Jane Austen #5: Northanger Abbey

February 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey was actually the first novel finished by Jane Austen, although the fifth published. It was written by Austen in 1798, revised in 1803, and sold in the same year for £10 to a London bookseller, Crosby & Co., who decided against publishing the novel. The bookseller was content to sell it back to the novelist’s brother, Henry Austen, for the exact sum that he had paid for it at the beginning, not knowing that the writer was already the author of four popular novels. The novel was further revised before being brought out posthumously in late December 1817 (1818 given on the title-page), as the first two volumes of a four-volume set with Persuasion, Austen’s last published novel.

Northanger Abbey follows Catherine Morland and family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen as they visit Bath, England. Seventeen year-old Catherine spends her time visiting newly-made friends, such as Isabella Thorpe, and going to balls. Catherine finds herself pursued by Isabella’s brother John Thorpe (Catherine’s brother James’s friend from university), and by Henry Tilney. She also becomes friends with Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s younger sister. Henry captivates her with his view on novels and his knowledge of history and the world. General Tilney (Henry and Eleanor’s father) invites Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey, which, because she has been reading Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine expects to be dark, ancient and full of fantastical mystery.

northanger-abbeyThe story’s heroine, seventeen year old Catherine Morland, is invited by her neighbours in Fullerton, the Allens, to accompany them to visit Bath for a number of weeks. While, initially, the excitement of experiencing such a place was dampened by her lack of other acquaintances, she is soon introduced to an intriguing young gentleman named Henry Tilney, with whom she dances and converses. She does not see him again for a few days however, though her attention was quickly taken upon meeting a young lady named Isabella Thorpe. Isabella tries to make a match between Catherine and her brother John. Catherine is not too interested in this, and tries to maintain her friendships with both the Thorpes and the Tilneys. John Thorpe continually tries to sabotage her relationship with the Tilneys, which leads to many misunderstandings.

Meanwhile, Isabella becomes engaged to Catherine’s brother James, though Isabella is dissatisfied that James is not as rich as she had previously thought. At a ball, when James is away, she meets Henry’s older brother, Captain Tilney, who is dashing and charming; Isabella and Captain Tilney immediately start flirting. Innocent Catherine cannot understand her friend’s behavior, but Henry understands it all too well. The flirtation continues even when James returns.

The Tilneys (Henry, his sister Eleanor, and their father General Tilney) invite Catherine to stay with them for a few weeks at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine, who has read too many Gothic novels, expects the abbey to be large and somewhat frightening, and Henry encourages her fears in order to tease her. Her first night there is very stormy; she discovers mysterious manuscripts in her bedroom, and her candle suddenly goes out. The next morning, she reads the papers and discovers they are only laundry lists. She is disappointed that Northanger Abbey is pleasant and positively un-Gothic. However, there is a mysterious suite of rooms that no one ever goes into: Catherine learns that they were Mrs. Tilney’s, who died nine years earlier. Catherine, with her overactive imagination, decides that since General Tilney does not seem affected by his wife’s death now, he must have been indifferent or perhaps hostile to her. Perhaps he murdered her. Or she may still be alive and imprisoned in the house.

Catherine persuades Eleanor to show her Mrs. Tilney’s rooms, when General Tilney suddenly appears. Catherine flees, sure that she will be punished. Later, Catherine sneaks back to Mrs. Tilney’s rooms, but is startled by Henry, who is passing in the corridor. Panicked, she admits her speculations about his father. He is horrified but, surprisingly gently, corrects her wild notions. She leaves crying, fearing that Henry will want nothing to do with her. James informs Catherine, via letter, that he has been deceived by Isabella, and that he broke off their engagement because she flirted with Captain Tilney. The Tilneys are shocked; Catherine is disenchanted with Isabella. Catherine passes several more enjoyable days with the Tilneys; the General goes off to London and Eleanor becomes even more fun. One night, he returns abruptly, and Eleanor tells Catherine that the whole family has an engagement that prevents Catherine from staying any longer. Catherine must go home early the next morning, in a shocking and inhospitable move.

At home, Catherine is unhappy. Several days later, Henry visits her and explains what happened. General Tilney was enchanted with Catherine and wished her to marry Henry, but only because John Thorpe (who was infatuated with Catherine at the time) had misinfomed him that Catherine was an heiress. In London, he ran into Thorpe again, who, disappointed with Catherine, said instead that she was nearly destitute. He returned home to kick Catherine out. Henry says that he still wants to marry Catherine despite his father’s disapproval. Eventually, General Tilney agrees to the marriage, because Eleanor has become engaged to a wealthy and titled man, and he discovers that the Morlands, while not extremely rich, are far from destitute.

***

There’s a great adaptation of this novel in the form of TV drama aired in 2007, starring Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland.

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