Northanger Abbey (reread)

What’s hidden in that locked trunk? What’s lurking in that closet? Who’s imprisoned in those closed-off rooms? That’s what Catherine Morland wants to know when she visits Northanger Abbey in Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. I first read this novel as part of a class on Gothic novels in college, so most of what I remembered about it is the Gothic parody, when Catherine is poking her nose into every corner of the abbey to unearth the dread secrets of the Tilney family. What I had forgotten is that the most intense parody doesn’t begin until halfway into the book.

Northanger Abbey‘s heroine is plain, ordinary Catherine Morland, a girl whom, the narrator tells, no one “would have supposed . . . to be born an heroine.” As the novel begins, Catherine is happy to learn that she is to go to Bath with her neighbors, the Allens. In Bath, she makes several new friends; principal among them are Isabella Thorpe and her brother John and Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. Soon, she is caught up in the drama of friends making competing claims on her company—and men making competing claims on her affections.

In the latter half of the book, Catherine travels to Northanger Abbey to spend time with Eleanor, and this half of the book is the part that made the strongest impression upon me when I first read it. Catherine is obsessed with finding a secret in the abbey. She’s been immersed in books like The Mysteries of Udolpho, and she can’t imagine an old abbey without some dreadful past waiting to be revealed. The secrets she finds aren’t so dark, but the betrayals she encounters are real.

One of the interesting things about this book is the contrast between the drama in Catherine’s head and the drama going on around her. Catherine is often described as being foolish and naive, but it’s to her credit that she does—eventually—figure out who her true friends are and who is manipulating her for their own purposes. Early in the book, Catherine does accept people at face value, but she does wise up, and she does so without much guidance from others. She may have guardians in the Allens, but for the most part, she’s left to sort things out on her own. And she does.

But once the door of suspicion is opened, it’s opened too far. Her Gothic novels just gave her material to build her fantasies on. I think what’s really happening is that she’s learned to mistrust. She has learned that not everyone has her honorable principles, but she equates questionable behavior with outright evil behavior. And, really, when the Gothic villain of her fantasies shows his true colors, it’s clear that her gut instincts about him weren’t without grounds, even if he isn’t the nefarious villain she imagined him to be.

I enjoyed reading Northanger Abbey again. The narrator’s voice is often quite funny, and although I don’t find the main characters as endearing as those in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, I did like them. Catherine feels like the young girl that she is, and it’s pleasant to see her grow up.

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16 Responses to Northanger Abbey (reread)

  1. Steph says:

    I read this one for the first time a few summers ago when I was traveling around England, and I can’t say I remember much about it. I am with you on the main characters not being as endearing – to me Henry Tilney seems quite foppish and not really very dashing at all. Having recently re-read Jane Eyre, I think it might be fun to read a few more gothic novels of the ilk that Austen is skewering in this one and then read it again!

  2. Kathleen says:

    This is one of Austen’s that I have not read but I think I would like it based on your description. One of these days I am going to get through all of her books!

  3. One day I would really like to read The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey back-to-back. I feel like I didn’t catch that many of the Gothic references the first time I read NA.

  4. litlove says:

    This is one of my favourite Austens. In all honesty, what I liked about it most was Henry Tilney, one of Austen’s loveliest, sanest, most charming male heroes (oops, just seen that I have disagreed with another commenter – sorry!). Loved your reading here about trust and mistrust and think it’s very accurate.

  5. Rachel says:

    I haven’t read this in a long time. It’s frequently dismissed as simple parody of the gothic genre but as you so wonderfully put it, there’s far more going on behind the scenes than at first appears. This review has made me want to revisit Northanger Abbey…I love Jane Austen but I tend to stick to my favourites, Persuasion and Emma, when it comes to rereading. I think I have neglected Northanger Abbey a little too long.

  6. novelinsights says:

    Oh my word, this sounds brilliant. I’ve never been that fussed about Austin but this character and situation sounds really interesting.

  7. Christy says:

    I’m due for a re-read of Northanger Abbey, especially as I really enjoyed the recent film adaptation of it with Felicity Jones and JJ Feild.

  8. rebeccareid says:

    See, when I read this (age 15 or 16) I had no idea about the parody on gothic novels as I don’t think I’d really read a gothic novel, other than Jane Eyre. So, after Pride and Prejudice, I was horribly disappointed and I really didn’t get this book.

    Definitely time for a reread for me as well!!

  9. Teresa says:

    Steph: I liked the main characters well enough–I didn’t consider Henry foppish exactly, just not particularly interesting. If you want some more Gothic novels to set yourself up nicely for the parody, a few we read in my class are Castle of Ortranto, Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk. They all border on trashy–especially The Monk–but, as I recall, they’re pretty fun.

    Kathleen: If you like Austen, this one is worth it.

    dailywordsandacts: Reading this book after being immersed in Gothic fiction was absolutely ideal for me on my first read. (I’m sure I missed some references this time around to books that I’ve forgotten.)

    litlove: I know lots of people just love Henry Tilney, and I appreciate his patience and kindness to Catherine, but he’s not one of Austen’s top-tier heroes for me.

    Rachel: Yes, I think the last half is so over the top in places that it overshadows the more ordinary human drama and how Catherine is developing as she goes through some very real trials.

    novelinsights: Well, I’m an Austen nut all the way, so I think all her books are brilliant to varying degrees! I’d be curious about what a non-Austen fan would make of it.

    Christy: I liked that adaptation pretty well. It certainly spurred my interest in rereading.

    Rebecca: Yes, I think a basic grounding in Gothic fiction can really enhance this book. You read Ortranto a while back, didn’t you? I know someone did…

  10. Dorothy W. says:

    I’m such an Austen fan, but I’ve read this one only once! (Plus listened to it on audio once.) I need to correct that, because I’ve read every other Austen lots of times.

  11. Rebecca Reid says:

    Nope, Teresa, wasn’t me. That’s one I want to read before rereading Northanger Abbey, though!

  12. Teresa says:

    Dorothy W: This was either the first or second Austen I read, and it took me about 17 years to get back to it. I’m glad I did though.

    Rebecca: Oh, well. I remember someone did in the last year. It is a good one to read before NA (or Udolpho or The Monk). The later stuff like Jane Eyre is more, um, literary than the novels Austen is spoofing.

  13. JaneGS says:

    >when the Gothic villain of her fantasies shows his true colors, it’s clear that her gut instincts about him weren’t without grounds, even if he isn’t the nefarious villain she imagined him to be.

    I find General Tilney to be completely loathsome and turning Catherine out to make her way home on her own is shameful and villainous in my book!

    I adore Henry Tilney and feel that there’s a bit of her brother Henry in him.

    My JASNA group is focusing on this novel next year, so I’ll be reeading it in January. Can’t wait!

  14. Our Jane Austen book group has also scheduled to read this back-to-back with The Castle of Otranto. It should be fun to read JA’s parody with one of the novels that inspired it.

  15. Teresa says:

    Jane: Oh, don’t get me wrong, General Tilney is a villain, just not one that would poison his wife ;). His sending Catherine away was horrible, but he did (on flimsy grounds) think he was dealing with a manipulative money-grubber. Not that that’s a defense, but he probably figured she was more worldy and would manage just fine on her own.

    Karen: That’s a perfect combination!

  16. Pingback: Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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