Review: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Of all the Austen novels, Northanger Abbey is the novel I knew the least about. In popular culture, it tends only to pop up as part of Austen’s oeuvre, and it’s the lone Austen novel that has not received a motion picture adaptation. (Okay, technically, Persuasion suffered the same fate, being a BBC television adaptation, but it was released theatrically here.) The only thing I really knew was that it was the first novel Austen started (Sense and Sensibility was the first she completed). With no preconceptions or, really, expectations, I picked up Northanger Abbey for class.

Northanger Abbey focuses on Catherine Morland, an indolent, naive, but sweet girl who spends much of her time wrapped up in thrillingly melodramatic Gothic novels. Invited to visit Bath with friends of the family, Catherine makes friends with Isabella Thorpe, an insufferable flirt with an amorous (and irritating) brother, and a Mr. Henry Tilney, a witty clergyman who also enjoys Gothic fiction. But when the Tilneys invite Catherine to spend time at Northanger Abbey, their ancestral home, Catherine’s very well-cultivated imagination gets the better of her, and she must learn that Gothic fiction does not necessarily apply to life.

I was quite intrigued by the structure of Northanger Abbey. Most of the novel is dedicated to Catherine losing her innocence; discovering that people aren’t what they seem and discovering that the world is a lot more spectacularly mundane than her favorite novels would have it (although Catherine maintains that this sort of thing might be quite possible in southern France). While I quite liked the relationship between Catherine and Henry, especially their banter, the focus isn’t so much on their romance than Catherine growing up; Henry isn’t her sole purpose, but rather her reward. Even if Henry and Catherine hadn’t gotten married, you get the feeling that our new and improved Catherine would have eventually gotten over it.

Catherine is Austen’s youngest heroine at sixteen, and her youth is part of her charm; not the sole fact that she’s young, of course, but the fact that she’s sheltered and naive. The narrator gets great mileage out of this, sighing over the fact that Catherine’s sheltered upbringing didn’t make her quicker to anger or assume that Henry’s attractive sister, Eleanor, is his wife. Even her overactive imagination is endearing, as it’s identifiable; who hasn’t sat up in the middle of the night and screamed at some terrible beastie who turned out to be laundry? Her repentance of the three main incidents, especially the last one which angers Henry, is touching and necessary to make her more than just an impressionable girl. She’s quite aware of her own faults–she and Eleanor discuss her distaste for history at one point, which Catherine still keeps at to stay sharp. The narrator in Northanger Abbey is a character unto herself; she even goes through a character arc of her own, evolving from a Gothic narrator thwarted by her solidly middle-class and normal subjects to an efficient narrator who doesn’t twist and overanalyze the facts of her story. It’s utterly charming.

In fact, such a visible narrator adds to the overall humor of Northanger Abbey, which is a great deal more comic than Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The banter here is particularly sparkling, especially when Henry teases Catherine with wordplay and general merriment. Catherine’s almost determined innocence is a great foil to any wickedness around her; I was particularly amused by a scene in which James, Isabella’s brother, believes himself to have as good as proposed to Catherine, who has no earthly idea what he’s driving at. It’s so good at this kind of subdued, arch humor that it makes Sense and Sensibility look bad, as that novel’s satire is a great deal more vicious.

Northanger Abbey is a tighter, shorter novel than either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, which is both a good and a bad thing. Someone (whose name, for the life of me, I cannot recall) once said that nothing really happens in Austen, but the reader still eagerly turns the page. This is quite true of Northanger Abbey; everything moves along at a steady clip and the banter is so lovely that it’s downright engrossing, despite the actual lack of action. But it also doesn’t feel as fully realized as the world of Pride and Prejudice, with its wide and varied cast; the focus is much narrower here, and nearly everyone gets a “proper” ending. I think Northanger Abbey would do splendidly as a teenage girl’s introduction to Austen, being short, funny, and narrow in focus–and, of course, there’s plenty of overlap between melodramatic Gothic fiction and some of the young adult fiction they’re consuming these days…

Oh, and a word to the wise–get an edition with footnotes. There’s an astounding number of references to the contemporary Gothic novels that Catherine reads, and you’ll need the context to get everything. But you might do well to avoid a Barnes and Noble Classics edition on your first read; the darn thing spoils the ending in one of the first footnotes. (To be quite fair, the statute of limitations on Austen spoilers has definitely expired, but still. Not cool, Alfred Mac Adam, not cool.)

Bottom line: Northanger Abbey is so sweet and funny that it makes Sense and Sensibility, written around the same time, look bad; of particular note are Catherine herself, a sweet and sympathetic heroine Austen can still gently mock from time to time, the sparkling banter, and, of course, the fantastic narrator–a Gothic narrator thwarted of her melodramatic glory at every turn by her solidly middle-class and normal subjects. If you haven’t read Austen, the short Northanger Abbey would be a great place to start.

I bought this book from Barnes & Noble.

23 thoughts on “Review: Northanger Abbey

  1. Agreed! I love Henry Tilney and I love Catherine and I love Isabella. Especially (in the latter case) because Carey Mulligan played Isabella in the recent BBC adaptation, and she was delightful. Northanger Abbey is a little less technically accomplished, I think, than Austen’s other books, but it’s such a sweet book that I do not mind.

  2. I haven’t read Jane Austen! Except for the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice about five times. Maybe I will give Northanger Abbey a shot. You’ve made it sound quite lovely.

  3. Hey Clare
    I’m also (re)reading this at the moment. It’s funny that this is no-one’s favourite Austen, because it’s just so sparkly. One of the things I enjoy most is the bits where she defends the novel against it’s critics: it’s like she can imagine all the accusations which are going to be levelled against her over the next 200 years and is just going to knock them all down. I didn’t realise there was an adaptation – must get it!

  4. Penguin in the UK have recently republished a lot of the Gothic novels which Austen was poking fun at – The Monk, The Castle of Otranto, and so on.

    I must re-read Northanger Abbey – eventually – since I do remember enjoying it.

  5. I’ve been thinking of re-reading this one in the somewhat near future. I read it a long time ago, shortly after I graduated high school. The recent BBC adaptation has revived my interest as it highlights the witty banter that you mentioned in your review. The actor who plays Henry Tilney is very endearing in his role.

  6. I love Henry Tilney best out of Austen’s heroes because he is so witty and light-hearted, compared to the dourness (sorry) of Darcy. It’s refreshing.

    Northanger Abbey may not have the same level of sharp, vicious social commentary as in Pride and Prejudice or the emotional density of Persuasion, but I like its sparkliness and youthfulness. I think it was my enjoyable intro to Austen. 🙂

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  12. I love NA; it is my favorite Austen novel. Catherine is adorable and I think Henry is the most charming of Austen’s hero’s. I’ve always found Darcy too high maintenance! It always disappointments me that this book doesn’t get higher praise because, in many ways, I think it is her most honest novel. Austen. Openly mocks the popular 19th century Twilight novels while simultaneously using them a basis to create her own style. It’s really a very modern strategy and she pulls it off brilliantly because her mockery is complimented by charming characters and she backs it all up with wonderfully skilled prose and an empowering message for women (young and old) – that life cant be lived as a novel. You have to mature beyond fictional pathos and idyllic romance to find happiness in real lifebut can still enjoy those qualities in a novel as long as you understand them for what they are.

    and idyllic romance yo find true happiness, but that doesn’t mean you cant enjoy those qualities in s novel if you

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