Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is the story of Catherine Morland. This is another enjoyable Jane Austen novel filled with all of the things that make Austen a great writer. It is both an engaging read and a meaningful book. Though I found this work to be a little underdeveloped, it is more than worth the read.
Catherine is young woman who, though inexperienced in society, is outgoing, principled and relatively confident. Early in the novel, she becomes romantically interested in Henry Tilney, a perceptive and intelligent young man who has a cynical sense of humor. She also develops a friendship with several members of the Tilney family, including Henry’s father, General Tilney, and his sister, Eleanor.
Catherine is eventually invited to stay at Northanger Abbey. The old abbey is owned by the Tilneys and is used as their home.
Throughout the narrative, Catherine is reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. She becomes somewhat obsessed with this book as well as other gothic romances. Her stay at Northanger is characterized by her imagining secret passages in the walls, sinister plots and various dark doings influenced by her literary tastes.
This book was the first book that Austen wrote. However, it was not published until after her death. Many of Austen’s ideas and techniques, such as her biting social commentary, dynamic characters, well written prose, etc., are all present here but seem a little underdeveloped. The ending also seemed to be rushed. I felt this work could have used more pages to develop these ideas and to shore up the plot.
I want to share a few thoughts about this novel’s connection to the Radcliffe book and gothic literature in general. It is not necessary to read The Mysteries of Udolpho before reading this novel. However, doing so will decode some of the humor of this book. The main thrust of this work is not the connection between the two books. However, the impact that gothic literature has upon Catherine is emblematic of one of Austen’s recurring themes that appear throughout her novels. The theme is perception versus reality. In later Austen books, this theme is more relationship centered. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’ s perception of Darcy’s character seems skewed throughout much of the book. Here, we see Catherine influenced by gothic novels, drawing real life conclusions that turn out to be incorrect. When she is first invited to Northanger Abbey, Catherine assumes that it is dark, labyrinth-filled fortress similar to Udolpho castle. When she arrives, she is disappointed to find that it is a more modest structure.
"An abbey! Yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey! But she doubted, as she looked round the room, whether anything within her observation would have given her the consciousness. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the general talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved— the form of them was Gothic— they might be even casements— but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing."
In the above quotation, Catherine is actually distressed that the building is not dark and gothic as she imagined that it would be!
Later, though General Tilney does show himself to posses questionable character, she assumes that he is a villainous murderer along the lines of Montoni, the chief antagonist of Radcliffe’s book. This preposterous assumption almost damages her relationship with Henry. Throughout the book, Catherine makes other false assumptions that spring from her overactive imagination that is cultivated by reading too many Gothic novels.
I find this personality trait in Catherine interesting and amusing. However, I think that this exposition of faulty perception is less subtle and less well crafted when compared with Austen’s later forays into serious perceptual misunderstandings. I think that this is another area where the early nature of this work shows itself. This is a very good book. The typically brilliant Austen plot, characters and prose are present here. However, I found this to be a little less satisfying than other Austen novels. In some ways, this book illustrates how Austen’s skills improved over time. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable Austen book that is full of wonderful things.
Brian, excellent commentary. When I go through my regular reread of Austen's works, I begin with NA. It's a good introduction to the later novels. I've never looked deeply into the chronology of her published works, but I've always felt that it was an early effort. Perhaps it was Austen's dissatisfaction with it that kept it from being published earlier.
NA is Austen, but an early and not fully developed Austen.
I've always enjoyed Northanger Abbey and find it to be Jane at her funniest. Before reading it a fourth (?) time, I will finally read The Mysteries of Udolpho first! An excellent post, Brian.
accurate and perceptive commentary... reading this led me to read "Udolpho" and some of Radcliffe's other works; but i certainly didn't pick up on the obvious thematic material that you've pointed out... tx for the enlightenment...
Great commentary! I haven't read this one yet. I sort of dropped Jane Austen for a couple years after Mansfield Park. While her writing is brilliant, I seem to have trouble staying awake while reading her books.
This is one of the two Austen's I've yet to read - the other being Northanger Abbey. Both are certainly on mt 'TBR' list!
I read Northanger Abbey for the first time this past summer and absolutely loved it. The gothic touch was fun and insightful bringing an interest of the day into the novel.
What I felt is Catherine's youth and naivete being that she is only 17, sheltered and never traveled, never had a love interest and is described as a reader. So it seems reasonable that her romance with gothic novels would play a large part in her view of the world. She is so inexperienced at life making her vulnerable to these books (and the advice of her friends, which turns out to be awful).
If only there was a part two where we could see how she matured!
Great commentary! I appreciate your focus on the humorous aspect of the story. I agree even a lesser work from Austen's pen is still a good read.
Thanks Fred. Though I have never done it, I think that, at least with some authors, reading their books in chronological order would be particularly interesting, I think that technique would be produce insightful results with Austen.
Thanks JoAnn - I am reading looking forward to read your thoughts on The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though I thought that it was flawed, I also thought that it was entertaining.
Thanks Mudpuddle. I think that it helped that I read The Mysteries of Udolpho first and that it was only a couple of months ago.
Hi CyberKitten 0 This was the lat full length novel of Austen's that I had yet to read. I finally got to them all.
Hi Laurie, This was the first time for me. Catherine's age definitely showed in the narrative. On the other hand, I would describe her as being more mature then I was until I got a lot older.
Thanks James. Austen can be very funny. In the end, this was still a very entertaining book.
Hi Kate. At least for me, Austen's books are not page tuners. In fact, I do not thing that I would have liked her just ten years ago. I have over time come to appreciate slow moving stories.
There is a book called The Jane Austen Book Club about several women and a man who get together once a month and discuss a Jane Austen book. The book assigned to the man is Northanger Abbey, and he --- as a science fiction fan -- saw similarities. Do you see any connection between gothic fiction and SF?
Brian, I keep telling myself that I should do one of the Austen readings in chronological order. However, I haven't done it yet, aside from reading NA first. I also read a number of her juvenile works, usually first, with "Lady Susan" coming just before NA.
Have you read "Lady Susan"? If not, you should do it. And, see the film adaptation of it. The title is "Love and Friendship," a title borrowed from another of her juvenilia. It's the best adaptation of one of Austen's works I have ever seen.
That's a great quotation to illustrate the humor in this novel! I haven't read this book I may do so in the future. It sounds like an entertaining Austen novel.
Austen really deserves to be re-read a few times. I thought Mansfield Park was a little insipid when I read it years ago but appreciated it so much more when I read it the second time (?)the year before last. I went to see a live performance of Northanger which was quite good and emphasised Austen's humour but another read would be a good idea. This is the one Austen book I got some of my boys to read btw (under duress, but they didn't mind it).
Hi Brian! Excellent remarks on this one.
I remember when I read Northanger Abbey, I felt that Austen was making a point about society's fear of women reading novels. Women of the day weren't permitted higher education. They were never taught Latin, so they couldn't read scholarly works. Novels were written in English, so they were accessible to women through lending libraries, but they were believed to make women insane. (As would have education.) So I feel that Austen is spooking/exaggerating this fear in Northanger Abbey, & laying it alongside something far more dangerous -- the power a patriarchal figure like General Tilney might have had. Unfortunately it's been a couple years since I read the book, so I can't offer detail on what I mean. I just remember coming to the conclusion that she is basically saying -- it isn't the novels that actually hurt women; it's the lack of education, and the limited power within society.
*spooking = spoofing
Should have proofread my comment :)
Hi Brian, Excellent commentary on this book. Good point too about how Northanger Abbey contains some of the themes Austen would explore in later novels, specifically the heroine misunderstanding the situation and growing wiser at the end. I plan to read Northanger Abbey. It's not her best work but it's a different sort of novel from what Austen usually wrote so I am curious. I wonder what Jane usten thought of gothic lit? Was she a fan? With the exception of Northanger Abbey, Jane wrote as far apart from the gothic as you can get so I sense she found it a bit silly but who knows.
Thanks is a great question Stephan. I am not sure if I see parallels in this book to the genre of science fiction itself. But I do see a parallel between Catherine and the nodern dans of science fiction, fantasy and other genres. She would fit in well with such fans. It goes to show that a lot of things have not changed.
The Jane Austen Book Club sounds really interesting.
Hi Fred - Now that I have read all the longer novels, I will be moving on to Lady Susan in the next few months. I will probably watch the film after I have read the book.
Hi Suko. That quotation is particularly funny after having read The The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Hi Carol - Austen books really do lend themselves to rereading. There is so much subtlety and nuance. I have read all her major novels once now. I must do a reread of all of them in a couple of years.
You really opened up an entirely new dimension of this book with your comment. This book has a few conversations about women verses men reading novels. I think that there is a lot to your point. I think that Austen is exploring this here. I have been reading a lot of Anthony Trollope lately, and he also seems to explore these issues.
Hi Kathy - I also wonder what Austen really thought of books like The Mysteries of Udolpho. She seems to have at least an affection for them, even if she also poiked some fun at them.
Regarding the topic of the dangers of novel reading and women, one must consider another novel with the same topic which has a tragic ending--Flaubert's _Madame Bovary_.
I've never read Anthony Trollope. Now you have me curious!
Given that I struggle with the so called classics this has been suggested as a good read for me because of its humour. However given your comments about The Mysteries of Udolpho (A novel I've never heard of until now) I think I may well want to read this first before attempting Northanger Abbey.
My questions are: did Austen not want this novel published in her lifetime or at all? Did she believe it was less than she wanted? Also is Austen making fun of Radcliffe's book in this story? It seems like an amusing plot. nice review.
Hi Tracy - The Mysteries of Udolpho was a very fun book. It was also very long. This was also a fun and entertaining novel.
Hi Susan - According to Wikipedia Austen tried to get this novel published several times in her life but ran into some difficulties.
I get the impression that Austen was affectionally making fun of Gothic novels. But I am not certain. I would guess this information might be out there.
Great post, Brian. It's sad that Austen never saw the published book. And that must have been frustrating for a writer to see her dear book to be mired in publishing issues.
Thanks Deepka. It is sad that this book was not published when Austen was alive. She certainly had a run of great books.
OUTSTANDING review as usual, Brian!
I had no idea that this novel dealt with this type of subject matter. I'm very much interested in reading it now! Even though you've stated that, as an early work, it's not as skillfully crafted as her later novels, the plot, which involves the mention of another novel, sounds totally fascinating to me!
I can definitely relate to the protagonist's overactive imagination. Lol. I would probably be feeling much the same way she does, although, paradoxically, Gothic-type mansions do scare me. However, it's the whole idea of something being out of the ordinary that really appeals to me. The Romantic literary imagination is definitely at work here, I think.
The theme of this novel reminds me of the one in "Don Quixote". In the Cervantes novel, an old gentleman yearned for the days of errant knighthood, and fancied himself a knight. Both novels have the theme of a disappointment with reality, and a longing for something more ideal, something not so banal and ordinary. In other words, something that will take one out of the mundane and routine. I can certainly identify with this longing. It's the reason I prefer to read fantasy, science fiction, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy. I rarely read contemporary fiction, precisely because I tend to find it boring. And mysteries don't really do it for me, either, unless they have some connection with Sherlock Holmes.
I know I have this novel somewhere in my home library. I need to bump it up to the top of my TBR!!
Thanks for another very insightful review!! Hope you're having a nice Saturday!! <3 :)
I did not know that this book could be decoded. I don't know if I'm up to reading Udolpho, however.
Also, I did not know that this was one of Austin's first books but published after her death. That may explain why it seems a little more stilted than some of her other works. I liked the novel but it is not a favorite. I did not find the characters as interesting.
Thanks for a great review and the interesting information.
P.S. In regards to contemporary fiction, I do make an exception for romance novels. Lol. :)
Thanks Sharon . I agree, this is really good book but not Austen's best. I thought that The Mysteries of Uldolpho was a very pleasant book, but it was very long.
I also can relate to Catherine here. Gothic stories of Castles can be such fun. I can see how they would spark one’s imagination in such a way.
You raise a good point about Don Quixote. There are indeed parallels here involving fantasy worlds that we build in our heads. As for relating Catherine’s interest in Gothic novels with modern day interest in science fiction and fantasy, there seems to be big parallels. I guess that modern day fandom is not as new as we think.
I think that you would like this book .
Excellent! NA was my first Austen encounter, and preferred it over three others. I guess I’m in the minority.
Hi R.T. - I liked the book a lot. But I thought some of Austen's other books were better.
Despite the wonderful characters, interesting and funny plot twists, and humor, I agree that NA is the weakest of the Austen canon. That said, it is still a joy to read.
Hi Jane - It say a lot about Austen that this book, with all of its strong qualities, is her weakest.
my friend bought me the complete works of Jane Austen, well I think that is what it was called. It has sat in the back shelf for a long time, I wonder if this is in it, I will need to dig it out and come back to you xxx
Hi Lainy - I really liked this book, but unless one wanted to read Austen in chronological order, then I would some of her other novels first.
Glad you gave a heads up on Udolpho b/c I am planning to read Northangar Abby early next year. However, I'll probably look at a review or analysis instead b/c I don't feel like reading Udolpho. I've familiar with it from other resources, but not enough.
Thanks for stopping by Kate. It is not necessary to read The Mysteries of Uldolpho before reading this book, it just helps with the humor. Though I liked that book it was very long. My commentary on it is here.
Not Austen's best but still pretty good. I read it for the first time as an undergrad in college and thought it was ok. When I reread it a couple years ago I was astonished how funny it was. I completely missed all the humor so long ago so it was delightful discovering it the second time around!
Hi Stephanie - The way that you feel about this book is the way that I feel about it. I do not think that I would have liked this book much when I was younger.
I haven't read this one but it sounds delightful. Exploring what it is we can learn from books and what the truth of fiction really is.
Hi Hila - Despite a few flaws, like all Jane Austen books, this is a marvelous read.
I found Catherine very interesting character and her psyche sound worth to ponder upon.
Jane Austen is exceptional in her many works and i think i would love to read this
This was my first Austen and I'm was quite disappointed. I'm glad I read another one later because, as you say, it's not as developed as the other ones. And not a good starting point for her work.
Now that I've read them all, I could imagine picking this up again and getting something out of reading it.
Thanks Baili - Jane Austen is indeed such an exceptional writer, Like all her heroines Catherine is so well crafted.
Hi Caroline - I guess that it is good think that you decided to continue on with Austen after finding this book a little disappointing.
I haven't read this one but I am an Austen fan. This one sounds good, I have it on my shelves waiting to be read. I watched the BBC film version and I do remember the heroine being into gothic novels.
Hi Naida - I have not seen the screen version. I think that if you like Austen then you will like this book.
I love Austen - and love this book. It reflects her youthful sense of fun. I love how it spoofs readers of Gothic novels, as well as Gothic novels themselves, and I also love that it contains Austen's wonderful defence of the value of novel reading at a time when it tended to be seen as something frivolous. Her defence is as valid today as it was then, 200 years ago.
Unfortunately as I'm commenting with my blog name, I will not get notification of whether you reply to me or not, which is a shame.
Thanks for stopping by Whispering Gums. The defense of novels in this book is a good one and it is worth pondering. The Gothic novel thing here is great.
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