[Austen in August] Northanger Abbey

‘What have you been judging from?…Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’

During an eventful season at Bath, young, naive Catherine Morland experiences fashionable society for the first time. She is delighted with her new acquaintances: flirtatious Isabella, who introduces Catherine to the joys of Gothic romances, and sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who invite her to their father’s house, Northanger Abbey. There, influenced by novels of horror and intrigue, Catherine comes to imagine terrible crimes committed by General Tilney, risking the loss of Henry’s affection, and has to learn the difference between fiction and reality, false friends and true. With its broad comedy and irrepressible heroine, Northanger Abbey is the most youthful and optimistic of Jane Austen’s works.

Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite novels by Jane Austen, although it was the last of her six completed novels that I read. Reading it for my Jane Austen uni course, and for Austen in August, was the third time I’ve read it, and with every re-read I come to love Northanger Abbey more and more.

Catherine is a delightful heroine. She is bright and sparkling and addicted to her Gothic novels. If she was living in the modern world Catherine Morland would be your typical fangirl. (In many ways she is me – she devours her novels and then finds multiple ways to bring them into conversations that may or may not have originally been about nvoels.) But what I really love about her is that she makes mistakes and then learns from them. She befriends and trusts the wrong people, and she allows her imagination to run away with her. But then she learns and grows from her mistakes. She still enjoys her Gothic stories after she has been chastised by Henry for her suspicions but she doesn’t let her imagination take over the way she sees the world and the people around her anymore.

And then there’s Henry Tilney. Older readers of this blog might remember from my letter to him that I love and adore Mr Tilney. Though I think on this read what I loved most about him was, despite how much he teaches Catherine, that he learns so much from her as well by the end. And I love the sibling relationship he has with Eleanor. The love and respect they have for each other is obvious.

But past the characters (all of whom I either love or love to hate) Northanger Abbey was Austen’s big defence of the novel. She may have been parodying the Gothic genre and ironizing it and the literature of sensibility, but she does defend the novel as a whole and everything that novels can bring to people:

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.

If you’re not sure about Austen definitely give Northanger Abbey a go. At only two volumes it is the shortest of her novels, plus with all the irony and narratorial commentary it is one of the funniest (in my opinion anyway). 😀

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