“The story’s unlikely heroine is Catherine Morland, a remarkably innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey? Can she trust Henry, or is he part of an evil conspiracy? Catherine finds dreadful portents in the most prosaic events, until Henry persuades her to see the peril in confusing life with art.
Executed with high-spirited gusto, Northanger Abbey is the most lighthearted of Jane Austen’s novels, yet at its core this delightful novel is a serious, unsentimental commentary on love and marriage.”
Thoughts: Very few authors can skewer social mores and traditions like Jane Austen. In Northanger Abbey, she tackles the ever-popular topic of love and always amusing profession of marriage-seeking. Catherine is one of her meeker heroines -she doesn’t have the forwardness of Emma or the seriousness of Elizabeth Bennet – yet her exploits find their way into the reader’s heart. This only serves to strengthen Austen’s ever-present commentary on the life as a woman in the 19th century.
Northanger Abbey is unique among the Austen canon because it was written in two parts at two very different points in her life. Because of this, there is a distinct difference in the overtness of her satire that creates a very different feel among each of the sections. The first section is decidedly more subtle in its mocking. A reader may not catch everything, especially readers unfamiliar with the very Gothic novels which provided Austen with her fodder. However, this section is brilliant in its slyness. Conversely, the second section is much more obvious with its satiric intent. In fact, a reader is all but knocked over the head with it. Each section has its merits, but it does give the novel a rather jagged, somewhat disconnected feel.
As my book club was quick to share, the ending of Northanger Abbey is seriously rushed. True romantics may not enjoy the fact that the resolution occurs within five pages, with the end following on the sixth page. However, Austen’s satiric commentary is less on marriage and more on the courtship the precedes it. Once Austen states her arguments about the inane politics and machinations of husband- (or wife-) hunting, there is little else that needs to be stated. In this light, the ending makes sense, even if it is slightly unsatisfying to readers who hope for a little more happily-ever-after. To continue the story would be to dilute her entire message, and Austen has always been all about her messages.
Northanger Abbey has always been one of my favorite of the Austen novels, even more than the traditionally popular among her works. There is something about Catherine’s cluelessness that is as amusing as it is head-shaking, and the rest of the cast of characters are all too familiar in our modern world. Austen’s message about confusing art with life is still appropriate today, as it is exceedingly easy to name at least one popular modern series which has created a rabid fan base that tends to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Reading Northanger Abbey drives home the point that the more things change, the more things stay the same. For an enjoyable story which highlights the differences in Austen’s writing style over the years and in which the lessons to be learned by Catherine’s plight remain as true today as they did when first penned, Northanger Abbey is well worth the read.
Acknowledgments: Mine. All mine.