Now that I’ve officially read all of Jane Austen’s six major novels at least once, I thought it was time to reread an old favorite. Although Sense and Sensibility was my introduction to Ms. Austen, it was Northanger Abbey that turned me into the male Janeite that I am. Since it had been a few years, I wondered if I would still enjoy it as much as I did the first time. As it turns out, I loved it even more the second time around!
Northanger Abbey has a very different feel from Austen’s other works; it is much shorter, has a lighter feel, and is more humorous. Despite being considered a romance, I wouldn’t say it should fall into that genre. It has more the feel of a satire. This is one of the first novels Austen wrote, but it wouldn’t see publication until after Austen’s death. The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland who lives a fairly boring life. Her only escape is her love of Gothic novels, that is until she is invited by some family friends to accompany them to the exclusive town of Bath. Catherine’s life is forever changed through her relationships with two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her to be an heroine.”
Out of all of Austen’s heroines, I admit to having a strong affection for Catherine Morland. In my opinion, her two best qualities are her love of fiction and her determination to be a good friend. Austen provides a great description of Catherine in the opening chapter. In fact, I think it’s one of the best descriptions Austen writes on one of her heroines. While she is not as sensible as Lizzie Bennet or as intelligent as Emma Woodhouse, I admire her abilities to dream and to stand up for herself in the name of friendship. Despite what Austen’s true opinions of Gothic romance were, I love how she escapes into literature and views herself as the heroine.
Catherine shares her love of Gothic romances with her friend Isabella Thorpe. Isabella is in a relationship with Catherine’s brother James, leading Catherine to have to deal with Isabella’s pompous brother John. Despite her constant irritation with John Thorpe, Catherine tolerates him because of her fierce loyalty to her brother.
The Tilneys are older brother Henry, younger sister Eleanor, and their father, General Tilney. I love Henry Tilney, as I find him ridiculously charming. Catherine finds herself instantly drawn to Henry who also appears to return her affections. The two are able to share their love of literature which to me is an important quality of any serious relationship. As I mentioned earlier, the romance element is merely a small part of this story, as Northanger Abbey to me is more about the friendships between Catherine and the Tilneys.
“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
The Thorpes are actually quite jealous of Catherine’s friendships with the Tilneys. John and Isabella actually go to great lengths to create friction between them, even resorting to lying and being forceful with Catherine in order to get her to spend more time with them. However, Catherine does not stand for this. She stands up for herself and makes sure to always do what is right by her friends. This is the other quality about Catherine I admire. Austen always creates such strong women, and Catherine Morland is no exception.
The second volume of the novel takes place at Northanger Abbey, the ancestral home of the Tilney family. Catherine is thrilled as she loves the idea of old and crumbling castles filled with romance and mystery. Fueled by her love of these types of stories in addition to some good-natured fun from Henry, Catherine lets her imagination run wild. She begins to imagine all manner of horrendous and terrifying events occurring there. At one point, she even imagines that General Tilney may have had a hand in the death of his wife years ago.
As Catherine is sneaking around playing detective, she runs into Henry who immediately scolds Catherine for jumping to conclusions based on the books that she reads. Catherine immediately comes to her senses and is devastated at falling out of favor with Henry. The two manage to reflect and then talk over everything, and eventually the friendship (and later romance) is repaired. I love Catherine’s growth as she learns that while she can appreciate fantastic novels for what they are, she can also keep her feet firmly rooted in reality. I find that I have reached a point in my life where I can balance reality while still appreciating the magic and wonder found in literature.
For me, Catherine Morland represents some great character development. Considering this is one of the earliest works penned by Jane Austen, I find this quite a remarkable feat. Catherine truly is a heroine with her loyalty and maturing personality. Sure, she has an overactive imagination, but really that’s the worst I can say about her. Besides a little imagination is a wonderful thing providing you have balance in your life.
As a parody of Gothic thrillers, Northanger Abbey is a fun read. However just like with all of Austen’s novels, there is so much more beneath the surface. The development of Catherine as a maturing human being surrounded by colorful characters make this a true classic. This novel also stays true to the qualities that make Austen such a master of understanding human behavior with plenty of incidents of miscommunication as well as life lessons on growing as a person. Since I’ve dreamed of traveling to England (and staying in a real castle), I think I will include this as one of my entries for Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 as set in a location I’ve always wanted to visit.
“It ‘s only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!