This week I am moving up the posts one day, to Monday and Thursday. Tuesday is Christmas, and Friday I will be deep into the visit of my very dear friend (and Wise- and Light-Hearted co-author).
Northanger Abbey was published with Persuasion in December 1817, five months after Jane Austen’s death. In one bound book, readers had the first complete novel of the well-loved author together with the last. Northanger Abbey was actually finished in 1803 under the title of Susan (Jane Austen later renamed the heroine Catherine), but because the publisher who bought it didn’t publish it, it sat until Miss Austen’s brother Henry “redeemed” it in 1817. Jane Austen revised it a bit before her death. pinterest
Northanger Abbey was written for an earlier time than when the public finally got its hands on it: It satires Gothic romances, which were wildly popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but declining somewhat by 1817. So long as readers keep the concept of a Gothic romance firmly in place, however, Northanger Abbey loses little of its bite, and even if you’re not entirely aware of its satire, you’ll find it a rich story.
Gothic romances are frightening tales that take place in wild European castles and ruined abbeys. A beautiful, orphaned young woman is often the protagonist; there is a handsome, devoted hero and a dastardly villain. I’ve never read one, but its descendants might be today’s vampire and werewolf books. You get the idea.
Beyond the satirical elements, however, which poke fun at the exaggerative and “horrid” Gothic depictions of life, there is a further layer of irony: some of it turns out to be true! There is villainy in Catherine Morland’s real world, threatening her happiness: Isabella Thorpe, a bad friend who also breaks Catherine’s brother’s heart; John Thorpe, a loutish contender for Catherine’s hand; General Tilney, the heartless father of Henry and Eleanor Tilney (Catherine’s dearest friends) who seeks to separate Catherine from Henry. Jane Austen is parodying and commenting on the way young women were wont to devour Gothic novels, but she also shows that sometimes the novels’ black-and-white good-and-evil situations can help us identify and eschew the evil of our everyday situations.
Catherine is much more than a parody of a Gothic romance heroine; she learns and grows and is a delightful, realistic teenager. She meets a young man, Henry Tilney, at a ball in Bath, and is immediately attracted to him; it grows into love throughout the story. She has much to learn about the world, however, but he has the happy role of teaching her. He has a sister, Eleanor, whom Catherine adores in her own right, and they make a sane, agreeable threesome. As opposed to the not-so-amiable Thorpe siblings, John and Isabella, who take possession of Catherine and her brother James, even going so far as to lie to keep Catherine from the Tilneys’ company.
I don’t find Catherine’s personality as well-defined as Jane Austen’s other heroines, but she’s perfectly realistic because she is sort of an “every-girl.” The large majority of young girls have naivety that needs dispelling and vivid imaginations that need a reality check. Some may be tomboys as little girls but they all grow up to value prettiness and compliments. They get a crush on a young man and every moment they can spend with him is exciting. They have hard-to-get-rid-of friends that are a bad influence and quality friends that they fear losing.
Henry Tilney is probably my favorite character. He’s witty and wise, upright and gentlemanly, and a fitting hero because he takes care of Catherine, watching over both her safety and her growth. Eleanor, his sister, is a bit reserved, mainly because she is afraid of her father, General Tilney, but Catherine’s warmth melts her. She gets a happy ending, too, one that is even more from a storybook than Catherine and Henry’s.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the title character, Northanger Abbey, because, as in Gothic romances, where the setting is often a character in itself, General Tilney’s estate plays a big role in the story. Surely, then, the abbey is wild, dangerous, and decrepit? Surely it is the scene of mystery and horror? Alas, no -- it is a renovated abbey, as modern and respectable-looking as the General himself. But, like the General, it may hide a dark secret … and both those secrets may determine the outcome of Catherine and Henry’s romance.
What do you think of Northanger Abbey?