasty pieces of work and a selection of rather empty headed older women. I was drawn in from the very first page by the delightfully naive Catherine, whose romanticism, overactive imagination and blind good faith in people is refreshing rather than irritating. Her innocence may seem unrealistic to the modern day reader, but when we stop to consider that her life has been spent cloistered in a small rural village with nobody but Mrs Allen to call upon for the past 17 years, she really cannot be blamed for thinking that the world she reads about in novels actually exists. She has never travelled far from her own front door, and met few people outside of her family circle. She has never had cause to believe that she cannot take everyone at their word, and the narrowness of her experience allows her to believe that anything could be possible beyond the boundaries of her village. In another Austen novel, Catherine’s innocence might have been taken advantage of by a bad man, causing her to spend the rest of her days in shame and poverty. In a Gaskell novel, it almost certainly would have. Thankfully for us, this is not such a tragedy, but it certainly hints at what traps innocence could lead a girl into. If it wasn’t for Henry Tilney, Catherine could have found herself forced into being Mrs Thorpe, and what a bleak outcome that would have been.
I would class Northanger Abbey as an early example of a bildungsroman more than a romance. Catherine matures nicely during the course of the novel; at the beginning, her wide eyed innocence is unsullied, and she is enthusiastic about everything and trusting of everyone. She has had no experience of life to shatter her childish illusions, and her heartfelt belief that her life will truly begin from the moment she sets foot in the magical city of Bath is very sweet indeed. Of course, she soon discovers that it’s really not all that much fun to spend hours hanging about in a sweaty room making small talk while men appraise your worth like cattle (plus ca change!), and she also soon realises that not everyone can be taken at their word and many people are quite willing to take advantage of others to suit their own ends. I loved how ashamed she was of herself after each incidence of realising she had been led astray either by others or her own imagination; her ability to self discipline and her desire to correct her faults reminded me very much of Emma, and melted my heart. What is wonderful about Austen’s characterisation of Catherine is that by the end of the novel, she has not lost her goodness of heart and her enthusiasm for life; she has just had her eyes opened to a greater understanding of herself and others, and has a more realistic and practical outlook. She will certainly not be taken advantage of again, but she will also never cease to think the best of others regardless, and this faith in humanity is what makes her so endearing. No wonder Henry Tilney was prepared to throw over his dastardly father to make her an honest woman!
Aside from Catherine, Austen has outdone herself in the creation of Isabella Thorpe. She is a marvellous villain, in the vein of the odious Lucy Steele; her shameless self promotion and careless trampling over others on her way to the top is so wicked that it’s delicious to read. Catherine cannot see through Isabella’s false behaviour because she takes everyone at face value, but the reader can instantly see that Isabella portends nothing but trouble (because who amongst us has never met such a woman?!) and we wait on tenterhooks to see what the little madam is going to get up to. Isabella’s brash vanity is mirrored by her boorish brother John, who made my toes curl in just the same way Mr Collins always does. His forcing Catherine against her will to take the carriage ride out to the country made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and again reminded me of how close Catherine could have come to danger throughout her time in Bath; her powerlessness in this scene is truly frightening. Mrs Allen’s ineptitude is also quite disturbing; she is a female Mr Bennett, turning a blind eye to impropriety and barely lifting a finger to ensure Catherine’s safety. If it wasn’t for the Tilneys, I fear Catherine’s ending would have been very different indeed.
Finally, what can be said of Henry Tilney as a hero? He is a fascinating character; intelligent, good humoured, outspoken and witty, his kindly teasing of Catherine reveals that he too is a novel reader, and not only that, but he knows his stuff when it comes to choosing the right muslin for a dress. His love for Catherine is never in doubt, and neither is Catherine’s for him, so unlike Austen’s other novels, we do not see any tension, suspense, agony or brooding. As such, his relationship with Catherine is light hearted and truly romantic; there are no cryptic conversations in shrubberies or awkward, sexually charged silences. What you see with Henry is what you get; he knows how he feels and is unafraid to show it. He is perfect for Catherine, whose innocence is protected by his sensible yet sensitive personality. We know that Henry will be a good husband because he is a good brother and clearly respects women. We also know that he will be a good husband because he defies his father in order to marry Catherine; this strength of character reveals the sincerity of his affection and shows that he will do whatever necessary to ensure Catherine’s happiness. Henry Tilney will probably never enter the highest ranks of best ever literary heroes because he is so straightforward; women love vulnerability in a man, and he has none. However, I think he is a remarkable hero, and his brilliant banter with Catherine is amongst the best I have read in an Austen. Who can’t fail to punch the air in agreement when he denounces the use of the word nice? “this is a nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – it does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”
Overall, I thought Northanger Abbey was an absolute delight from start to finish. It is far more than a parody of Gothic literature; in fact, there are really only a few paragraphs that mention this at all. It is a ultimately a charming, witty and very truthful depiction of a girl’s first exposure to the world, and as such I think it should be required reading for all teenagers. I wonder why Emma was made into a film set in a High School and not Northanger Abbey? It would have been perfect to have Catherine as the new girl, shamelessly used by popular girl Isabella and almost forced against her will by John, who would undoubtedly have been the school star football player. Northanger Abbey may have been written 200 years ago, but the dynamics of teenage behaviour never change, once again proving how truly timeless Austen’s novels are. This is a wonderful gem, that is sadly overlooked by many. I am glad I, like Catherine, have had my eyes opened, and have another novel to add to my list of all-time favourites.