Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

catherine morland

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.

 

56 comments

  1. Hi Rachel,

    I’m so happy to find another kindred Northanger Abbey lover! It is a truly hilarious romp, but so smart and sharp too. Henry is my favourite Austen hero. Your review is brilliant, thank you for sharing your thoughts, I hope it enthuses others.

  2. That’s a lovely reminder of what’s so fun about Northanger Abbey Rachel. I have had the same experience – where books you thought ho hum when first read suddenly become great favourites – I’ve been re-reading Arnold Bennett recently and now wonder why I didn’t love them more on first reading!

      1. Have you read anything by Elizabeth Caddell? Love her style, wit, and atmosphere. My daughter is presently collecting everything she can get her hands on.

  3. I have read almost every Austen, and I think Northanger Abbey is one of her best written. This and Sense & Sensibility are my favorites- I felt like Jane Austen really shone through the work. I felt like I had gotten to know her better after reading it.

    1. Yes I see what you mean – it’s shot through with her personality in a way her later novels aren’t, isn’t it? It’s intriguing to meet someone who loves two of her ‘lesser’ novels (in some people’s eyes) – it says something about a reader who is able to see magic others aren’t!

  4. So nice to see some Northanger Abbey love! I’ve just re-read and reviewed it myself and, like you, was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. There is an authorial voice in NA you don’t often hear in Jane Austen’s work as she speaks directly to the reader about her thoughts on reading and books. This felt like a bit of a “personal glimpse” – as if the author was so fired up about the topic that she couldn’t stop from having it spill into Catherine’s story. That self-consciousness, especially in the first half, is so delightfully refreshing. Thanks for your review!

    1. I’m glad to hear you think the same, Lee-Anne! I hadn’t thought about the prominent authorial voice until you mentioned it, and yes, like Jillian says, it creates a much more intimate sense of Jane’s actual personality and beliefs. I loved that element I i felt like I was getting to know her in a way I don’t always feel reading the later novels. Thank you for enlightening me!

  5. Your post immersed me in Jane Austen’s world. It is more than fifteen years since I last read her works. And I am also guilty of bypassing Northanger Abbey. It is time to pick up Austen and Hardy again, one by one.

  6. I adore Northanger Abbey and to me it is obviously the strongest of Austen’s early books: yes, I think it better than S&S or P&P. Henry Tilney is one of Austen’s most delightful creations and Isabella Thorpe one of her most brilliant. The only flaw I can spot in the book is Eleanor Tilney. We are told how wonderful she is, how deserving of happiness etc, but she never comes to life.

    1. Controversial, Claire!!😉 I actually think it’s on a par with Sense and Sensibility; I wouldn’t say that I liked it better than P&P but I definitely think it’s a very strong novel that’s far more inventively and wittily written than is given credit for. I agree that Henry and Isabella are superb characters – I think that in her later novels she uses them as prototypes and fleshes them out slightly more to create the likes of Mr Knightley and Caroline Bingley. Yes – absolutely. You’ve hit the nail on the head – Eleanor Tilney is a real weakness of the book. She seems rather pointless except as a device to get Catherine to Northanger. I would have liked to have her become more of a person – she’s a bit like Jane Bennett in that way.

  7. I agree with every one of the positive comments you made about Northanger Abbey, my initial experience with reading it was very similar to yours. It was the last Austen novel I read, after I had already reread P&P and S&S, and that was because it is the Rodney Dangerfield of Austen novels, it does not get respect the way the other 5 do, so I thought I wasn’t missing anything. Prior to 2008, there was only film adaptation, with no name stars. Etc etc. So when I actually read it the first time, it was also a very pleasant surprise for me, as it was for you.

    But, as a result of all my research, I now know what a devastating satire it also is on an entirely different level. I.e., what you don’t realize is that it is a double novel, and beneath the Gothic parody, there is actually an alternative version of the novel, its “shadow story”, which is an ANTI-parody of the Gothic.

    As I explain, in the links below, the anti-parody tells us that real life in Jane Austen’s England was truly a Gothic horror for the ordinary English wife, and so the Gothic novels, with their Alpine castles, abductions, and “confinements’ of the imperiled heroines were actually valid and powerful metaphors for the real life of English women. An overt attack on the status quo would have been dangerous for JA to publish, but a covert attack, that was a good plan:

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/05/general-tilney-as-bluebeard-murdering.html

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/04/what-connubial-felicity-really-is.html

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/05/jane-austen-code.html

    So Northanger Abbey, like all of Jane Austen’s novels, is actually twice as great a novel as is commonly understood by Janeites.

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  8. I agree with you and all the comments here – I love Northanger Abbey because of its freshness and life, and the fact that the characters are so well written. In Catherine Morland I could see myself when I was a teenage as someone who sees good in everyone and trusts too easily, Isbella Thorpe is just a wonderful creation as a young woman who wants too much and will do whatever she can to get it, and Mr Tilney…. well, he is a perfect hero! I also love how you can hear Jane Austen’s voice throughout it.

    I quite liked the ITV version from a couple of years back – Carey Mulligan made an excellent Isabella!

    1. Isn’t it brilliant? It’s so fresh and fun, and so true – I love how timeless Austen’s novels are. I started watching the ITV version last night and am loving it so far – Carey Mulligan perfectly captures Isabella and Felicity Jones is lovely as Catherine. I am a bit perplexed by the decision to introduce a clandestine love interest for Eleanor…they clearly want to pep her up a bit as she is rather flat in the novel, but it did confuse me at first as I thought I must have missed a chapter when I was reading or something!

  9. ahh i loved northanger abbey! i wrote a review on it earlier too, and while i was looking at background info, it seemed like all the critics thought it was a “practice” novel or something, but i found it so light and funny! it would definitely make a hilarious high school movie.

    1. Glad you love it too! Yes, this idea of it being a practice for her ‘better’ stuff later on does the novel a real disservice – and I’m so pleased you were able to see it for the treasure it is!

  10. Yayyyy! I am always telling people to read Northanger Abbey because I think it’s woefully underrated. All the critique of the Gothic novel genre is really funny, and Mr. Tilney is by a good margin my favorite of the Jane Austen heroines. I’m glad you’ve come around on this one — it would be a sad fate to spend your life remembering it as a cutrate version of Persuasion.

    1. Well wouldn’t it have been? I do really think Henry Tilney is magnificent – if I had to place him, he’d probably be my number three. First is Mr Knightley because he is amazing and second is Captain Wentworth PURELY because of his letter and not because of anything else because he doesn’t value Anne enough. Maybe actually I might bump Captain Wentworth down a notch, because Tilney reads and knows about clothes. Ok, I have just convinced myself – he can be second!

  11. Oooh I only read this for the first time last year (shameful I know) but I too enjoyed it a lot! It’s very funny, very witty, it struck me as very perceptive as well, lot’s of fun comments on women and books and so on. It is now definitely up there among my favourites.

  12. I’ve read and enjoyed Northanger Abbey several times throughout the years, but actually started to see it in a new light after watching the movie The Jane Austen Book Club in which one of the characters makes the point that it’s a novel about novels and can be seen as an example of a young Jane Austen exploring her place as a writer. It’s not often that a mid-grade romantic comedy makes me think new thoughts about literature, but I think that idea could be an interesting way to critically interpret the novel. Of course, most of the time I’m perfectly content to get swept up in its entertaining story and characters without attempting any overly critical assessment!

    1. Well yes, that’s very true actually – it is about what reading and writing can do to people, and how important they are in forming our personalities and outlooks. I like that interpretation a lot. It’s definitely a youthful novel – compare its exuberance with Persuasion and you think you’re reading an entirely different novelist.

  13. I agree. Not a lightweight novel at all. I recently reread it, as others have, and enjoyed many aspects of it. One not mentioned yet is that it is in itself about reading and the power of reading on the imagination, not just the gothic novels that lead Catherine to exaggerate the mysteries of Northanger Abbey, but of the power and value of reading to understand that not everything is as it seems. Including Northanger Abbey!

    1. Yes absolutely – that depth to it is often ignored. It’s a lovely novel about the importance of reading – and not just novels, but people, and situations, too. That’s why I consider it a bildungsroman more than a romance, because it’s about that process of growing up and having the scales fall from your eyes as you find your place in the world.

  14. Uh, Northanger Abbey is my favorite? I think because it was the first book I read in my summer of Austen, all my excitement and pleasure were concentrated on NA, so the circumstances were biased to me enjoying it. But NA also was a great novel on its own. I loved how it poked fun at everything and how it was ridiculous (like you said, Henry Tilney’s brilliant put down of “nice;” and my personal favorite how his father woke Catherine up in the middle of the night to throw her out because she turned out not to be an heiress–outrageous!)

    Also as someone who aspires to write, it was incisive to see the beginning of Jane Austen’s writing career. I can see how Tilney was the prototype of cool and aloof Darcy and Catherine of eager and naive Emma.

    Lastly, I read the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. I cannot praise this edition enough. You probably have heard of it already, but I cannot stop myself from praising this edition. The footnotes and introduction were, for the most part, actual joys to read. The physical book was simple but the pages were tactile and thoughtful touches like embossing Jane Austen’s signature in gold on the bottom front cover and a useful ribbon bookmark were much appreciated. Seeing them stacked up into a tidy red column against my white walls was rather picturesque. Unfortunately the price is astronomical. Around $170 retail, $100+ on Amazon, for each. But I see that at US Amazon, Persuasion is now a bargain book at $40.

    1. Well that’s brilliant – don’t question your choice! Different Austens call to people in different ways and I’m so glad you enjoyed Northanger Abbey so much! Yes absolutely – reading all of Austen’s novels from beginning through to end really helps you to see her progress as a novelist and the way she develops characters. It’s brilliant! That edition you have sounds lovely – I’ll have to see if I can find a nice cheap copy!

  15. Perhaps I should give Northanger Abbey another go. I’ve not read it in years. Though I must say, I’ve slightly gone off Austen of late. I don’t know if it’s the effect of her overwhelming popularity or my age. I am now older than Austen when she died, and I find myself wondering what she would have written had she not died so young. Would her heroines have aged? Would her older women gotten more sympathetic with time?

    1. Yes you should! Gone off Austen? Surely not! You should dip a toe back into Northanger Abbey – you’ll love it. I too often wonder whether she would have written anything radically different if she had lived longer. Perhaps she would have softened? It’s fascinating to think and it’s a shame we’ll never know!

  16. This is the one Austen I have not read…even when I won a copy from Allie at A Literary Odyssey last summer. Thanks for the wonderful review. I must get on this soon.

  17. Lovely article! It’s always a pleasure to find other Tilney fans. NA would most definitely be wonderfully translated into a modern remake… but I think it could use a little more direct correlation between the characters and situations than the cliches of a high school setting. Catherine could be 17-19, Tilney in his early 20’s (and everything kept sweet and platonic-ish); Catherine would know the older Thorpes through her brother, the male Thorpe (I forget his name right now) would be a creepy blowhard for sure. He wouldn’t be the star quarte rback type, though, but a loutish poser whot *wants* to be that type of person and is very showy.

    I think it’s really important to inject more realism into an adaptation like this because the humor and cheekiness are already there. If we took Clueless as a direct inspiration, we’d be sliding back into a 90’s culture that doesn’t feel relevant (to me as a young person now), besides cheapening the possibilities of an authentic story.

    Lol, as you can see, I have thought a bit about this, since I just reread NA a few days ago, and I am one of those who count this in my “Favorite Austen” picks.

    1. Intriguing ideas, Arielle! Perhaps…I think as I work in the British equivalent of a High School, I see so much of this still going on…and a film version set in a British school, without all of the 90’s pop culture very California – esque references that made Clueless so of its time, could be quite successful! But I’m not in any position to write a screenplay right now – and as you have such a definite idea, I think you should have a go! I’d love to see your version of NA on the screen!🙂

      1. Oops! I somehow skated past the cultural relevance of British versus American culture, and I shouldn’t have. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room yet for everyone to develop an adaptation idea. I think I will give a screenplay a shot – as a private project – and I look forward to anyone else’s work, too.🙂

  18. I’m so glad that there are other fans of ‘Northanger Abbey’ out there. It’s my favourite Jane Austen novel, together with Persuasion. They were her first and last completed novels and I think it particularly moving to read them together (as they were published, after her death). In Northanger Abbey, you have a very young, energetic, slightly naive heroine. In Persuasion, an older heroine who already has some regrets about her life. I’m no Austen expert, but I always wonder, when I read both books, how much of Jane herself and her outlook on life can be found in those pages. The novels seem fitting the book-ends of Jane’s life as a writer.

    1. Yes you are quite right. Reading them together is poignant – you see that youthful vigour tempered to a regretful and more melancholy tone that perhaps hints at a sadness in Austen that she never had her happy ever after. I loved getting that sense of the young Jane – it really helped me to imagine her as a person in a way that her other novels haven’t somehow.

  19. If I had to spend time with one of Jane Austen’s heroes it would be Henry. The chat, the humour, the jokes, the fun…maybe Walter Elliot from Persuasion would be great company, but he was fairly single minded about his ambitions and if you were not an heiress forget it.

    Mr Knightley is impressive, but his well meaning critiques of character deficiencies would be a bit tedious.

    Darcy: not easy company although the end of the book intimates that Elizabeth improves him and he is a good man. Only Captain Wentworth comes near Henry in terms of warmth and honesty, but Henry has energy, high spirits, intelligence and he is just such good company. I agree with you that NA is an under rated book.

  20. I remember this book taking me a couple of starts before I made it through. Now, I’m feeling like it needs a reread. I’m a great Austen fan (well, with the exception of Emma who I only liked when she was Cher in Clueless) and I really do enjoy quality time spent with the characters she created. Thanks for the reminder!

  21. It’s good fun in parts (the character of Isabella for example) but overall I’m still underwhelmed by this book. I just found Catherine too insipid and gullible. Mind you I did feel sorry for her
    at the awful treatment she had from Tilney’s father.

    1. Oh no! I can see what you mean, but I thought she was wonderful! Maybe because I am surrounded by teenagers all day every day, I felt quite maternal towards her!

  22. Oh, so glad you decided to give it another go. It is the most misunderstood of her novels. It has been adapted to film/TV more than once but not wonderfully successfully overall. No-one quite knows what to do with the Gothic element. Some people see it as a spoof of Gothic novels and filmmakers sometimes try to make it as that, but it’s more a spoof of readers of Gothic novels.

    You are right I think about the bildungsroman. John Thorpe is like the young show off men of today – instead of showing off his car he’s showing off his horse and carriage (forgotten what type it is).

    It’s also great I think for its defence of the value of novels/fiction. You go, Jane, I think whenever I read it:

    “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.”

    What more can I say!

  23. Northanger Abbey is actually my favourite Austen🙂 My students are reading Frankenstein at the moment and we watched the BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey as a way to discuss the criticisms of the Gothic Literature

  24. I love your thoughtful review. Very glad to know there are other Northanger Abbey enthusiasts. I must admit that it took me awhile to warm up to Henry Tilney, but I re-read NA often and find new gems each time. I recently read that, while Lizzy Bennett was more Jane Austen than any of her female leads, Henry Tilney was Jane’s masculine counterpart. I can see this. I love humor in a book almost more than anything else, and that was one of the chief reasons I loved NA. Isabella Thorpe is a masterpiece….I can’t even think of her without laughing!

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