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Book Review: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

One-line summary: A young lady with an overactive imagination wishes for gothic adventure, but finds only a husband.

Northanger Abbey

Published in 1818, though Austen wrote it in 1798. Approximately 77,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.


When Catherine Morland, a country clergyman's daughter, is invited to spend a season in Bath with the fashionable high society, little does she imagine the delights and perils that await her. Captivated and disconcerted by what she finds, and introduced to the joys of "Gothic novels" by her new friend, Isabella, Catherine longs for mystery and romance. When she is invited to stay with the beguiling Henry Tilney and his family at Northanger Abbey, she expects mystery and intrigue at every turn. However, the truth turns out to be even stranger than fiction.



This is my second Jane Austen novel. After enjoying Pride and Prejudice immensely, I was glad not to be disappointed by Northanger Abbey. However, it's definitely inferior to P&P. It was Austen's first novel, though it was only published after her death. (A publisher bought it from her, then sat on it for years without publishing it before eventually selling the rights back -- publication travails not unheard of today.) It's short and amusing with some of Austen's humor but not much of the depth she put into her later work.

Catherine Morland is a 17-year-old girl who loves gothic novels and longs to find herself entangled in some horrid adventure. She is as imaginative as she is naive. She's allowed to go to Bath on her first season out as a (relatively) independent young lady. She makes friends with the vivacious and flirtatious Isabella Thorpe, whose brother begins courting Catherine while Catherine's older brother James begins wooing Isabella.

The first half of the book is a typically Austen comedy of manners -- who's a fortune-seeker, who's really in love, who's deceiving whom, how did these awful misunderstandings come about? It's easy to see why Austen has remained so popular down through the years -- she writes with beautiful elegance and humor, even in this, her rougher earlier work, and there is something charming about this world where the most villainous behavior is rudeness and the most horrible thing that can happen to anyone is a broken engagement.

In the second half of the book, Catherine is invited by the Tilneys to stay with them at Northanger Abbey. Catherine is delighted to be staying at a genuine gothic abbey which is sure to be full of ghosts and brooding villains and sinister secret chambers. To her great disappointment, she finds no such thing, which doesn't stop her from inventing dark motives and nefarious secrets. This results in the big moment when she is forced to stop applying gothic plots to real life; Austen really knew what she was doing, drawing a clear character arc for her heroine's bildungsroman and showing her transition from childhood to adulthood.

That said, the ending is unsatisfying, as you can see the author running out of steam. She's set up her web of character attachments, she's let her heroine indulge in romantic flights of fancy (and made tongue-in-cheek sport of all the horrid novels of her day), guided her through a few tragicomic misunderstandings, brought about the climax necessary for character growth, and then -- oh, wait, we need an ending. Okay, the heroine is sent home in disgrace over a misunderstanding, her suitor follows her home, explains what happened, author tells us the rest in 3rd person omniscient, hero and heroine get married, everyone lives happily ever after, the end. It almost seemed as if Austen got bored along about chapter 30 and wrapped up her tale as expeditiously as possible.


To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general's unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.


I still found Northanger Abbey a nice little treat and am looking forward to finishing Austen's oeuvre, but it's definitely not going to rank up there as one of my favorites. It's a bit of a satire and a bit of a parody but not quite a true comedy, and there is hardly any social critique, nor are any of the characters all that memorable, except for Catherine herself.

Austen has an axe to grind



Austen, did, however, have an axe to grind with those who would sneer at Catherine Morland's choice in reading. While the author pokes a bit of fun at Catherine's over-active imagination and the lurid novels that fueled it, it's clear that she also loved and respected those novels -- and her own craft. And apparently, she was getting fed up with those who didn't. Echoing a refrain that is still resonates with writers today (especially those who write in less respected genres like science fiction and romance), she inserts an authorial interjection which has little to do with the story, but you can just tell that Austen had been sitting on this one for a while:


Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "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.


I still say Austen was a proto-feminist. She probably would have sympathized with these ladies.

What other reviewers say



Excerpts from 5-star reviews:



  • This book has some real,heartfelt drama and romance, but mainly I like it because it's really, really funny. Catherine is awesome and kind of nuts, and the supporting characters run the gamut from really likeable and charming (Eleanor and her brother Henry) to the excruciatingly irritating John and Isabella, who totally beat out both Mrs. Bennet, Aunt Norris, and Lucy Steele in my list of Best-Ever Annoying Jane Austen Characters.

  • When I first read Northanger Abbey as a teenager, I thought it little more than a clever, entertaining parody on the gothic romance genre, and a rather captivating romance story itself. Upon my second reading, however, I now see it only secondarily as a parody, and primarily as a satire on the duplicitous nature of civilized man, including (but not limited to) an exposé of the games courting men and women play. Northanger Abbey is very well written, and though it lacks the subtlety of Austen’s later novels, it is certainly her funniest.



Excerpts from 1-star reviews:




  • What an unpleasant change from Mansfield Park. This was much shorter, with underdeveloped characters and heavy-handed satire. The writing was stodgy until the last minute, at which point so many details had to be crammed in for the various plot twists to make sense that it became impenetrably dense.

  • Austen is up there with Lil Wayne, Twilight, The Da Vinci Code and Barack Obama as people and things whose overwhelming popularity I simply cannot begin to understand.



Austen's Most Neglected Work



Well, for Jane Austen it's pretty neglected, since there have only been two screen adaptations of Northanger Abbey, and no feature films.


The 1986 A&E/BBC Production



1986's Northanger Abbey

It's easier to do a faithful adaptation of a short novel, so even though this film is only 90 minutes long, it's pretty faithful to the book. It makes much of Catherine's imagination by providing numerous scenes of her daydreaming about vampiric figures carrying hapless white-gowned ladies across misty moors and secret dungeon chambers, which results in the ending being compressed as much as the novel, though the exposition is actually superior here, delivered through conversation between Henry Tilney and his father. It's not particularly lavish or brilliant, but if you like the book, this A&E/BBC collaboration is worth watching.

The 2007 Masterpiece Classic



2007's Northanger Abbey

Another short (90 minute) adaptation, the 2007 made-for-TV movie was far superior to the 1986 version. The acting is better, the actors are all much closer to the ages of the characters in the novel (why is it that in the 1980s, all the period dramas had 30-something actors playing teenagers?), and everything about it is more fun and lively, including Catherine's fantasy sequences. It's also much more bosomy. This was both a looser adaptation than the 1986 version in that many scenes were subtly altered and lines of dialog given to different characters, and a better one in that all the changes made a better movie. The nuances of why it's a problem for so-and-so to be dancing with her and why it matters who's friends with whom (tiny details on which Austen's plot twists pivot and which are explained in her books but rarely explicated well in movies) were much clearer in this version. I think the 1986 version would be entertaining if you've already read the book but a little dull if you haven't, while the 2007 version manages to stand alone even for an audience that might not already know the story.


1986 & 2007

Catherine Morland, 1986 and 2007

Katharine Schlesinger (1986) and Felicity Jones (2007) as Catherine Morland
Henry Tilney, 1986 and 2007

Peter Firth (1986) and JJ Feild (2007) as Henry Tilney
Isabella Thorpe, 1986 and 2007

Cassie Stuart (1986) and Carey Mulligan (2007) as Isabella Thorpe



Verdict: I liked this book, but as what amounts to Austen's posthumously-published debut novel, it's not her best. More enjoyable for the satire of literary conventions (and critics) of her day than the rather rushed plot, Northanger Abbey still features a likeable heroine and Austen's prose, the latter of which is enough reason to read it. However, I would not say its quality merits it holding the same place among the classics as Austen's other works, though it is on the list of 1001 books you must read before you die (and has been previously reviewed on the books1001 comm).

Also by Jane Austen: My review of Pride and Prejudice.
Tags: books, books1001, jane austen, movies, netflix, reviews
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