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Austen-Brontë Reader Series: Embarking Upon a Grand Adventure…

Hello friends and fellow Janeites! Welcome to the first post in the JASP series dedicated to Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the book together and posting reviews and recommendations.

As the winter weather envelopes us and we find ourselves in the unique position to snuggle up underneath a blanket and enjoy the serenity of sipping hot cocoa whilst reading a good book, there is no better time than to give Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey, a second glance. Quite often, this book is overlooked. But that is a mistake! Those who miss out on reading this work also deprive themselves of reading Jane Austen at her wittiest, when she is not only stretching herself as an author, but smiling at her audience, attempting to serve them the sort of tale they might find enticing.

Chapters 1-10 Synopsis

            Uniquely, this book begins with Jane Austen speaking directly to the reader. She rarely addresses her audience in other instances, so, from the start, we know that this book is bound to be different. She introduces us to her heroine, Miss Catherine Morland, by making it clear that the young woman is not the normal, anticipated leading lady. Catherine is one of ten children, and her father is a clergyman. She is said to have come from a fine family, even though they are all outstandingly plain and often deemed slow to learn. It is not until she reaches her fifteenth year that Catherine receives the compliment of being “almost pretty” and, in myriad ways, all these remarks are made to showcase just how much she is so wholly different from all the things a heroine ought to be. Young Miss Morland has never had a beau, nor has she seen much of the world, so when her affluent neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, offer to take her to Bath with them for a six-week season, she is overjoyed.

            But the splendors of Bath do not, at once, make themselves known to Catherine. She and her chaperone, Mrs. Allen, shop and talk about their purchases, but since they have no acquaintances in town, there is little for them to do other than have the same, tiring conversations with one another. At the first ball Catherine attends she does not have the joy of standing up with even one partner and so, rather dejected as she is after this first outing the only pleasure she can derive comes when she overhears two gentlemen commenting upon her and pronouncing her to be a pretty young lady.

            Fortunately, Catherine’s situation changes when she and Mrs. Allen visit the lower rooms a few days later and the master of ceremonies introduces them to Mr. Henry Tilney. He is a clergyman and comes from a reputable family. More importantly, he takes an interest in Catherine, and they have an easy flowing conversation. He is quick to educate her on the importance of keeping a journal and she responds to his comments by asking probing questions and furthering the discussion. By the time the two have parted for the evening, Miss Morland is well on her way to developing feelings for the young man, but Austen pops in to remind the reader that those feelings have not blossomed into love…not yet. For… “no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared.”

            Catherine embarks upon the following day’s adventures with a heart full of hope but is downtrodden when she does not meet with Mr. Tilney again directly. Thankfully, that is when the members of the Thorpe family enter the story. They provided much-needed companionship and a welcome distraction for our heroine. Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe were old friends from school. And even though the two ladies no longer have very much in common, they are content to renew the friendship and spend time with one another. For Catherine, this means mingling with Mrs. Thorpe’s progeny. She is quite taken, at once, with the eldest daughter, Miss Isabella. Whereas Catherine is rather shy and reserved in her mannerisms, Isabella is outgoing and gregarious. Catherine is impressed by Miss Isabella Thorpe because she is pretty, carries herself well, dresses fashionably, and can point out flirtations between a gentleman and a lady quite easily. When Isabella tells Catherine, “I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong,” our heroine seems to feel a blessed sense of relief. Here is the companionship she most needed—a stalwart friend.

            While Catherine is drawn to Isabella Thorpe, nearly from the first moment of their acquaintance, she is repelled by Isabella’s brother, John. He strikes her as being rude and coarse. He swears at his horses and even calls his younger sisters ugly. He does not make a favorable impression on our heroine. But, as luck would have it, she is destined to spend time with the man. For he is not only Isabella’s brother but also a dear friend of her own brother, James. Her first impression is to steer clear of him, but Catherine’s nature is pliable. When Isabella reports that John finds Catherine to be the most charming girl of his acquaintance, she changes her mind. Whereas she might’ve initially been tempted to say she did not like Mr. John Thorpe at all, she suddenly thinks him to be quite an agreeable gentleman.

            It is in this way that Catherine’s story continues for the next few days in Bath. She spends most of her time with Isabella Thorpe and that does seem to go well until Catherine is once again left sitting alone at a ball without a dance partner. It is then that she spies Mr. Tilney and a lady she presumes to be his sister. Catherine is momentarily delighted, but all her good feelings vanish when John Thorpe comes to her side and reminds her of how they are engaged to share a dance together. Catherine is led away by John and is left, looking about wistfully around the room, wishing she could’ve stayed with her friends and perhaps danced with Mr. Tilney.

            The next morning, Catherine awakens with a bright idea. She wishes to further her acquaintance with Miss Eleanor Tilney. But when she steps outside, endeavoring to hurry to the pump room, she finds John, Isabella, and James waiting in carriages for her. They want to take a drive to Clifton and make a stop at Blaize Castle, and they think Catherine should accompany them. Catherine is thrown. She would very much like to see the castle and explore its ramparts, but she’s not sure such an excursion would be deemed proper. Mrs. Allen gives her approval, so the quartet set out together. The drive with John is just as disagreeable as one might imagine. He spends their time together speaking of his own interests and pursuits, elaborating on his hunting and sporting abilities while Catherine is left wondering about her own brother’s tastes. For how can James consider John an amiable and good friend?

            Once the drive is over, Catherine has fully determined that she finds Mr. Thorpe to be a wholly unpleasant person and is determined to distance herself from him. She cultivates a friendship with Miss Tilney and, thankfully, at one of the dances, Mr. Tilney again addresses himself to her, asking for her hand so they might stand up together. It is then that Mr. Thorpe reappears. He chastises Catherine for agreeing to dance with another man when she has promised to be his partner.  She feels the sting of the rebuke, but Henry Tilney takes it all in stride. He explains to her how having a dance partner can be much like venturing into a marriage contract. A man has the power to choose his partner, whilst women are granted the ability to refuse. But once the couple have entered into the agreement, they belong to each other exclusively.

            Catherine and Henry proceed with their conversation, exploring more mundane topics thereafter. She speaks of finding joy in Bath and wishing only that all her family members were there to complete her happiness. It is not that she doesn’t enjoy living in the country, but she finds the scenery so unvarying. Here, in Bath, there is something new to see and different people to speak with every day. It is nice having so many amusements in town. When the dance concludes, Catherine spots Mr. Tilney speaking with another man and, if she is not mistaken, they are talking about her! Henry explains this man is his father, General Tilney, and this gives Catherine cause to hope that the gentlemen were saying good things about her. As chapter ten winds to a close, it is suggested that Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor should all go out for a walk around town together tomorrow and this leaves our heroine feeling pleased and eager.


Impressions and Overall Thoughts

            Austen’s writing style in Northanger Abbey, at first glance, is terrifically different from that which she employs in her other novels. Our author begins this tale by addressing the reader directly, telling her audience what is generally expected of a heroine and then promptly subverting that archetype. When she comes right out and says this is the way a heroine ought to behave, the reader might be left wondering at such a notion. Are not heroines meant to be bold and unique? Should they not challenge themselves and defy all that has come before? But, if the reader has perused some of the works by authors Austen goes onto reference later, including Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, Austen’s meaning should become clear. Her predecessors wrote of heroines who rarely broke the mold. The ladies were damsels in distress, sensible friends and sidekicks, or conniving temptresses. For Austen to introduce a young lady who was very much neither of these was not just refreshing, but also meant to be a sly wink at the literature that came before.

            It is in these first ten chapters when the readers mayhap feel some sympathy for our heroine. For she is young, naïve, and eager to make friends. She is just the sort who may fall prey to the misdeeds of others. And Austen has crafted a roundtable of supporting characters who all might be likely to take advantage of dear Catherine.

Mr. Henry Tilney seems like a nice enough gentleman…but who can really know what to think? Anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice and known the deceits Mr. Wickham told to mislead the Bennet sisters may well wonder if Mr. Tilney should become the rogue who breaks Catherine’s heart. And what of Miss Isabella Thorpe? She proclaims loudly to love Catherine dearly, but her words and protestations seem excessive. But perhaps, it is worth remembering that Austen wrote this novel in the style of the gothic romances and so, at the end of chapter ten, when the stately General Tilney is introduced, readers may be left wondering if he should not turn out like one of the wretched older men, such as we see in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. In that novel, the heroine suffers because an older man wishes to marry her. Could the general be such a man for Catherine Morland? Can he have set his eyes on her, wishing for his son and daughter to cultivate this relationship so that he might eventually become her paramour?

            Oh, it is thrilling to be in Catherine Morland’s shoes and to wonder what to make of her new acquaintances.

            For readers of Jane Austen’s works who are hoping for their heroine to have the feistiness and cynical streak of Lizzie Bennet, the brash, bold obstinance of Marianne Dashwood, or the particular haughtiness of Emma Woodhouse, they will be surprised by Catherine Morland. She is none of those things. Catherine is sweet, kind, and good-natured. Perhaps because of her youth or country upbringing, she is unjaded and seeks to find the best in everyone and in all situations. Her character is reminiscent, in some ways, of Jane Bennet. Catherine is seeking love and adventure, but she is younger than Jane, and therefore not as knowledgeable of the world. So, she lacks the sense of pragmatism that Jane often exhibits.


            For those who have not read the works that inspired Austen to write Northanger Abbey, it is worth noting that the tomes are wildly different. Jane Austen was a singular writer, with a special gift. And while we cannot discount the ways in which she was influenced by others, a reader may see titles of books listed in Northanger Abbey, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, and be prompted to pick up a copy of the text. But do not expect these works to have the same resonance as Austen’s. She incorporated universal themes and told her stories in a realistic manner. That was not always the case for her predecessors who wrote novels in which entertainment, supernatural elements, and escapism were the key ingredients.


            Do carry on with your reading, Janeites. In the coming chapters, Catherine Morland will give free reign to her active imagination and Jane Austen will play with the gothic themes that were so popular during the regency period. For those who are interested in listening to an audio recording of this novel, there is a popular version available through Libby. Or indulge in the listening experience by clicking here.


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