By Yvonne Blackwood ~
Published a year after the author, Jane Austen, died in 1818, Northanger Abbey is categorized mostly as a Gothic Parody and a Novel of Manners. The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator.
Catherine Morland, a young lady at the ripe age of seventeen should begin her social life with a “coming-out,” a time when young ladies are first introduced into society and become eligible for the marriage market. Since no gentleman has shown any interest in Catherine, and she has shown no interest in any man, Mrs. Allen, her wealthy neighbour and family friend, takes it upon herself to give her the exposure. Mr. and Mrs. Allen take Catherine along with them to Bath―a place where the well-to-do spend the summers partying and socializing.
But Mrs. Allen views the trip as a leap of faith because she has some concerns about Catherine. She has not followed the expected tradition of becoming “accomplished” as young ladies her age should. In essence, she does not draw, paint, play the pianoforte, or speak another language (usually French).
At first, Catherine is bored at Bath. She knows no one, and although Mrs. Allen promised her that some of her friends would be there, none of them have arrived. After several days Catherine is introduced to Henry Tilney as a partner by the master of ceremonies. Henry is a likable man and the two enjoy dancing together. The next day, Henry is nowhere to be found! Eventually, Mrs. Thorpe, a friend of Mrs. Allen, arrives along with her three daughters, one of whom (Isabella) is Catherine’s age and they become fast friends.
When Isabella’s brother, John, arrives unexpectedly with Catherine’s brother, James, at Bath (both are attending the same university) the plot thickens as we learn that Isabella has a crush on James. We also observe that John Thorpe is a lying, conniving man who cannot be trusted. Realizing that Catherine likes Henry Tilney, who has returned to Bath with his sister, John Thorpe does several underhanded things to thwart the developing relationship. But Catherine is determined that Henry is the man for her and makes her own decisions.
Notwithstanding Mrs. Allen’s concern about Catherine’s lack of “accomplishments,” we learn that she does one thing very well―she reads voraciously. She has been absorbed in reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, to the point where she’s beginning to believe the story. In conversation with Isabella, she states, “Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.” Austen plays upon Catherine’s obsession with this Gothic novel to parody the story.
Yet while Catherine is enamoured with reading novels, others in the 18th-century society (mainly men) criticise and mock such a pastime. John Thorpe does not hesitate to tell her how he feels, “Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do. …novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; . . . they are the stupidest things in creation.”
Eventually, Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey, the home of the Tilneys, by none other than Henry’s father, General Tilney. At this point, Austen pokes more fun at the Gothic. Having read The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine is excited to see a great castle with all the features and secrets she has read about in the novel. On the way, Henry (who unlike Thorpe reads novels) teases her by dramatizing aspects of Gothic life―terror, horror, suspense, storms, daunting portraits, and supernatural presence.
Poor Catherine is very disappointed when she discovers that Northanger Abbey is really a sham castle that has been renovated to incorporate the old and new. Yet, she still hopes to find some mystery and when she sees an old locked chest in the bedroom she is assigned, she tries to open it expecting to find a great family secret. She finds only bits of paper that are a part of a laundry list!
While Catherine is disappointed that Northanger has not met her expectations, she is concerned about the General’s ongoing attention. After all, she is only interested in Henry. Readers are curious about this matter also. Why is the General so keen on Catherine having a grand visit? By the end of the story, after Catherine’s heart is almost broken, the secret is revealed, and all ends well.
Northanger Abbey is a classic novel that is both amusing and informative. The novel pulls back the curtain and exposes us to the cultural norm of the Georgian Era and the 18th-century social etiquette of the middle and upper-class England―the patriarchal society, the rigid expectations of how to dress, how to socialize, parental consent, and even how to ride in an open carriage. But the most significant aspect of the novel boils down to how that society focussed on money, wealth, and social status.
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