Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey

[nawrth-eyn-jer, -ang-ger]
For films named Northanger Abbey, see Northanger Abbey (1986 film) or Northanger Abbey (2007 TV drama).

Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen's novels to be completed for publication, though she had previously made a start on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. According to Cassandra Austen's Memorandum, Susan (as it was first called) was written about the years 1798-1799.

Northanger Abbey was written by Austen in 1798, revised for the press 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.

Plot introduction

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.

Plot summary

The 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; they 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 acquiesces, 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.


Catherine Morland: A 17-year-old girl who loves reading Gothic novels. Something of a tomboy in her childhood, she is wrongly worried that she isn't beautiful enough, until men start to take an interest in her at the assembly dances. Catherine lacks experience and sees her life as if she were a heroine in a Gothic novel. She sees the best in people, and to begin with always seems ignorant of other people's malignant intentions. She is the devoted sister of James Morland. She is good-natured and frank and often makes insightful comments on the inconsistencies and insincerities of people around her, usually to Henry Tilney, and thus is unintentionally sarcastic and funny. She is also seen as a humble and modest character, becoming exceedingly happy when she receives the smallest compliment. Catherine's character grows throughout the novel, as she gradually becomes a real heroine, learning from her mistakes when she is exposed to the outside world in Bath. She sometimes makes the mistake of applying Gothic novels to real life situations; for example, later in the novel she begins to suspect General Tilney of having murdered his deceased wife. Catherine soon learns that Gothic novels are really just fiction and do not always correspond with reality.

Henry Tilney: A well-read clergyman in his mid-20s, the youngest son of the wealthy Tilney family. He is Catherine's romantic interest throughout the novel, and during the course of the plot he comes to return her feelings. He is sarcastic, intuitive, and clever, given to witticisms and light flirtations (which Catherine is not always able to understand or reciprocate in kind), but he also has a sympathetic nature (he is a good brother to Eleanor), which leads him to take a liking to Catherine's naïve straightforward sincerity.

John Thorpe: An arrogant and extremely boastful young man who certainly appears distasteful to the likes of Catherine.

Isabella Thorpe: A manipulative and self-serving young woman on a quest to obtain a well-off husband; at the time, marriage was the only way for most young women to become "established" with a household of their own (as opposed to becoming a dependent spinster aunt), and Isabella lacks most assets (such as wealth or family connections to bring to a marriage) that would make her a "catch" on the "marriage market". Upon her arrival in Bath she is without acquaintance, leading her to immediately form a quick friendship with Catherine Morland. Additionally, when she learns that Catherine is the sister to James Morland (whom Isabella suspects to be worth more than he is in reality), she goes to every length to ensure a connection between the two families.

General Tilney: A stern and rigid retired general with an obsessive nature, General Tilney is the sole surviving parent to his three children Frederick, Henry, and Eleanor.

Eleanor Tilney: Henry's sister, she plays little part in Bath, but takes on more importance in Northanger Abbey. A convenient chaperon for Catherine and Henry's times together. Obedient daughter, warm friend, sweet sister, but lonely under her father's tyranny.

Frederick Tilney: Henry's older brother (the presumed heir to the Northanger estate), an officer in the army who enjoys pursuing flirtations with pretty girls who are willing to offer him some encouragement (though without any ultimate serious intent on his part).

Mr. Allen: A kindly man, with some slight resemblance to Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.

Mrs. Allen: Somewhat vacuous, she sees everything in terms of her obsession with clothing and fashion, and has a tendency to utter repetitions of remarks made by others in place of original conversation.

Major themes

  • The intricacies and tedium of high society, particularly partner selection.
  • The conflicts of marriage for love and marriage for property.
  • Life lived as if in a Gothic novel and the obsession with all things gothic, one filled with danger and intrigue.
  • The dangers of believing life is the same as fiction.
  • The maturation of the young into skeptical adulthood, the loss of imagination, innocence and good faith.
  • Things are not what they seem at first.

In addition, Catherine Morland realises she is not to rely upon others, such as Isabella, who are negatively influential on her, but to be single minded and independent. It is only through bad experiences that Catherine really begins to properly mature individually and grow up.

  • social criticism (comedy of manners)
  • parody of the gothic novels "gothic and anti-gothic" attitudes

Famous passages and quotations

  • The so-called "Defence of the Novel", a narrative aside in which Jane Austen in her role as author defends novels (which were then widely considered trashy sensationalist reading, with much the same reputation as popular romance novels have today) — comparing them favorably with other genres of writing, that were usually considered to have much better claims to be high literary art at that time.
  • "history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. ... I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome."
    (Catherine Morland)
  • "She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach [i.e. attract], they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance."
    (A semi-facetious explanation of part of the reasons why Henry Tilney starts to be attracted to Catherine Morland; often considered "proto-feminist".)
  • Henry Tilney's pseudo-gothic narrative, which he extemporises while driving with Catherine to the Abbey. A highly-coloured satirical account of the difficulties which Catherine might encounter at the Abbey if real life were like Catherine's favorite gothic novels, it holds Catherine spellbound until Henry can "no longer command solemnity either of subject or voice".
  • "Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in-law as you must delight in! Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise."
    (Henry Tilney simultaneously sarcastically describing Isabella Thorpe, whom it is feared Frederick Tilney will marry, and sincerely describing Catherine Morland, whom he intends to marry himself. Eleanor Tilney fully understands him when she replies ""Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in" with a smile, but Henry's double meaning goes over Catherine's head.)
  • "I do not understand you." "Then we are on very unequal terms, for I understand you perfectly well." "Me? Yes; I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."
    The famous last line is Catherine's, and Henry praises her for her satire on modern language. Catherine has been trying to justify Isabella's dancing with Captain Frederick Tilney, Henry's brother, when she has declared that she will not dance all night due to the absence of her fiancé, Catherine's brother James.

Allusions/references to other works

Several Gothic novels are mentioned in the book, including most importantly The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian by Ann Radcliffe. Austen also satirizes Clermont, a Gothic novel by Regina Maria Roche. This last is included in a list of seven somewhat obscure Gothic works, known as the 'Northanger horrid novels' as recommended by Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland:

“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”

Though these lurid titles were assumed by some to be Austen's own invention, later researches by Montague Summers and Michael Sadleir discovered that they did really exist. There have since been various attempts to republish them (all seven in hardback by the Folio Society; The Necromancer and The Midnight Bell from a projected but abandoned series edited by Lucien Jenkins for Skoob Books Publishing and now a new series by Valancourt Books).

Literary significance & criticism

Northanger Abbey is fundamentally a parody of Gothic fiction. Austen turns the conventions of eighteenth-century novels on their head, by making her heroine a plain and undistinguished girl from a middle-class family, allowing the heroine to fall in love with the hero before he has a serious thought of her, and exposing the heroine's romantic fears and curiosities as groundless. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin speculates that Austen may have begun this book, which is more explicitly comic than her other works and contains many literary allusions that her parents and siblings would have enjoyed, as a family entertainment-- a piece of lighthearted parody to be read aloud by the fireside. Some have considered the novel to be Jane Austen's best work, as it is, in fact, the least like Jane Austen's greater corpus than the remainder of her oeuvre. There is real significance in this observation, due primarily to the fact that Austen's works are generally characterized as naive and overly simplified, having no real connection with the real world.

Northanger Abbey exposes the difference between reality and fantasy and questions who can be trusted as a true companion and who might actually be a shallow, false friend. It is considered to be the most light-hearted of her novels.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations


This novel contains one of the earliest occurrences of the word "baseball" in print (probably referring to a variant of rounders, played by Catherine Morland with other children during her tomboy days).


External links

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