Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”

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Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilney (J.J. Feild) in the 2007 production of “Northanger Abbey”

Usually, when we talk about Jane Austen, the words ‘gothic’ or ‘horror,’ do not enter into our vocabulary. Austen’s world is one that is populated by balls and the delightfully ignorant ladies and charmingly incorrigible gentlemen who go to them. Stagger these events in between months of courtship, offset by the occasional misspoken word or misapprehended event (“why, I certainly didn’t write that letter!”), and you have the formula for one of England’s most endearing literary voices.

 As for the gothic and the horrific, these seem much more appropriate for the worlds of Matthew Lewis or Ann Radcliffe or, later, Mary Shelley. Imposing castles concealing trapdoors concealing prisoners; dark and stormy nights; manuscripts containing the necronomical dying confessions of poor victims: how might one find all of these elements in a Jane Austen novel; a novel which, almost by default, ends with an exchange of cordial pleasantries and a happy marriage?

 So is the question Austen embarks upon in her first-ever novel (though posthumously published), “Northanger Abbey,” a piece that pays tribute to the young woman’s literary inspirations (namely, though not exclusively, Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho”) while cross blending these with an English romance that we now consider a classic style.

 The setting, unlike the exotic Spanish or Irish lands of typical Gothicism, is homely Great Britain, midst Napoleonic Wars, though of course the ugly business of war never intrudes upon an Austen novel, unless it is dressed up splendidly and attending a ball. (In the words of Salman Rushdie: “The function of the British army in the novels of Jane Austen is to look cute at parties.”)

 Amidst this humdrummery we get our unlikely heroine, Catherine Morland, whose family the narrator introduces as prosaically as she does the setting. Catherine, by virtue of her obsession with Gothicism and indeed the novel in general, is ill-suited to this climate: her free-spirited self yearns for discovery and adventure, preferably in the form of a murder mystery that needs solving or an abandoned cathedral that needs exploring.

 While she doesn’t get the murder mystery of the cathedral, at least not right away, she does soon enough find herself on a journey to the town of Bath, wherein dwells her aunt, Mrs. Allen: “one of that numerous class of females whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them” (10). The narrator’s scathing characterization, admittedly cruel, is nevertheless a masterly apt statement of the prosaic woman: Mrs. Allen, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, delivers the bubbling and beautiful Catherine to her first ball, only to admit that she has no acquaintances with whom to consort. This painful scene of a young woman’s hopes and fantasies dashed by the unpopularity of a boorish aunt, are expertly enhanced by Mrs. Allen’s frequent repetitions of “I wish I had an acquaintance here,” as if admitting this over and over again would mitigate Catherine’s disappointment.

 But Catherine takes this all in good cheer. Her character is youthfully romantic, the fault of which may be attributed to her love of reading novels: “Yes, novels!” those things of little consequence and deserving of little respect because they contained “nothing like useful knowledge…provided they were all story and no reflection.”

 At least, this is what the greater population of Bath thinks, notwithstanding several key players. One of them is Isabella, the daughter of Mrs. Allen’s only, eventual, acquaintance in Bath, Mrs. Thorpe. Isabella, a fellow reader of novels and of Mrs. Radcliffe, declares an immediate infatuation with Catherine and the two girls become inseparable, though one is left with the unmistakable sense that Isabella, contrary to Catherine’s sincere good nature, is disingenuous and flighty, even insolent.

 Catherine doesn’t see this trait—and why would she, always expecting the best in people?—and eventually she makes the acquaintance of Isabella’s brother, John Thorpe: a heady, disagreeable, and self-obsessive ass of a man who, of course, detests novels. Even so, Thorpe becomes a probable match for Catherine, though thankfully the latter comes into contact with another man, Henry Tilney. To do justice to Tilney’s character, one would be forced to quote his exceptional banter in full; his gently mocking flirtations churn out numerous, laughable gems, such as this early exchange between him and Catherine: “ ‘But, perhaps, I keep no journal.’ ‘Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. Those are points in which doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal?’ “ and so it goes.

 This demeanor, despite, or perhaps because of its childishness, wins over the affections of Catherine, who soon draws the complimentary conclusion that Tilney is planning to court her. Under these auspices, Tilney invites Catherine to his family’s estate in Northanger Abbey, a veritable wish fulfillment for Catherine’s fantasies of living a gothic setting, and the first half of the novel ends.

 The second half, more deliberately paced than the first, slows down the action while building up suspense. General Tilney, the master of the abbey, is an ostensibly pleasant personage: a widow and respected father of three, until his domineering presence in the abbey, which governs the household as a barracks, puts Catherine on edge and prevents her from enjoying the fantasy residence as much as she should have hoped.

 What’s more, frequently dropped anecdotes from the Tilney children considering their departed mother: the General’s overall disregard for her, her sudden illness and death, the mysterious absence of her children during this time, all culminate into a Gothic narrative for Catherine that, so improbable, becomes truer with each passing moment. And yet one is never left in doubt that Catherine’s delusions of the General as a gothic villain of murderously malicious caliber are no more than delusions; Austen’s General Tilney retires after supper not to plan Catherine’s murder, but to read government pamphlets, and he arises early in the day not to bury bodies, but to weed his beloved garden.

 As a classic romance or gothic narrative, “Northanger Abbey” can be enjoyed greatly. Yet the novel is remarkable in its ability to play through multi dimensions: a cautionary tale against the over-indulgence of flights of fancy (Catherine’s desire for her own gothic story, at first embarrassing, give way to nearly devastating results) though a tale likewise not to rebuke too harshly those with wild imaginations, a fault of the young Mr. Tilney who reduces the poor, misguided Catherine to tears in several brilliant though intensely harsh lines.

 Then there is the novel as a defense of the novel form itself and of those who read it; a coming-of-age story of a young and ignorant girl who learns to conduct herself in whatever society she may be in; a sort of ‘realist fantasy,’ where, despite what content may suggest—for the novel’s resolution, proceeding from the havoc of the well-constructed middle, carries a hint of deux ex machina—all’s well and ends well. 

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