Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

While Northanger Abbey was the first novel written by Jane Austen and sold to a publisher by her brother, Henry, in fact it was repurchased by the author and not published until six months after her death in December 1817.  Austen’s parody of 17th century Gothic novels is told with a good-natured humour, but a valuable lesson lies beneath the surface of its narrative.

Catherine Morland, the daughter of a vicar, is given the chance to travel to Bath with a respectable family called the Thorpes.  Isabella Thorpe is her particular friend and the two absorb the delights of the town with an eager anticipation.  Yet Catherine’s sheltered upbringing has perhaps made her more artless than your average girl of her age, and her innocent and credulous nature allows for a manipulation of her desires by those with more experience in the arts of enterprise and self-interest.  Her steady diet of Gothic novels, combined with her somewhat protected existence, contribute to her highly erroneous perceptions of the motivations and behaviour of others.  When an answer does not immediately present itself, she speeds off in wild internal ramblings of imagination, that rarely represent reality.  Likewise, when she is faced with obvious circumstances, she fails to perceive them.  Her lack of discernment with regard to John Thorpe’s infatuation of her remains puzzling until her understanding is brought into context.  What experience does this young sheltered girl have to bring her presence of mind and an ability to discern attitudes outside of her usual element of a protected existence and romantic Gothic narratives?  With her uncritical naiveté and wild flights of fancy, initially one wonders if Catherine will be able to navigate through the pitfalls of her own mistaken perceptions to arrive at an outcome that will benefit her innocent, and yet misguided, nature.


In many ways, Northanger Abbey is a comedy, as Austen treats her character with a gentle type of humour. Catherine, while having admirable qualities, is living a delusion, cultivated by her reading material, yet her mistakes are of innocent intent due to ignorance rather than willful human folly. Her awakening, while somewhat arduous, is brief, and she soon demonstrates her innate ability to put into action the values instilled by her family and, with the guidance of the young gentleman clergyman, Henry Tilney, both her instincts and maturity grow, while her wildly unrestrained imagination is harnessed, and diminished into a sensible and mature culmination of happiness and contentment.  

While this book doesn’t necessarily showcase Austen’s usual brilliance, it is solidly developed and an engaging story until the last chapter. Then the book falls all to pieces. Somehow Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s sister, makes a brilliant match with a character, “a man of fortune,” who has never been mentioned by anyone, including the bride herself, until four paragraphs from the end of the novel; the General (Henry’s father), who has been somewhat gruff and stringent, yet ofttimes displaying a pleasant character, turns into a mercenary, blustering, (and may I add, foolish) tyrant; and Catherine and Henry’s success in love looks in jeopardy.  Yet all is tied up in a sentence or two, and the reader is left feeling like they just hit a brick wall.  It’s not Austen at her finest, yet the book is a charming experiment and an example of Austen at the origin of her art.

Ruin of Kenilworth Castle – a gothic-type building
source Wikipedia

Northanger Abbey has the unique distinction for being known as the novel that alludes to a number of Gothic suspense novels.  If you are a Gothic connoisseur, here is the list for your enjoyment:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
  • Clermont by Regina Maria Roche
  • Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
  • Mysterious Warnings by Eliza Parsons
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest by Ludwig Flammenberg
  • Midnight Bell by Francis Latham
  • Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
  • Horrid Mysteries by Carl Gross (translated by Peter Will)
  • The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

0 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

  1. I definitely agree that Northanger Abbey doesn't appear quite as polished or as mature as Austen's later writing. You can definitely tell, reading it, that it's some of her early work. Despite this, I must admit I've always found Northanger Abbey one of my favourite Austen novels. I'm not sure why – I think perhaps it's the way she plays with the tropes of Gothic fiction while still recognising what's enjoyable or useful about the genre.

    Your list of Gothic novels is very useful – I didn't know about a lot of these, I'll have to hunt them down and have a bit of a Gothic marathon! 😀

  2. "….. she plays with the tropes of Gothic fiction while still recognising what's enjoyable or useful about the genre."

    What you said above, exactly. Imagine writing a parody of something and while you are exaggerating its deficiencies, you are still open-minded enough to appreciate its benefits! I love it! I also think she simply writes well. I was so invested in the characters (most of the time) and wanted to strangle John Thorpe (not to mention Isabella)! :-Z

    I haven't read any of the books on the Gothic list, so I hope to throw one in now and again amongst my other reading.

  3. I've always been charmed by this one, even if it doesn't have the maturity of the later novels. Catherine is hard to dislike, I think, and despite her wild imagination, she does perceive some things that aren't quite right. I've only read Castle of Wolfenbach from the Gothic list (so far), and it was quite the adventure! If a bit perhaps understandable why it's mostly been forgotten. I imagine if I'd read more (someday…), I would understand the satire of Northanger Abbey better.

  4. Charming is exactly the word for it. And yes, even though you sometimes might become impatient with Catherine, you can never dislike her. I wish it was a little more developed because I like Austen's premise and I think the characters were solid but could have really been brought alive. Whenever I read her novels I wish she could have lived longer. I've read all the main novels now, but I still have the shorter ones, like Lady Susan and the Watsons to go, so at least I haven't read everything of hers yet!

  5. Thanks for the recommendation, Brona! I've watched productions of other Austen novels, but it's been a long time since I watched a production of this one. I should, before the nostalgia wears away! 🙂

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