Monday, 9 February 2015

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Book cover, clothbound classics - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
I first and last read this book probably about 20 years ago, when as a teenager I devoured Jane Austen’s stories one after the other. Some I loved, some I didn’t. Last year I re-read the one I liked the least, ‘Mansfield Park’ and I found that my reaction to the book was vastly different, which is unsurprising as I am very different to the person I was then, so I decided that I should give the other books I hadn’t re-read another go. I enjoyed 'Northanger Abbey' the first time I read it but it never became a favourite of mine, I think partly because the heroine, Catherine Morland, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box and I never gelled with her, but more because I wasn’t a big fan of Henry Tilney. I didn’t like the way he was always laughing at Catherine because at the time I felt that he was laughing at and not laughing with her. Also, I read it not long after ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and was afraid that they’d end up in 25 years in a relationship like Mr & Mrs Bennet! So I didn’t re-read it until now, and, of course, found that I should have re-read it much sooner because Austen is a delight!

This book, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a bit of a humorous dig at some of the gothic romances that were around at the time. The heroine, the naive Catherine Morland, drinks up these torrid tales and when she finds herself in a situation that could be interpreted in the light of the likely events of one of these novels she imagines all kinds of horrors. Meanwhile, she misses all kinds of hints of a real intrigue going on before her, the behaviour of some new friends that she becomes acquainted with in Bath, when she travels there in company with a rich neighbour of her family.

My teenage self didn’t give Catherine credit, and I was unfair there – she is a mere 17 years old when our story unfolds and she is unremarkable in lots of ways – she isn’t particularly clever or beautiful, but she is a nice girl with good principles. She is very naive in the ways of the more worldly people than herself and she’s unused to having to understand the subtext of a conversation because in Catherine’s experience people have always said what they meant rather than playing the game of society manners.
‘...but why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’
Catherine’s main fault is a result of her reading matter – she’s been allowed to read what she likes and the result is that she favours reading some very lurid gothic novels without realising that they delineate some really unlikely events. The first few chapters of the novel are very heavily ironic on this very subject. I started highlighting the amusing parts on my kindle but I had to stop when I realised I would basically be highlighting the first few chapters in their entirety!
‘Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard – and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings – and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.’
Book cover - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Henry Tilney is a most amusing hero, certainly the most amusing of Austen’s. He is fond of wordplay, obviously intelligent and not immune to flattery. I have seen people compare him to Elizabeth Bennet in his teasing observations and you can certainly see some similarities; they are both charming, although Elizabeth wants a partner in life who understands her teasing, and Henry is content with something less, though there is every likelihood that Catherine will come to understand it in time!

The Thorpes are interesting characters although deeply obnoxious – you see Isabella Thorpe reeling in the naive Morland siblings, and John Thorpe, her brother, is a wonderful character to read. He’d be horrible to spend time with, but I can find plenty of amusement in him on the page!  As ever, with Austen’s work, a lot of enjoyment comes in her prose style. There are so many quotable quotes, such as:
‘The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’
And the novel itself unashamedly defends the work of novel writers, arguing that, although some novels are full of histrionic nonsense, some will also be of much higher calibre:
“And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.
If you have never picked up 'Northanger Abbey', or haven’t read it in a long time, I suggest that you give it a go, and prepare to be amused. A 5 star read.

5 star read


  1. Although NA is my 5th favorite Big 6 Austen, I love love love Catherine...especially played by Felicity Jones. Henry T, not so much. In my two Austen book clubs, he is well loved. However, in each group, there is another Henry hater!

    1. Well, on the first read I didn't like him much either, Kirk, but a few years ago I watched the version of Northanger Abbey you mentioned, with Felicity Jones and suddenly it all made sense, she was so adorably naive and gullible that he couldn't help having a little bit of fun teasing her, and I found I liked him more than I had before. She really was a wonderful Catherine Morland.

  2. Yes, she is! Her "post-Austen" career seems to be going very well indeed. If FB timed post works correctly, I have your post print on Saturday on Austen in Boston. Such a lovely love note to NA.

  3. I really enjoyed this post! I didn't read NA until this last autumn and read most of it on a public train and laughed my head off. I think I can appreciate Catherine now that I'm older. If I had been reading NA instead of P&P when I was 17, I would not have been as amused. Even by the time I read S&S I was 10 years older than Marianne and ever so thankful I lived past 16. I'm sure if I had read her back then I would have hated her. I ADORE Henry Tilney. He is my book-boyfriend.

    1. Thank you Rose! I completely agree with you regarding how differently you perceive the characters when you read things at different ages. The first book of Austen's that I read was 'Sense & Sensibility', which I read when I was about 14, and I thought Marianne was so self-absorbed and tiresome, I had no patience with her! I think I've re-read S&S since, but it was a long time ago, so it's another one I hope to read this year.

  4. Thanks you for this review, Ceri. It's been a goodly number of years since I last read Northanger Abbey and that was probably only for the second or third time. I seem to recollect that it was the last of the six major works that I read. Now, I think it's time to have another go.

    1. I hope you enjoy it if you re-read it, Anji. I had forgotten just how funny it was, it's such a great read!

  5. Isn't it interesting to reread books decades after first reading and see how your impressions have changed, or not?

    It's interesting that you mentioned on first reading NA that you could see Catherine and Henry becoming like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. I don't disagree with that completely, even now, although Catherine is made of finer stuff than Mrs. B, but his mocking tone, if unchecked could get out of hand.

    I wrote a short story years ago, The Last Baby, which is about the Bennets' marriage. The model I had in my mind for them as a courting couple was exactly Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney.

    The story is online here and also in my collection, Intimations of Austen.

    1. Yes, it's really interesting to see how your reaction to a book changes. I noticed it first with children's books that I read again as an adult, but didn't anticipate meeting it in adult books, although to be fair, I was still a teen when I read NA first.

      I don't see them in danger of becoming the Bennets any more, as you say, Catherine has more to her than that, and I'm sure she'll become more sensible to match all her other good attributes. To be fair to Henry, although her interest in him is what draws him to like her initially, and though he does love to tease her, he also is quite clear on the good and bad points in her character, so he is a lot more clear-sighted in choosing his partner in life than Mr Bennet.

      Thanks for the link to your story, I'll take a look :)

  6. You know, I absolutely love Northanger Abbey because it was my first Austen read. So you can understand that, as a "doorman" opening my eyes in front of such a talented author, I just can't belittle it.
    I've always thought that in Northanger Abbey, contrary to all the other novels, Austen empathizes more with the hero than with the heroine. That's why, as you say, Henry Tilney is endowed with the same wit of Elizabeth Bennet.