Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I recently decided to add Jane Austen to the tiny list of authors of whom I have read all their works. I saved Northanger Abbey for second-to-last partially because it was the first book she wrote and in part because it has a reputation for being one of her weaker novels. With only Emma left I have to say Northanger is the weakest for me, though still not in any way a “bad” novel, of course, because it’s Jane Austen we’re talking about here. I have been trying to buy the Norton Critical editions of all of the novels but, as it turns out, there isn’t one of Northanger Abbey (or if there is I couldn’t find it). Instead, I ended up getting this SoHo Books edition, which seems pretty at first, but then is obviously implying that the book is about a young lady relieving herself in the woods. Jane Austen would not approve.

As for the actual text of the novel itself- ha! The heroine of the novel, as the narrator keeps telling us, is Catherine Morland, a girl who her family feels is somewhat unimpressively average and who is sent off on vacation with a neighboring family. This is ostensibly because she needs to think about snagging a man, she is, after all, 17 years old and not particularly amazing so no one is going to be banging down to door for her ho-hum dowry. In Bath (ye olde vacation spot) her guardians are dunces and the wife only cares about clothes, but she meets a guy named Henry Tilney, who is clearly a lot more clever than she is, but he wouldn’t want a clever wife, just an innocent and obedient one, so Catherine is in the running! Go girl! Catherine also makes friends with some no-good-nicks, Isabella and John Thorpe, and becomes bffffffs with Isabella. John takes a lot of liberties with Catherine, talks constantly about how amazing he is, and uses a lot of profanity. Catherine does not like him. Catherine and Isabella read Gothic novels together, thus filling their heads full of nonsense, but no one is raising them properly so it goes unchecked.

Eventually Catherine’s brother James comes into town and stupidly falls in love with Isabella, who starts flirting with Henry Tilney’s older brother the day after she becomes engaged to John. Time to fall into ill repute, harlot! Meanwhile, Catherine realizes that the Tilneys are the people to be with and makes friends with Henry’s sister Eleanor. She super wants to marry Henry for some reason, which I never could figure out, because he seems so much smarter than she is, I’m not even sure she understands what he says to her half the time. Catherine eventually leaves Bath with Henry, Eleanor, and their father to stay at Northanger Abbey, which Catherine convinces herself is haunted in various ways, and ends up embarrassing herself a lot because of it. About ten days into her sub-vacation Catherine gets a letter from her brother James telling her that Isabella is going to run off with that older Tilney boy, and he’s super embarrassed! Then Catherine gets a letter from Isabella saying that it’s all a misunderstanding, but Catherine sees through her whore lies and realized that older Tilney just flirted with her and shipped out because he’s a cad. That’s what you get, slut!

Catherine feels like Henry will probably want to marry her, unless she’s just too much into ghost stories, but Tilney dad seems to want her to marry Henry so that’s good. Then, zam! like a thunderclap when Henry is temporarily out of town the Tilney patriarch has Catherine turned out of Northanger Abbey overnight, without any money to get home, or even the ability to write to say she’s coming home (not that her parents care at all). When she arrives back home, thanks to Eleanor’s financial assistance, her family isn’t that excited to see her, probably because they have nine other children and were glad that Catherine was gone. Her mother repeatedly tells her that playtime is over and it’s a life of chores for her now! Catherine is understandably depressed, she now has no friends, not even that harlot, and her family doesn’t really like her that much.

Then suddenly (a few days later) Henry Tilney shows up and apologizes to Catherine, who he then proposes to. The narrator assures us that Catherine isn’t really that great, but that Henry Tilney fell for her because she has such great taste in men, namely him. Romantico! Turns out that the Tilney patriarch heard that Catherine was dirt poor from g- d- John Thorpe who spread a bunch of lies about her after he was like, “We should get married,” and she was like, “Nah, that’s stupid.” Burn. While Catherine is poor, she’s not destitute, and their marriage is eventually approved. Also Eleanor gets married and we never find out what happens to any of the other characters because the book is so short.

So there you have it! The story of a blarfy girl who marries a kind of cool guy because he is completely self-congratulating but, unlike her other suitor, knows how to keep quiet about it. Not really aspirational, but it was, after all, Austen’s first novel, and it wasn’t published until after her death, so who knows if it really met her standards (I’d like to think that it did not). It’s not bad, of course, it just lacks the oomph that the other novels have, even Mansfield Park, which everyone seems to really disliked (I actually liked it, but that’s a whole other post).

~ Brigitte

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