In this lesson, we will discuss Jane Austen’s novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’. After a brief look at the context in which the novel was published, we’ll examine the novel’s plot, analyze some of its defining themes, and wrap up the lesson with a short quiz.
Introduction to Northanger Abbey
Famed 18th and 19th century English novelist, Jane Austen, wrote many novels in her lifetime. Northanger Abbey was one of the first novels she finished, and while she sold the manuscript in 1803, the novel was not published until 1817-1818. The delay was due, in part, to Jane Austen’s habit of publishing her novels anonymously.
While she wrote and published many novels, she received no credit. As a result, the publisher who originally bought the rights to Northanger Abbey was afraid it wouldn’t sell very well. The publisher eventually sold the rights back to the Austen family. Jane Austen revised the novel repeatedly, but never sold it. After her death, her brother changed the title of the manuscript to the now-famous Northanger Abbey and sold the novel along with Persuasion.
Plot Context and Characters
Northanger Abbey is similar to many of Jane Austen’s novels.
It involves a lot of relatively wealthy families socializing with each other, usually at balls and other genteel parties. The protagonist of Northanger Abbey is a seventeen-year-old young woman, Catherine Morland, who is obsessed with Gothic novels. When the novel begins, she is visiting Bath with a pair of family friends. While in Bath, she meets two different families: the Thorpe family and the Tilney family.In order to avoid confusion, let’s briefly outline the different family members before we begin the summary. The Thorpe family includes Mrs.
Thorpe (a widow), John Thorpe (her son), and Isabella Thorpe (the main Thorpe daughter, who befriends Catherine, gets engaged to Catherine’s brother, James, and flirts with Captain Frederick Tilney). The other family, the Tilneys, includes General Tilney (a widower), Captain Frederick Tilney (the oldest Tilney son and a dishonorable man), Henry Tilney (Catherine’s love interest and a kind and clever man), and Eleanor Tilney (the youngest Tilney, quiet and a reader).
While in Bath, Catherine attends a lot of balls and meets all of these people. She develops an interest in Henry Tilney, who is smart and shares her interest in novels, especially Gothic ones.
She also meets the Thorpe siblings. While Catherine likes Henry a lot, their paths do not cross frequently. During his absence, she befriends Isabella Thorpe.
Since Catherine is kind and a bit naive, she is not a great judge of character, especially when it comes to Isabella. Isabella gets engaged to Catherine’s brother, James, but when Mr. Morland makes his son wait two years until he takes his vows as a priest to marry Isabella, Isabella wastes no time in flirting with another man: Captain Frederick Tilney.Eventually Catherine runs into Henry again. She also meets his sister and their father. When a disappointed Isabella begins to flirt with his older brother, Henry is quick to recognize her impropriety. James is hurt by Isabella’s behavior.
When the Tilneys invite Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey, she expects it to be just like an estate from one of the Gothic novels with which she is so obsessed. After arriving, however, she finds that it is a very pleasant house, except for the mysterious rooms no one ever enters. The rooms were once Mrs. Tilney’s, but after her death, they were shut. Mrs. Tilney has been dead for nine years, but Catherine thinks that General Tilney‘s lack of grief is proof that he secretly murdered her or something equally sinister.
Catherine and Eleanor investigate the rooms, but Catherine is caught by Henry. He is upset by her investigation. After telling Catherine that his father was deeply moved by his wife’s death, Catherine is afraid that Henry hates her. Henry does not really hate her, however. He is only a little disappointed and quickly gets over it. Catherine punishes herself by being appropriately ashamed.
She also makes an important realization: Novels are not like real life.James and Isabella break up because of Isabella and Captain Frederick Tilney’s quasi-relationship. Everyone is upset and the General takes a trip to London. Now that their father is gone, Eleanor blooms socially.
Henry, Eleanor, and Catherine get along wonderfully.When General Tilney returns from London, he is furious with Catherine, and makes her go home immediately. The reason for his fury is simple: John Thorpe convinced him that Catherine is poor, and General Tilney does not want her to marry his son. Henry refuses to listen to his father.
He tracks Catherine down and tells her that he will marry her regardless. It turns out that John Thorpe lied and, while Catherine is not exceedingly wealthy, she has some money. Once he learns that John Thorpe lied to him, General Tilney is fine with the marriage in the end.
Northanger Abbey is primarily a parody of Gothic novels. Since Catherine is obsessed with them, she thinks real life is exactly like in her novels. In addition to expecting Northanger Abbey to be creepy and dark, she gets carried away and believes that General Tilney, who is unlikeable and stubborn in a normal way, must secretly have murdered his wife. The parody is driven home by Jane Austen when she references the relationships between Gothic novels and real life in several key scenes, the most important of which is Catherine’s revelation after Henry catches her in his mother’s rooms.
Just like in most of Austen’s other novels, misunderstandings are all over the place in Northanger Abbey. In particular, there are a lot of misunderstandings between Catherine and her love interest, Henry.
This is due largely to John Thorpe’s meddling. Throughout the book he tries to make Catherine break her social engagements to Henry, but luckily Henry remains noble and never thinks poorly of Catherine, not even when she breaks into his mother’s rooms. In the end, a misunderstanding is almost the downfall of their relationship. When John Thorpe lies to General Tilney about Catherine’s family’s financial status, it looks like Catherine and Henry will not be allowed to get married. Luckily, however, love wins out.
Catherine and Henry are determined to get married with or without General Tilney’s permission. When Eleanor suddenly becomes engaged to a rich man, however, General Tilney’s heart softens and he looks more favorably on the idea of Catherine and Henry getting married.
Written by famed 18th and 19th century English novelist, Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey was the first novel Austen sold to a publisher, but it was not published until after her death.
It underwent a lot of revisions and name changes over the years before appearing in its current form. The novel follows three families: the Morlands, the Tilneys, and the Thorpes and the complicated relationships between them, such as James and Isabella’s broken engagement due to flirtation on her part. It’s a Gothic novel parody, expressed through the protagonist Catherine’s own obsession with Gothic novels and realization that life isn’t like what’s depicted in them.
Being fooled into believing that General Tilney murdered his wife is a consequence of this obsession. The novel is also similar to many of Jane Austen’s other works, especially concerning its choice of themes: family, love, and misunderstandings, such as those caused by the lies spun by John Thorpe regarding Catherine’s wealth. Like many of Jane Austen’s other novels, Northanger Abbey ends with several marriages.