Though Northanger Abbey is one of Jane Austen's earliest novels, it was not published until after her death--well after she'd established her reputation with works such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. Of all her novels, this one is the most explicitly literary in that it is primarily concerned with books and with readers. In it, Austen skewers the novelistic excesses of her day made popular in such 18th-century Gothic potboilers as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers all figure into Northanger Abbey, but with a decidedly satirical twist. Consider Austen's introduction of her heroine: we are told on the very first page that "no one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine." The author goes on to explain that Miss Morland's father is a clergyman with "a considerable independence, besides two good livings--and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters." Furthermore, her mother does not die giving birth to her, and Catherine herself, far from engaging in "the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush" vastly prefers playing cricket with her brothers to any girlish pastimes.
Catherine grows up to be a passably pretty girl and is invited to spend a few weeks in Bath with a family friend. While there she meets Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, who invite her to visit their family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Austen amuses herself and us as Catherine, a great reader of Gothic romances, allows her imagination to run wild, finding dreadful portents in the most wonderfully prosaic events. But Austen is after something more than mere parody; she uses her rapier wit to mock not only the essential silliness of "horrid" novels, but to expose the even more horrid workings of polite society, for nothing Catherine imagines could possibly rival the hypocrisy she experiences at the hands of her supposed friends. In many respects Northanger Abbey is the most lighthearted of Jane Austen's novels, yet at its core is a serious, unsentimental commentary on love and marriage, 19th-century British style.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jane Austen has done it again. I truly enjoyed reading Northanger Abbey and look forward to cozying up with it in years to come. As someone who loves reading, contemplating literature and enjoys a Gothic novel
I must confess that I started this novel with some reservation. At first, Catherine seemed a bit meek for my tastes. I’ve read most of Austen’s work right now (four out of the major six) and I’m guilty of comparing her heroes and heroines to one another. I feel like comparison can be a poor habit in a reader, but I suppose I view many of Austen’s works or touchstones, particularly Pride and Prejudice, but you’ve probably figured that out by now.
As for Austen’s take on the Gothic and description of the Abbey, I really enjoyed it. While I have not read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, it was intriguing to watch Catherine and Isabella read this novel and compare it their day to day lives. I intend to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, and my edition, by Broadview Literary Texts, spoiled a few small parts of Radcliffe’s novel. I don’t mind too much, but just wanted to provide a word of warning for those who intend to use this edition of Northanger Abbey.
And Henry Tilney. Oh, Henry Tilney. I loved him as a hero. I’ll admit that I was attracted to John Thorpe, but by the end of the story my mind was changed. I don’t want to spoil the novel, but I think Austen fans will love Henry Tilney.
What more can I say? I waited too long to read Northanger Abbey, but am so glad I finally I did. If you are an Austen fan but haven’t read this novel, check this book out as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed!
Disclosure: I purchased a copy of this book.