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.