Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen Penguin book cover
Northanger Abbey (1817), written originally in the late-eighteenth century, was published posthumously with Persuasion after Jane Austen’s death. Catherine Morland, just seventeen at the novel’s open, stays in Bath for the season with the Allens, friends of her family. Swept up in the heady range of entertainments available, Catherine soon finds friendship in Isabella Thorpe and her brother, John, who introduce her to much that is both good and bad about Bath society. When the young heroine meets Henry Tilney, a respectable young gentleman, she feels the first flutters of love in her bosom. Befriending Henry’s sister, Eleanor, Catherine soon finds her life becoming increasingly like the stories she so enjoys reading. Chief amongst these literary pleasures is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, and when Henry takes Catherine to stay at his family home, Northanger Abbey, things take a turn for the gothic. Picking her way through delicate social situations, Catherine must mature quickly if she is to survive in the savvy marriage market of Bath and triumph in the Gothic arena of Northanger.

Northanger Abbey is a novel about novel reading, most specifically the reading of Gothic and sentimental novels. But Austen goes further than a critique of these, she explores the experience of reading for women, and the power a story can have and hold over a reader, drawing them beyond the physical body of a book and into its metaphysical consciousness, helping to shape and distort reality (here with particular reference to courtship and marriage). Austen offers reading as a solution to the oppression of women, a chance for them to educate themselves to matters of the world, while claiming ownership of their own fantasies and pleasures.

One of the most quoted passages of Austen appears in Northanger Abbey (“The person, be it gentleman or lady who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”). At a time when novel reading was seen as less than taxing and something to be far from proud of, Austen staunchly and openly defended the value of novels and she looks to empower women by allowing that the novel is a form of female expression and that Northanger Abbey is a critique of the masculinist world as much as of gothic fiction, etc.

By emphasising the tactile nature of books and how this impacts on the reader’s perception of the plot (“the tell-tale compression”), Austen does more than simply point out this fact, but also shows that readers are willing to dull their own senses of perception and allow themselves to speculate wildly about how the plot will unfold regardless of the physical evidence they have before them. Austen actively encourages readers to read critically by emphasising the fact of fiction, and lampooning the courtship plot. By marrying off Catherine and Eleanor, she emphasises the contrivance necessary to most courtship plots, but also indulges in the unashamed bowing to literary pleasures. She also regularly undermines the underlying assertions she puts forward about the characters and the story, meaning that the reader is always aware of the author’s presence and her control over the fiction.

As Henry narrates for Catherine her own Gothic story (laced with allusion to sexual initiation) on their carriage ride from Bath to Northanger the novel transitions from courtship plot to Gothic parody. In the very typically Gothic surroundings of Northanger, Catherine discovers a roll of papers hidden in a Japan cabinet – her imagination informed by fiction, she is hugely disappointed to find that she has discovered nothing more than some old washing bills. Austen mocks the absurdity of the Gothic novel here, but more, she begins to reflect on how fiction and reality intertwine to distort and disappoint in equal measure.

Catherine is so blinded by her fantasies at Northanger, and her wild suspicion that Major Tilney has murdered his wife, that she overlooks Eleanor Tilney’s own, very real, ill-treatment at the hands of her father – a true gothic crime. Indeed, Eleanor’s dependence on men is emphasised as she is only rescued from the situation by another man, her husband-to-be. Eleanor’s servility is partly imbued by the male historians she reads – the male telling of history and of women’s place. It is here that Catherine’s creative spirit comes into play – her tremendous imagination allowing her to see beyond the simple narratives placed in front of her by men. Again, Austen showing the value of free-thinking and creativity.

An often overlooked aspect of Austen’s writing, she here considers the tension between literature and history, and encourages the reader to understand fiction both within the context of the work and the historical context outside of it. Austen’s realism, a response to the Gothic tradition, extends beyond her style and to bare facts. For example, the greatest fortune in Bath at the end of eighteenth century indeed belonged to an Allen, which was changing hands at the time Austen was writing the novel.

Catherine speaks her mind and, while not informed on all matters, is spirited and quite different to the normal heroines of her day. Having been afforded a decent education, Catherine still prefers to lose herself to her imagination and the fantasies sparked by books, an attitude of which Austen did not wholly approve. Indeed, in life and in fiction, Austen was an advocate of a realism and steady thinking that allowed for only the briefest flights of fancy. Nevertheless, novel reading is shown to be healthy for Catherine – a way to return her to her youth when she would burst over with exuberance and vitality – enjoying the outdoors and athletic past-times, which she shrugged off for the pursuit of femininity at the age of fifteen.

Not yet a woman, Catherine is afforded a certain girlish ignorance, and her generous heart and naivety at the novel’s start mean she can be taken advantage of and bamboozled by the likes of the Thorpes, and the marriage-market of Bath itself, which is a minefield for one so open and uninitiated. Like most of Austen’s heroines, Catherine’s main driver is her need to penetrate the male side of her world and, during the novel, Catherine develops through a series of instructive episodes, closing the (emotional, cultural, intellectual) gap between herself and Henry. In the process, however, she learns what Austen’s heroines must all learn: that men can be deceitful and their motives impure, regardless of outward appearance.

Men in Austen are interesting beyond their male-female interaction with the heroines and here the author plays with stock masculine archetypes in fiction, lampooning the rake, the military man, and the gothic tyrant successfully. Early in the novel, Henry demonstrates his good taste for muslin, and this discerning taste allows him to see the value in Catherine – her authenticity amidst the shallowness of Bath society - artless though she may seem at first glance. Yet, Tilney is not afforded any great list of moral virtues, and indeed Austen gently satirizes the need, on the reader’s part, to assume that a hero contains hidden depths. Henry does not, but he is a good man and more importantly provides a feminised hero for Catherine to marry, forming a far stronger, mutually comfortable companionship than the patriarchal relationship that is and had often been depicted in novels.

Isabella and her brother John Thorpe are less favourable characters. With information being spread without check, the marriage market of Bath is open to manipulation and Isabella and John both seek to take advantage of this. Isabella, a girl of modest means, is a shameless self-marketer, commodifying herself in a buyer’s/men’s (marriage) market. Her attempts to exert a level of control over her own life in this way are futile as she finds the odds too stacked against her, no matter how commercially aware she considers herself to be. Social mobility does not come easily to most and the discerning patrons of Bath are able to see that Isabella’s front is little more than a sham. John Thorpe quickly exposes himself to be a predatory male, eager to find a fruitful match and prepared to resort to dishonest means to achieve his goal. His sexual pursuit of Catherine is troubling, prepared to lie and abduct to trap his target as he is. Both Thorpes misuse and display ignorant snobbishness about literature during the novel and Austen uses them to demonstrate that literature is not always enriching and is very much what one makes of it.

Eleanor Tilney, on the other hand, is everything that Isabella is not: sincere, gentle and honest. However, despite being the best educated girl in the novel even she acknowledges the powerlessness of her own situation in a man’s world. With a healthy inheritance to her name, Eleanor exposes the shallowness of Isabella’s aspiration – money/inheritance does little for a woman, rather it alienates them and makes them little more than pawns in the game of wealth, which is ruled over by men, as their fortunes are coveted and a suitable match is made for them. Eleanor is, however, a true friend to Catherine – a friendship built on steady and solid foundations, unlike Isabella’s, which is full of hyperbole and superficial attachment.

This is arguably Austen’s most ‘literary’ novel, lacking in some of the human interest that typifies her other novels. As such it sits somewhat apart from the main body of her canon, and will perhaps be enjoyed by a slightly different audience. Having said this, although this is literary, there is still plenty of human comedy in the interactions between the young characters and their courtships. Although first written in the 1790s (then titled Susan), it is thought that Austen revisited Northanger Abbey later (most likely the mid-1810s) and re-wrote significant sections of the novel. Certainly the novel feels, in parts, a mature piece that would indicate this.

Disharmony runs throughout Northanger Abbey – perhaps in part because of this re-visiting - with separate sections, aspects of certain characters, and the narrative style of the novel failing to be unified completely. The strange disharmony is somehow appealing whilst problematic to a critical reading of the novel. In a book that deals with illusions and delusions, there is something fitting about this punctured, stuttering style, and this peculiar sense leads one to conclude that, in many ways, Northanger Abbey is a novel of negation, with so much about it not something else, rather than being something in its own right.

For all the satire and literary wrangling, Austen uses Northanger Abbey to warn and expose the ills of a society whose powerful members often exploited or abused its weaker members. It is sharp, strange, and enjoyable, and more importantly it’s Austen writing in a style foreign to her other novels.

I first read this after I visited Bath for the first time and really enjoyed it. I think it was only the second Austen I'd read at the time, and I found it to be so different from what I'd expected. I'd gladly hand it to Austen fans and cynics alike.


Useful Links
Reviews of Northanger Abbey on Amazon (UK)
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Television Film of Northanger Abbey on Amazon (UK)
Television Film of Northanger Abbey on Amazon (UK)

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2 comments:

Petra said...

Nice explanation why the Bront√ęs didn't like her much, well at least Emily and Charlotte. I wonder what Austen would say about Jane Eyre? But I'm sure she would enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Anyway, she is obviously right about everything, but I still love gothic novels. Because just as much as they can be mocked and criticized, they can be the critique themselves.

And to be honest, I would be also disappointed about the bills in the cabinet. ;)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, and I think Austen enjoyed Gothic novels too, for what they were. She subscribed to at least one of Radcliffe's books, I think.

Ah, the bills - yes, grossly disappointing. Still, everyone knows the real treasures are kept in the back of the wardrobe - naive Catherine, again. ;)