Monday, October 8, 2007

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
ISBN: 1853260436
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics/165 pages

This early Jane Austen novel is a satire of the reading tastes of the young, their near addiction to Gothic "horror" stories. Here Austen is overflowing with her unmistakable satiric wit, charm, and astonishing worldly wisdom.

Catherine Morland, aged 17, is expanding her horizons by visiting Bath with her neighbours, The Allens. She gets involved with the Thorpe family, who are not what they seem, and the Tilney family, with whom she forms genuine warmth that leads her to visit their family home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine has spent a good deal of time reading novels, and she allows her imagination to run wild once she finds herself in the dark corridors of the abbey. The appearance of Henry helps subdue her theatrics a bit but she still finds herself drawn into situations she does not understand. She expects the worst horrors because of her enthusiastic reading of Mrs. Radcliff’s novels. She feels certain to have stumbled upon a secret family shame or even horror. The General's odd behaviour seems to confirm her growing suspicious of dark deeds surrounding the death of the late Mrs. Tileny.

Without any explanation, the domineering General gets Catherine thrown out of his home defying all the rules of hospitality and decency. Henry is not present to protest, so Catherine is sent off in ignominy and secret tears back to her unsuspecting family.
Austen is mocking the meeting and mating customs of that period in Britain. She is also mocking the gothic novels of the day: Catherine, influenced by the lowbrow literature she reads, is forever attributing dark motives to her acquaintances and skeletons to their closets.

Catherine is easily manipulated and slow to learn from her mistakes, and she bumbles into her eventual successful conclusion completely by accident, none the wiser for her troubles. Austen makes clear right at the onset that she does not wish to attack the novelists who wrote the books from which Catherine derives many of her false ideas but that the error is Catherine's interpretation of the stories.

Much of the story fits in with typical Gothic novel, but the frightening and dismaying things Catherine eventually discovers are of a far from supernatural sort. Greed, selfishness and pride, these are the horrors of Northanger Abbey. The hidden motive of seemingly delightful friends is brought to light, teaching young Catherine as well as the reader a painful lesson in real life.