Though Northanger Abbey is one of Jane Austen's earliest novels, it was not published until after her death--well after she'd established her reputation with works such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. Of all her novels, this one is the most explicitly literary in that it is primarily concerned with books and with readers. In it, Austen skewers the novelistic excesses of her day made popular in such 18th-century Gothic potboilers as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers all figure into Northanger Abbey, but with a decidedly satirical twist. Consider Austen's introduction of her heroine: we are told on the very first page that "no one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine." The author goes on to explain that Miss Morland's father is a clergyman with "a considerable independence, besides two good livings--and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters." Furthermore, her mother does not die giving birth to her, and Catherine herself, far from engaging in "the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush" vastly prefers playing cricket with her brothers to any girlish pastimes.
Catherine grows up to be a passably pretty girl and is invited to spend a few weeks in Bath with a family friend. While there she meets Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, who invite her to visit their family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Austen amuses herself and us as Catherine, a great reader of Gothic romances, allows her imagination to run wild, finding dreadful portents in the most wonderfully prosaic events. But Austen is after something more than mere parody; she uses her rapier wit to mock not only the essential silliness of "horrid" novels, but to expose the even more horrid workings of polite society, for nothing Catherine imagines could possibly rival the hypocrisy she experiences at the hands of her supposed friends. In many respects Northanger Abbey is the most lighthearted of Jane Austen's novels, yet at its core is a serious, unsentimental commentary on love and marriage, 19th-century British style.
Northanger Abbey was the first book Austen sent off to the publishers, yet it was to be part of a posthumous edition together with Persuasion. What a contrast that must have been. From a soft, calm, old fire kindling again to the first sparks of life. Catherine Morland, a rather plain girl of eighteen from a big family, a kind of ‘tomboy’ we would call her who rather likes to play cricket than gather flowers and do needlework, is taken to Bath by kind Mr and Mrs Allen, a woman whose opinion always is rather similar to the rests opinions, even if those contradict one another grievously. Through Mrs Allen, Catherine gets acquainted with the Thorpes, her brother James’s friends, of whom Isabella will become allegedly her ‘best friend in the world’ and John who will naturally be her very vain future partner. She will also gain the acquaintance of Eleanor and Henry Tilney whom everyone seems to be in awe of. Their father, General Tilney, takes an instant liking to Catherine and at the end of a few weeks she is even invited to their estate Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire. Catherine who is an avid Radcliff-reader, helped along by Henry himself, instantly fancies it a dark gothic place with corpses, secret passages and no less a wife who has been locked up or even murdered! But can General Tilney, the proprietor, be really so evil? It seems he can be cruel as he throws Catherine out, apparently without any reason, or has he, after a two weeks’ happy stay? Austen and her readers of course ‘hasten together to perfect felicity’, though not really for Catherine’s brother who no doubt has learned a great lesson of life. If one has read the famous Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel must even be of greater amusement. As it is, it is a great, young, sparkly satire of people with some important sincerity and a lesson in friendship.--Submitted by kiki1982
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