Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Like many people I’ve read Pride & Prejudice, but none of Jane Austen’s other novels, so this year I resolved to put that right. I start my journey with the first book she completed for publication.

Northanger Abbey has an interesting history. It was sold to a publisher in 1803 for £10, but never published. By 1817 four more novels had been published anonymously, and were popular, the fact of their anonymity being used advantageously by her brother, who bought the book back; it is unlikely the publisher would have done so, were the facts known. It was subsequently revised by Austen and given the working title Catherine. It was published after her death in 1817, whence her brother renamed it Northanger Abbey.

The book follows the fortunes of Catherine Morland. An avid reader of novels, our heroine has a vivid imagination, one which frequently brings her to conclusions that would bring her no credit, were they to be made public. For example, she believes that one character, and I am trying to avoid too many spoilers here, has murdered, by neglect, another, and takes it upon herself to investigate. There are intrigues and mysteries throughout, which is not surprising given the number of references to Gothic novels of the time, and in particular The Mysteries of Udolpho.

This point is important when reading the book; Austen is frequently satirising the Gothic genre, sometimes to great and humorous effect. In one case the love interest, Henry Tilney, weaves a dark story of intrigue involving the bed chamber in which Catherine is to stay when she visits his family’s abbey. When she does finally visit, and retires to the room, she feels a mixture of anticipation, anxiety and disappointment that it is not as described, excepting a dark cabinet in the room. This she unlocks and explores, the narrative drawn out by Austen to create the greatest suspense, to find a long forgotten scroll. Which turns out not to be a scroll, but rather rolled up papers that contain laundry lists.

An interesting attribute of this book is that writer, at times, speaks directly to the reader.

Early on in the book we are told:

But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.

It is as if she is taunting the reader, saying, “have I got something in store for you.”

Later, in chapter five, she writes that friendship of Catherine and her friend Isabella had progressed to the point where they could, “…shut themselves up, to read novels together.” Austen then immediately breaks into a commentary on the reading of novels within novels.

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.

And later, just as it appears that things have not turned out as expected, and that we are running out of pages, Austen interjects again:

The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity. The means by which their early marriage was effected can be the only doubt…

Likes most books of this era the language is different, the sentences are longer, and often with interstitial punctuation, but once you settle into the cadence of the speech things go smoothly. A dictionary is useful for words that are no longer in common use, although you can usually get the meaning from the context.

All in all, the book is an enjoyable read, and one which ends to the satisfaction of both the characters and the reader.

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