It’s week 4 of the summer holidays and we’re going back to the classics everyone: here’s my review/discussion of the book Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.
The synopsis as on Goodreads:
The story’s heroine is Catherine Morland, an 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.
To add some context to the Goodreads summary, Bath is a city in England where wealthy people at the time used to visit to socialise and enjoy themselves – we’re talking balls, gossip, ladies in gowns and gentlemen in suits. Catherine is taken there by Mr. and Mrs. Allen who are family friends.
This is the second Austen book I’ve read (the first was Mansfield Park) and thus far, I sympathise with her heroines immediately. Be it Fanny from Mansfield Park or Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, they are often shy, naive but almost unrealistically good-hearted. On the other hand, if you can’t tolerate 18th century romance and you prefer seeing love in a modern setting, you might struggle to stay interested. I also found it challenging to understand Austen’s language (it was written almost 200 years ago) but it’s nothing too difficult to get used to for anyone with a GCSE in English.
Plus, I found that the characters she wanted to show in a negative (but hilariously ridiculous) light were portrayed with masterly satirical language. We meet the Thorpes at Bath, our plot mainly revolving around the shenanigans of John Thorpe and Isabella Thorpe. John Thorpe’s depiction is bound to make you laugh: he pursues Catherine thinking her wealthy, only to fail laughably because of overbearing, hypocritical comments. I think he’s Austen’s example of what kind of a man you shouldn’t be – he tries to take advantage of Catherine’s naivete, only to prove that he’s the bigger fool of the two. Catherine’s brother (James Morland) seems to think that he’s the type of man that should be liked by women, and says so to impressionable Miss Catherine. She even obeys at the start, attempting to like him accordingly despite her natural dislike, allowing Austen to make a mockery of how women accept what is expected of them by men.
His sister Isabella, on the other hand, is decidedly shallow and artificial. She plays this to her advantage to befriend but also to manipulate Catherine. She is the type of woman that Austen’s writing shows to be foolish and narrow-minded, looking out for her own interests, money, fashion, and gossip – which could be said to be the status quo for many women of the time. Although Catherine, being gullible, is also led into this type of perspective, her personality changes for the better when she meets Henry and Eleanor Tilney.
The romance unfolds between Henry and Catherine, although in a very different way than you’d expect. Unlike the relationship between Isabella Thorpe and James Morland (Catherine’s brother, who also visits Bath later) which is simpering and quick in its advances, Henry and Catherine hardly ever act lovey-dovey around each other. Is it Austen idolising disinterested love (i.e. where you don’t try too hard to win the other’s affections) or is this a fault of the narrative? Given Austen’s other books, I think it’s the first. Henry might be seen as a correcting figure in the book – he corrects Catherine’s overpowering imagination from taking over her rational brain. This could work as a warning for women in the society of the time, not to shut down their brains because of the fancies they find in novels. It could be a response to certain men at the time who believed women were better when they were stupid; Austen writes plenty of passages in Northanger Abbey poking fun at this idea (satire, again!). This point becomes even more obvious when we understand Mrs. Allen’s character (the family friend who takes her to Bath) who uses her brain about as much as a piece of furniture. Catherine is ignorant but doesn’t wish to be stupid like Mrs. Allen, and this contrast between their characters makes it clear to the sexist reader: women aren’t “charming” when they’re dumb.
Just to add, I’ve noticed that Austen books often have heroines who have to be peer-pressured into situations but ultimately take a stand on their own moral ground. In Northanger Abbey, the “peer pressurers” were mainly the selfish Thorpes. In that case, you could see this as being feminist, with the message that women can stand up against societal pressures such as those Catherine faced.
To sum it up, the pros of this book is Austen’s satirical tone, her comic portrayal of certain characters and the endearing heroine. The book doesn’t bag the five stars for me because – the way the romances developed weren’t as unique or developed as I would have liked, and although this was a nice story, there weren’t any ‘wow moments’ for me.
My rating for this book:
3.5 out of 5
Some academic journals that helped me look at this book through a more perceptive lens:
Keep reading and read-joicing!