I picked this classic up, back when I was in school and sadly, did not enjoy it as much as I wanted to. So, I thought it might be worth letting you know why.
Northanger Abbey is the first and only book of Austen’s I have read to date. I choose it because I wanted to explore more of the literature classics.
Naturally, Jane Austen needs no introduction, as one of England’s best and brightest novelists and if your unsure what she looks like you need only to whip out 10 fine English pounds to find her portrait.
This novel was posthumously published by her brother Henry Austen, in 1817. Henry also took the liberty of renaming it Northanger Abbey, Austen herself originally chose Susan after the heroine, but later changed her name to Catherine and so the title change too.
Austen was, and still is, famous for her criticism of the popular romantic and sentimental authors of her day. Often creating heroines who are demure and naive to which Catherine is no exception. Austen is able to show Catherine is no fool, by making her tomboyish and practical, intimated with young goofiness and juxtaposes against the very feminine and fickle Isabella.
This novel is a satirical romance, mocking both the format of society and its obsession with gothic literature.
Due to the heavy focus on gothic literature, having read The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk before Northanger Abbey, would have proved very useful. As I have not read either, I struggled even with the extensive footnotes and explanations my copy had.
I feel the book itself was a bit “meh” as not all that much happens and so much detail is described. It seemed like so much effort was put into linking the gothic novels of the time that some of the characters and events went a little under developed.
I don’t think I am alone in this view as to date the book has only achieved a 3.81/5 on Goodreads.
An essay written by Joan Aiken published for the Jane Austen Society of North America entitled “How might Jane Austen of revised Northanger Abbey?”, explains how Susan was bought by the publisher Crosby in 1803 and shelved for 13 years. Until her brother Henry Austen re-purchased it. So perhaps even contemporary opinion thought it was mediocre.
We know Austen made some adjustments to the text and in her advertisement for the book she explains her frustration that Crosby had not published the work earlier. She was clearly worried that the gap between writing and publication had rendered the text irrelevant and implored readers, “to bear in mind that 13 years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was began.” (The full advertisement can be found here, along with further information about the novel and author).
Even then Austen delayed publication – so perhaps she never felt it was quite finished or the moment for publication had passed? Unfortunately, we will never know.
When it was finally published in 1817, Henry wrote a touching and heartfelt forward to the book, explaining for the first time that she was the author behind Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Previously she had only been named as “By a Lady” or her previous work.
Narrated in the 3rd person, Catherine’s plain life is laid bare and our heroine is born along the way. The narrator is quite critical of her simplicity and ordinary nature introducing Catherine in the first line saying:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
The story then moves to Bath and the adventures of entering high society for the winter season, sometime in the New Year. Catherine makes acquaintance with Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, whom she becomes very fond of.
As well as, Isabella and John Thorpe, children of Mrs Allen’s old school chum. Catherine seems to enjoy the excitement of Bath, but is overjoyed when Henry and Eleanor invite her to their country pile – Northanger Abbey.
The novel has 4 key themes:
- Fear of social rejection – in particular the need to select a good spouse
- Societies gothic obsession
- Coming of age/maturing
- The importance of reading
Marriage is the central focus of the story. It is the reason for the season at Bath, the sole aim of Isabella and John Thorpe. Also, the source for General Tilney’s interest in Catherine, followed by his wrath, the cause of Eleanor Tilney’s sadness and most importantly the anticipated link between our hero and heroine.
Marriage is inextricably linked to social rejection, as that would be the result of failure to secure a good match. Henry is often seen mocking the ways of society, by saying things like, “Now I must give one smirk and then we may be rational again.”
The gothic obsession is explored through Catherine’s currently reading list (side note she’d have a fleek Instagram!). Then in greater and more dangerous depth when she is convinced General Tilney murdered his wife. Austen show’s the danger that longing for high drama can bring to society, especially when gossip can lead to ruin at an alarming pace, even in the absence of social media.
This mistake leads to Catherine’s sharp coming of age and fast lesson in the dislocation of fact and fantasy.
The importance of reading is addressed both indirectly through the references to other novels and directly through Henry Tilney when he states, “The person, be it a gentleman or a lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
This English Classic has been adapted in many different ways – be that TV, plays, radio, film and even a Marvel graphic novel!
The only one of these I have seen is the 2007 film by ITV, staring Felicity Jones and Carey Mullingan. I love this film, its is perfect for a rainy day when you fancy watching a period drama.
I found the book hard going and quite frankly a waste of time. I like the story, but the continuous gothic references are a bit too much. They broke the flow of the story up and sadly it never got exciting in the way I had hoped. I was even able to put it down during the supposed high drama scenes!
However, if I was reading it as a contemporary at the time, I probably would have understood it better and even loved it – in fact as I was coming of age at the time it may have even resonated with me.
So, I would not recommend reading the book, but I would however implore you to seek out the story in whatever other medium takes your fancy. As it is a good tale, but not worth the time and prep work it takes to read it in its original format.
Have you read Northanger Abbey – what did you think? What Jane Austen book would you recommend I read next?