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Austen-Bronte Reader Series: The Benefits and Downfalls of Having an Active Imagination

Hello, friends and fellow Janeites. It is most pleasing to know you are returning to our discussion of Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. Today, we seek to explore the midsection of the book, focusing mainly on chapters 11-20.


            Catherine Morland’s adventures continue with a spark of excitement. She is most eagerly awaiting a meeting with her friends Mr. Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. But as does often happen in England, rain falls and throws the entire scheme of going out for a nice country walk into jeopardy. Our heroine spends her morning at the window, praying for the rain to abate, and just after the noon hour, when the sun comes out, she is delighted. She rushes from the house, ready to spend the afternoon with the Tilneys, but is stopped by her brother James who is accompanied by Isabella and John Thorpe. They wish to take a carriage ride and insist Catherine join them. But Catherine is determined to keep her engagement. She rejects the offer to go along with the party and even though she is tempted to go so she might see Blaize Castle, she holds fast to her agreement with the Tilneys. They have arranged to meet and walk about together today and that’s what they must do.

            But John Thorpe changes her mind. He says he saw Tilney with a lady, riding about in a carriage, not so long ago. The Tilneys cannot be planning to go for their country walk after all if they are already in a carriage and besides, it is much too wet and dirty to go traipsing about the town. Catherine is disappointed and feels slighted by the Tilneys, so she climbs into the carriage and allows herself to be transported with the party.

            The carriage has not traveled very far when Catherine spots Mr. Henry Tilney and Eleanor walking. She begs John Thorpe to stop the carriage so she may speak with her friends, but he refuses. Catherine scolds him for deceiving her by saying he saw them about town in a phaeton, but he shrugs off her rebuke, maintaining he genuinely thought the man and lady in the carriage were members of the Tilney family. Catherine is put out by all of this. She is unhappy and the day is a failing because the party never quite reaches its intended destination.

            When they arrive back home later, Catherine is disquieted and out of sorts because she missed the Tilneys. It is also then that she learns of how Mr. Allen is relieved to see the party return home. He did not approve of the scheme in which they were to drive all over the countryside, with the gentlemen escorting the ladies in the open carriages. Catherine is discontented. She has no desire to be improper and wishes someone had stopped her from making such a misstep. Moreover, she wishes to speak with the Tilneys and explain the miscommunication matters.

            Catherine is so fretful that she nearly skips going to the theatre but is glad that she ends up going because it is there that she has her chance for a lengthy discourse with Henry Tilney. She explains the situation and apologizes profusely. They fix upon another date for their walk and Catherine is wholly delighted.

            And that is when Isabella suggests renewing the scheme of going to Clifton by carriage. Catherine puts down her foot. Under no circumstances will she be persuaded to cancel her engagement with the Tilneys again. Even though she is adamant, she does wish to appease her friend, Isabella, and brother, James, so she recommends they put off their drive until a later date. But John Thorpe will hear none of that. He takes it upon himself to seek out the Tilneys and make excuses on Catherine’s behalf. This pleases everyone, except for Catherine. She wanted to go with the Tilneys and feels it is rude to put them off again. She endeavors to make things right with the Tilneys and after sitting with Eleanor and the general, she is invited to spend time with them later.

            When Catherine finally does have the opportunity to take her long-awaited country walk with Henry and Eleanor, she finds their conversation engaging. Henry has a teasing way about him, and it seems that Catherine is fascinated because she simply does not know if she should be taking his words to heart, or she should be laughing along with him. But she admires him and listens closely as he lectures her about books by saying, “The person be it a gentleman or lady who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid”. And she absorbs his teachings when he tries to explain how her usage of the word “nice” does not quite convey the meaning she intended. Some might bristle at his deliberate and targeted attempts to correct and educate Catherine, but she becomes further bewitched by him, so much so that by the time the conversation turns to art and painting, Catherine is not only willing to be his pupil, but compelled to agree with him on all matters.

            Upon returning to the Allen’s lodgings, Catherine learns from Anne Thorpe that the party went on ahead with their plan to ride about the countryside in the carriages. It is then that they come home, and Isabella is beaming with pleasure. While out on the ride, James proposed to her, and now, she and Catherine will be sisters. She is full of elation, but also worried that because she has no fortune to her name, the Morlands will not accept this marriage. Catherine assures her that her parents will not stand in the way of James’ happiness. If he wishes to make Isabella his wife, they will be most accepting. But Catherine’s kind, genial words do little to settle Isabella’s qualms. She continues to fret and fuss, even after James sends a letter confirming what Catherine said. They shall be married. The only request from the Morland family is that they wait a few years so James might become more gainfully employed and be better prepared to take care of his wife and family. After the news is shared, Catherine and John spend an awkward moment together. It seems he is trying to show his preference for her and while she is doing nothing to encourage him, he appears to take heart in her words—as if she is leading him to think there is an attachment on her part.

            With matters firmly settled between the Morlands and the Thorpes, Catherine ventures out to see her friends, the Tilneys. She learns that they are bound to leave Bath soon and is disheartened. But her cares swiftly abate when she is invited to join them. They wish for her to accompany them to their home, Northanger Abbey. Oh, Catherine is in raptures. She has read so much of abbeys in novels that her mind spins furiously, thinking of all the wonders she will encounter.

            Catherine’s raptures are put off for a moment when she and Isabella have an interesting conversation. She wishes to relay to her friend the good news of her upcoming travels and Isabella thinks it is unkind of Catherine to behave in such a manner. She explains that her brother, John, shared with her how he made Catherine an offer of marriage and she accepted. Catherine is appalled. John never proposed and she certainly was not induced to agree to any such engagement. The two friends disagree on this matter when Isabella accuses Catherine of being fickle all while Catherine maintains how she never cared for John.

            The situation between the two friends is strained, but the atmosphere changes again when Captain Frederick Tilney, Henry and Eleanor’s older brother, enters the picture. He is charming and gregarious, and he comes right out and compliments Isabella. Since she is engaged to James, she tries to be coy, but Catherine feels as though Captain Tilney might be in love with Isabella and her friend might also be delighting a little too much in Frederick’s presence. Catherine presents her misgivings to Henry Tilney, urging him to ask his brother to leave Bath. He and his pursuit of Isabella are causing pain. Henry begrudgingly tells Catherine his words will have no sway. Frederick is determined to stay right where he is at present. She makes a favorable impression on Henry by showing such concern for her brother and Isabella and so he assures her that Frederick will eventually go back to his regiment, rendering all these unhappy feelings unnecessary.

            It is with this first true connection being made between the pair that they embark on the journey to Northanger Abbey. At the general’s prompting, Catherine and Henry ride in a curricle together, and here, the reader sees their romance blossom. He has not given up on his teasing ways and throughout the ride, he playfully jibes her about her overactive sense of imagination. She has read so many novels that she has crafted a picture of how Northanger Abbey should be, and he plays upon her background knowledge, almost encouraging her to see ghosts lurking in secluded passageways and secret corridors hidden throughout the estate. Catherine is slightly embarrassed by Henry’s teasing, and she assures him she had not conjured any such images in her head. And when they finally arrive at their destination, it is evident why he took such delight in jesting with her. The abbey is nothing like she envisioned. There are no cobwebs or dirt, but modern furnishings, polished windows, and comfortable, tidy surroundings.

Impressions and Overall Thoughts

            It is Catherine Morland’s goodness that sets her apart from others. At the beginning of this section, she is so determined to keep her engagement with her friends. And by the end, she is still showcasing her benevolence by worrying about her brother and wondering how his feelings might be impacted by the growing flirtation between Isabella and Captain Tilney. In some ways, that makes the interactions between Catherine and Henry featured in these chapters seem less romantic. While she is looking at him with admiring and affectionate eyes, he never misses a chance to instruct or educate her. Sometimes, his words seem cutting and snide. Certainly, while riding to Northanger Abbey together and he creates this tale, almost like a spooky bedtime story, for Catherine’s consumption, the reader may wonder at his motivations. Why does he unspool such a yarn? It seems he recognizes how active her imagination is, so why would he provoke her further by intimating that Northanger Abbey was like all those haunted homes featured in the works of Ann Radcliffe? The answer, of course, depends upon how the reader is interpreting the relationship between Henry and Catherine. Is he taking pleasure in being with her, watching her eyes fill with excitement and wonder and dread? Or is he intentionally toying with her emotions, fully knowing that his family’s home is modern and unlike those featured in literature? Is he just hoping to scare her a little for the joy of seeing her jump?

            Austen plays this detail very close to the chest because she does not reveal Henry’s motivations. He is not overtly trying to impress and please Catherine, as Colonel Brandon does in Sense & Sensibility, nor does he write out his true feelings and share them with the heroine (as well as the reader) like Captain Wentworth does in Persuasion. So, we are left to make conjectures. Will Henry’s words stay with Catherine, prompting her to see spooks and specters haunting the halls of Northanger Abbey or will she laugh off his jibes and consider them no more than mere folly?


            Even though we are more than halfway through the book, it seems that our heroine has just now reached the pinnacle of her journey. She has read and dreamed of exploring an abbey and finally the moment is upon her. To fully appreciate what Catherine Morland is anticipating, it might do for the reader to peruse the works of Ann Radcliffe. Both The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian are referenced in the text, and that was intentional. Austen wanted her readers to go through this journey with Catherine, having a similar picture built in their minds. She even, in some places, attempts to adopt Radcliffe’s storytelling style in which she focuses on describing landscapes and all there is to be seen.

            And it is with this introduction to the Tilney family’s home that we enter the most engaging part of the story yet. Do continue along this journey with us, Janeites. Together, let us see, what dangers, if any, lurk at the Abbey for our heroine, Miss Catherine Morland.


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