Northanger Abbey may get short shrift in the Jane Austen canon because it is the least serious of the six novels, but readers who pass it up miss a great time. It has a good, guileless heroine and perhaps the most charming of Austen’s heroes.
Northanger Abbey is both a typical Austen tale of the education of a young woman and a spoof on the sensation and gothic novels that were the rage in Austen’s time. Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, the oldest daughter in a clergyman’s family of 10 children, spent her childhood as a tomboy and now enjoys reading books that stand her hair on end. Austen jokes that Catherine is in training for a heroine but has a long way to go, being uninterested or deficient in most desirable feminine pursuits.
Catherine is invited by a neighbor couple to spend six weeks in fashionable Bath with them. There she meets the Thorpes and the Tilneys; her experience with them teaches her to distinguish duplicity from sincerity. Isabella Thorpe, who shares Catherine’s passion for “horrid” (sensation) novels, pretends to be Catherine’s devoted friend but cares only for herself. John Thorpe’s lies nearly waylay Catherine’s future happiness. In contrast, the other brother-and-sister pair—Henry and Eleanor Tilney—are true friends. By the time their father invites Catherine to his home, Northanger Abbey, as a companion to Eleanor, Catherine is well on the way to being in love with the witty, amusing, genial Henry. It is at the abbey that Catherine learns the critical lesson that real life is not the same as fiction.
There are passages in Northanger Abbey that deserve rereading as much as anything Austen wrote. Any scene with Henry Tilney contains sparkling speech. There is also Austen’s famous defense of the novel, then still considered an inferior literary form (“ . . . work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed . . . the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusion of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.“).
Although Northanger Abbey was the first completed of Austen’s novels, it was published posthumously. A bookseller bought the manuscript in 1803 and put it away for more than a decade until Austen demanded it back. She made revisions and explained in a preface why some things were out-of-date. Her brother published it the year after her 1817 death.
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