In light of the fact that my favourite book ever is Pride and Prejudice, and has been for a good five years or so, I thought it might be time to give Austen’s other novels a go. I wasn’t a fan of Sense and Sensibility (although loved the film, obvs) – I just couldn’t get into the story or sympathise with the characters. I’ve also read Emma, which I enjoyed the message of but again not necessarily the characters. So my next choice was Northanger Abbey, which I think I always presumed was a bit more morbid than Austen’s other novels, perhaps just thanks to the name. Obviously when I looked into this it sounds a lot more like her other works, so I thought it would be worth a read.
The book is a slow starter, introducing most of the main characters and setting up events in quite a roundabout way, and the situation is described more via a series of statements rather than as an actual story being told. However, Austen soon transports the reader into the mind of our ‘heroine’ Catherine Morland. Catherine isn’t your typical Austen heroine – she’s not confident like Emma or bright as Lizzy is, nor is she particularly learned, very well-mannered, or especially pretty. In my opinion this makes her even more likeable, as Catherine was so relatable. For someone of my age, there were many instances where Catherine’s feelings and confusions tripped her up that I could easily imagine being mirrored in my life! It’s refreshing to have a central female character who isn’t really in anyway remarkable, who still manages to have little adventures and do well for herself.
Catherine travels with wealthy family friends to Bath to spend six weeks there, and both her and the reader have to deal with a rather monotonous first week, as Mrs Allen, the family friend, has no acquaintances in Bath. An opportune meeting with an old schoolfriend solves their problem instantly, as Mrs Allen is besotted with her reacquaintance, and Catherine makes fast friends with the eldest daughter, Isabella. Catherine’s description of their extremely quickly formed friendship, and the overzealous attitude of Isabella from the very beginning, makes for an awkward relationship for the reader to be witness to. Isabella is far more forward than Catherine, but also far more knowledgeable – Catherine’s main failing does come across as a very blatant naivety, and the reader can’t help but think that this is taken advantage of, not just by Isabella but by others close to her as well.
As more acquaintances are made, and Catherine’s brother joins the party, Catherine’s time in Bath becomes much more fulfilling. Isabella’s brother John and Catherine’s own brother James are always with the two ladies, and Catherine also makes the acquaintance of a family of great respect, and becomes friends with siblings Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Of course the friendly atmosphere cannot last, and an invitation to spend time with the Tilneys at their country residence, Northanger Abbey, is eagerly accepted by Catherine. There, and under the all too watchful eye of their father General Tilney, the three get along famously and her weeks there are happily spent. Of course there is a nice little twist in the last few chapters, as is common in Austen, but I won’t spoil that for you all!
The book itself was a little lengthy for me – I felt like the story needn’t have been as long, and still kept all of it’s detail and appeal. It’s also probably the most ‘young’ of the Austen novels that I’ve read so far, in both the age of the protagonist and the content as a whole. This is perhaps a reflection of the time at which Austen was writing, as she wrote the first draft of Northanger in the 1790s, in her early 20s. Her relatively young age seems to have impacted the story, but certainly beneficially – the characterisation of Catherine is excellent, and really emphasises how much she has to learn. The fact that Austen then finished this novel over a decade later, when she had actually lived in Bath for some years, reflects the growth that occurs throughout the novel. Catherine comes to realise that people aren’t all what they seem, and that you can’t get too caught up in stories as you risk misunderstanding the real world.
As with all of Austen’s novels, this is a light parody of the times that Austen lived in, and is well worth the read for both the satirical nuance, historical elements and the classically appealing storyline of girl meets boy.