Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey cover

Considering this was Jane Austen’s first novel, it is a surprisingly assured work, if not always an easy one for the modern reader to decipher given our distance from the eighteenth-century novels she was satirising.  The first sentence links Catherine Moreland to heroism, only to spend the rest of the novel undercutting her status as heroine, in the process wryly commenting on the literary models which put the female protagonist at their centre.  The account of Catherine’s adventures allows Austen to demonstrate the distance between genre fiction – conventional novels of sentiment as well as Gothic productions – and real life as it would be experienced by a young girl insulated from the world, who took her image of it from her reading.

Barbara Benedict and Deidre Le Faye note that Northanger Abbey is firmly within the tradition of the eighteenth-century novel as developed particularly by Samuel Richardson, a style which would ‘record the thoughts and feelings of young women in great detail as they confront moral and emotional decisions.’ (Benedict and Le Faye, 2006, p.xxxiii; see also Brooks and Watson, 2000, pp.66-70)  However, laced through Northanger Abbey’s Bildungsroman are elements which satirise the Gothic novel, notably The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe, 1794/1966).  Gothic tropes are parodied – most humorously as Henry Tilney teases Catherine during the journey to the Abbey (Austen, 1818/1995, pp.138-40).  But while satirising the genre’s excesses it simultaneously uses it as a benchmark against which to measure the anxieties of everyday life for women (see for example Watson, 2000, p.53ff, ‘The Abbey and the terrors of the domestic’; Benedict and Le Faye, 2006, p.lii).  As this conflation suggests, the novel creates a ‘stereoscopic readerly sensibility’ that requires a reader who is an ‘astute, self-conscious literary critic.’ (Brooks and Watson, 2000, p.81)

We see from the start that Catherine views herself in intensified terms thanks to her reading habits.  For example, she claims that ‘it was doomed to be a day of trial’ (Austen, 1818/1995, p.122), whereas we learn shortly after that the day is a successful one.  The use of the phrase ‘evil which nothing could counterbalance’ in relation to the possible termination of Catherine’s acquaintance with the Tilneys is hyperbolic, but an insight into her state of mind which exaggerates disappointments.  Then the invitation to visit Northanger Abbey fills her with ‘extasy [sic].’ (ibid., p.123)  These suggestions of a heightened, see-sawing, emotional state, in which sensibility predominates over sense, parallel her subsequent misunderstanding of the character of Northanger Abbey (which it transpires is nothing like Udolpho) and the personality of the General (who has not abused his wife in the way Catherine imagined, though her suspicions about his character may have some merit in the dictatorial way he treats his children).  The presence of Gothic motifs and parallels earlier in the narrative cue the reader to see General Tilney as possibly having Radcliffean characteristics.  At the same time there is a disjuncture as his pompous speech evokes those burlesque elements used earlier, for example the ‘abduction’ of Catherine by John Thorpe for the outing to Blaize Castle.  Their drive, in what would be considerable peril for the heroine in a Gothic novel, is seen to be farcically tedious when the boorish Thorpe is cast as the ‘villain.’

The change of location from Bath to Northanger Abbey indicates the shift in tone from the previous emphasis on narrative conforming primarily to the descriptive sentimental novel to the emphasis on more overt emotionally-laden Gothic motifs (though the latter feature earlier in the book, and the sentimental aspects are never displaced entirely).  It does seem strange that Catherine only reaches the titular Northanger Abbey two-thirds of the way through the novel, yet our sense of the book as a critique of the Gothic novel takes precedence over Austen’s points about the triteness that was often to be found in sentimental novels.  Perhaps the problem is that we are familiar with aspects of Gothic fiction from our reading and viewing today, whereas Austen’s other literary targets have fallen out of fashion.  To understand Northanger Abbey in its rich and entertaining complexity, we need to read more of the novels from which she took her inspiration.  Her major lesson, though, that only experience of life will allow us to distinguish between false friends and true ones, is one that does not depend on any deep understanding of the literary heritage on which she drew.

 

References

 Austen J. (1818/1995) Northanger Abbey, London, Penguin.

 Benedict, B. M. and Le Faye, D. ‘Introduction, in Austen J. (1818/2006) Northanger Abbey, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

 Brooks, M. and Watson, N. (2000) ‘Northanger Abbey: Contexts’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.

 Radcliffe, A. (1794/1966) The Mysteries of Udolpho, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

 Watson, N. (2000) ‘Northanger Abbey: A Novel’s Entry into the World’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.

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