Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1817
Catherine Morland starts life as a plain, tomboyish child not at all suited to the life of a romantic heroine. Nevertheless, she blossoms into a not unattractive young woman with a “mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” In this precarious state of naiveté she sets off for Bath to be introduced to society. Sounds like every single previous novel with a female main character, huh? Well, yes, excepting Austen’s other books. The most common premise for early English novels is the young woman’s first season in town, an excellent setting in which to portray the corrupting and confusing influence of society on the female character. Austen typically breaks away from this model to focus on familial relationships, typically in a rural setting. Think about it, all of Austen’s other characters have experience in society prior to the time when Austen begins chronicling their stories. In Northanger Abbey she uses this more common premise in order to parody other novelists.
When Catherine arrives in Bath she starts reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, my least favorite book in the history of literature! Austen continually contrasts her relatively mundane and realistic character, setting and plot with the exaggerated romanticism of Udolpho and other Gothic literature. Catherine becomes so obsessed with Udolpho that she interprets her surroundings as if they were part of a Gothic mystery. She expects danger at every turn. She even begins to suspect that the father of the young man she admires is a villain on par with Montoni of Udolpho. Her absurd fantasies almost ruin her chances with the young man in question.
Northanger Abbey is not Jane Austen’s most popular novel, probably because the narrative relies on knowledge of a book that most modern readers have not read. I found Northanger Abbey simply delightful. The element of satire adds complexity and extra humor to Austen’s work. It is really funny to see a literary heroine get so swept up by the ideas and ideals of another novel that she almost ruins the plot of her own book. The constant contrast between the Gothic literary tradition and Austen’s own literary style serves to highlight Austen’s merit. I love that she interrupts her narrative to give a spirited defense of the novel form. In Austen’s time it was perfectly acceptable for a young lady to read poetry, but novels were considered trifling and perhaps even dangerous. She defends Catherine’s habit of reading novels by saying “if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” A bit rich, considering that Austen is raking fellow lady novelist Ann Radcliffe over the coals, but a cute statement nonetheless.
Northanger Abbey stands out to me, because in it Austen comes closest to social commentary. In her other novels she delineates the flaws in her characters and explains how their upbringing allowed their undesirable traits to emerge and flourish. The blame falls soundly on the parents every time. Emma is vain and self-important, because her father is over-indulgent. Lydia Bennet is silly and boy-crazy, because her mother is silly and boy-crazy. Fanny is unassuming, because she is treated as a second class member of her own family. Austen does not aim her arrows directly at the effete, indulgent Regency society very often, but in Nothanger Abbey she constructs the argument (if you look for it) that Catherine is so very silly, because social norms prevent her from accumulating any wisdom. Well, that might be a bit of a stretch, but she fairly clearly demonstrates that the social practice of “retirement from the world” for young women, makes them silly.
Thank goodness an author finally makes that connection. All the naïve, bumbling Charlotte Temples, Evelinas and Catherines get into trouble, because they have no experience of the world. Early English novelists just loved to show how dangerous entering society is for a young woman. Well, duh! If you were shut away from people for your entire youth, it would be dangerous to send you to a debutante ball. People have to learn how to interpret human behavior. If women are locked away from men, they will have no idea who is a decent, reasonable person and who is philanderer or potential murderer. It’s not shocking that Catherine can’t tell fiction from reality. There’s almost no reality in her life. Experience makes humans wise and she has had no experiences. She comes off as incredibly foolish, but is it really surprising that someone who was only allowed to experience the world through books would interpret their surroundings as if they were the setting of a novel? I think not.
You might like Northanger Abbey if:
- you have read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
- you love Jane Austen.
- you like satire.
- you like meta-fiction.
You might not like Northanger Abbey if:
- you haven’t read Mysteries of Udolpho or at least one Gothic novel written before 1820.
- you just can’t stand it when the author inserts her own voice and opinions into the narrative. I must insert my voice here to give the opinion that readers everywhere should ditch this particular pet peeve.
Final thoughts: Northanger Abbey is an atypical Austen novel, which I like. I rank it second after Pride and Prejudice.