At some point in my teenaged years, I think I might have read Northanger Abbey. I know I went through an intense Austen phase after reading Pride and Prejudice, and that I had a collection of all Austen’s novels, but I certainly didn’t remember the particulars of this one upon re-reading it, which simply added to the delight in this encounter. Northanger Abbey was one of Austen’s earlier novels but it was not published until after her death. It’s a rom-com/coming of age story that features a charming every-girl named Catherine Morland as she goes out into society for the first time. The supporting characters and situations are what make this novel so entertaining and relatable 200+ years after it was first written.
Austen introduces Catherine Morland as the unlikely heroine of the story. She isn’t so beautiful that she stops conversation when she enters a room, but she is a nice looking girl. Her family is large, but her clergyman father does well and can provide for his brood. Catherine is a perfectly fine young lady who does not distinguish herself in any particular area of endeavor, but who is well mannered, good hearted and thoroughly decent. Catherine, as we shall see, can be a bit naive, but she is not stupid, feels embarrassed when warranted, and tries to learn from her mistakes. At the age of 17, Catherine’s neighbors the Allens offer to take her to Bath for the season. While there, she makes the acquaintance of two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys. Isabella Thorpe and her brother John are a few years older than Catherine, and Catherine’s brother James is a school chum of John’s. James happens to be in Bath as well, and so the four spend a lot of time together. The friendship between Isabella and Catherine will be familiar to anyone who went to high school. Isabella is a girl with ambition to make a good match and always has her eye open to who is in the room and how to get their notice. She is effusive in her expressions of love and friendship for Catherine, but she and her brother John are self absorbed and have a habit of projecting their own feelings and desires upon others, especially Catherine. Catherine for her part is quite genuine and sincere in her love for her new friend Isabella and does not immediately see the aspects of Isabella’s personality that are perhaps less sincere than her own.
The Tilneys are a quite different family from the Thorpes. While the Thorpes are not as financially secure as they would like, the Tilneys — the General, daughter Eleanor, and sons Henry and Frederick — are quite comfortable. Northanger Abbey is their home, and while they are not super-rich, they are a cut above the Morlands and Thorpes. Catherine makes the acquaintance of Henry at a ball, and their initial encounter is adorable. While John Thorpe, Catherine’s would-be suitor (something she doesn’t quite see at first) is a loud, obnoxious braggart and bonehead, Henry is a clergyman who is not afraid to admit that he enjoys reading novels (seen as something women do) and who has a delightful sense of humor. Eleanor is a kind young lady around Catherine’s age. Catherine is very excited to get to know the Tilneys, but the Thorpe siblings find ways to sabotage the efforts at first. Catherine, however, will not be deterred and shows both her decency and backbone in the process. Thus, the Tilneys invite Catherine to Northanger Abbey and the rom-com heats up (insofar as such things can happen in an early 19th century novel).
The matters of social class and financial security are key to this novel, as they are to pretty much all Austen novels. Marrying well is of vital importance. While the Thorpes are manipulative and self-serving, they are also playing the game that society requires of them. They play dirty, which is something Catherine realizes about John Thorpe pretty quickly but refuses to admit about Isabella. And that leads to another key theme to Northanger Abbey — the impressions Catherine makes of people and how they change as she matures. The novels of Mrs. Radcliffe are much discussed among Catherine and her friends. Ann Radcliffe was a late 18th century novelist whose Mysteries of Udolpho were very popular. They are considered some of the first “gothic” novels, and the characters in Northanger Abbey are intimately familiar with them. Catherine is especially enamored of these novels, and influenced by them, lets her imagination run a bit wild while visiting Northanger Abbey. One of the things she will learn, with some gentle instruction from a friend, is that her judgements of people have sometimes been impaired by her over-active imagination, but that people can be a real mixed bag of good and bad.
Since this is Austen, and she makes it clear from the start that Catherine is a heroine and Henry Tilney a hero, we know that a happy ending is in the offing, and it is very sweetly done. Austen’s humor and wit are evident throughout as she deals with society, education, relationships and so on — all matters that arose in her later novels, with more detail and more focus on the dark side of falling foul of society’s rigid strictures. Northanger Abbey, had it been published in 1803, would have been a harbinger of the great novels to come.