First Published: 1818 (posthumously)
Pages: 301 including afterword (Hardback)
Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, an enthusiastic but naïve girl intent on becoming a heroine like the one she has read about in popular novels. Searching for romance and adventures worthy of her favourite works of fiction, she becomes ever more entangled in an authentic world of manipulation, greed, and disloyalty. This is one of Jane Austen’s earliest and most varied works. It contains fascinating insights into her life as both a reader and a writer, and is as imaginative and entertaining as the Gothic novels it sets out to lampoon.
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least polished of Austen’s novels – the pacing feels a bit off in the second half and the ending feels quite rushed – so I was originally going to give it either four or four and half stars to reflect that, but actually, flawed as it is, I can’t help absolutely adoring it.
The main attraction I think is that it’s a bit different from her later-written and better known books – more youthful and vibrant and funny. Austen is always funny, of course, but you really get the sense that she was having fun with this one. The heroine, Catherine Morland, is the youngest of Austen’s female leads, being an impressionable seventeen – and at that awkward teenage stage where you’re starting to be considered an adult, but nobody’s really quite explained the rules for you. She’s not got Elizabeth’s quick mind, Emma’s overwhelming self-confidence, or Elinor’s thoughtfulness. But neither is she a Marianne; wild impulsive and romantic, with no concern for how others view her. She wants to be clever, self-confident, and thoughtful, she desperately wants not to behave improperly and draw negative attention to herself, but she isn’t even sure what’s considered improper and what isn’t. She’s unguarded and open in her conversation, takes people at face value, and tends to fold to the opinions of people who she believes have more experience. In short she’s a slightly self-conscious and eager to please teenager.
Taken to Bath for the season by a family acquaintance, the first half of the book follows Catherine’s adventures (and misadventures) of her first experience with high society and the friends (and false-friends) that she meets there. Poor Catherine is immediately out of her depth, there’s balls and plays and more balls and more plays and shopping and boorish suitors, and lots of young pretty people in fancy clothing. All the normal rules of society seem so relaxed that it’s hard to fathom what is appropriate and what isn’t, especially when people keep telling Catherine different things and her guardian is more concerned with the price of muslin than in advising her through these new experiences. At first mortified that she doesn’t know anybody, Catherine soon falls into the company of the beautiful and flirtatious Isabella, with whom she indulges heavily in a shared love of sensationalist gothic novels, and Isabella’s unbearable brother John. She also meets Henry Tilney, the best love interest in Jane Austen. Henry has the distinct advantage of neither being a cousin, nor having known the heroine from the moment of her birth, but even ignoring that he’s clearly the best – he’s funny, sarcastic, flirty, and genuinely kind and considerate. Darcy might be the one everyone lusts for, but Henry’s the one I would like to date. He takes the piss out of himself and likes to banter! That is literally all I ask for in a bloke. And really, can you imagine putting up with someone as self-important and judgemental as Darcy? Yuck.
The second half of the book takes us away from the relaxed society of Bath and into the austere setting of Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s home (invited there by Henry’s younger sister). And here it turns into a parody of the gothic novels Catherine loves to read. In the setting of an old medieval abbey her imagination, encouraged it has to be said by Henry’s teasing, goes into overdrive and she starts seeing murder, madness, and evil in everything. What is the secret of Northanger Abbey? Is Henry’s mother really dead? Mad? Locked up? Murdered? And why do his children all feel so uncomfortable in General Tilney’s presence? Dun dun dun! It’s in equal parts funny and excruciatingly awkward watching Catherine investigate her suspicions only to find innocent explanations in everything. But there is a mystery there, if a more mundane one – and it arrives rather abruptly at almost the very end of the novel before getting almost as abruptly resolved.
The pacing is definitely a little off in this last half and if I was judging purely on quality I would deduct a star (maybe two) for it. But you can’t judge a book purely on the quality of the writing, books are emotional things and I’m irrationally in love with this one, flaws and all. I love the characters, I love the humour, I love the easy-going, friendly romance between Catherine and Henry. No great smouldering love affair but two characters who first experience attraction over a shared joke – that’s a relationship I can get behind. Catherine is absolutely adorable, Henry is totally fanciable, and many of the sidecharacters are up there with the best of Austen – although General Tilney is rather weakly sketched, I love Isabella, and John the boorish boorfaced bore may well be a very simple stereotype but he’s no less fun to absolutely loathe because of that.
A lighter, fluffier read than most Austen, it’s very evidently written by a younger writer, but it definitely deserves more love than it seems to get. Only thing I don’t like is that the afterword in this edition takes things waaaaaay too seriously – it’s a total funsponge.