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.