Jane Austen, 1817
by Rachel Munford
Northanger Abbey was one of Jane Austen’s first novels to be written but the last to get published. It is also the shortest book she wrote and that is probably why many choose it to read as their first Austen novel. Austen can sometimes feel like a mandatory core class, however Northanger Abbey is one of the best books Austen ever wrote. It is biting, universally applicable and, to a large extent, realistic.
The story follows seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a young woman obsessed with Gothic novels (something Catherine and I have in common) as she stays with family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen when they visit Bath. She meets new friends, such as Isabella Thorpe, and finds herself pursued by Isabella’s brother, the brash and unappealing John Thorpe. Her real love interest is Henry Tilney; a young man who is captivating and a true gentleman. She befriends Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s younger sister, and General Tilney (their father) invites Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey, under the assumption that Catherine comes from a wealthy background – which she does not.
The most important aspect of this story is how Catherine’s obsession with horror, and the Gothic, leads her to suspect that Henry’s mother was murdered by General Tilney; this plays a crucial role in how she interacts with Henry, not just as her suitor but asking questions which only feed her curiosity. Henry is quite patient but there are times I can understand his frustration. Then again, I have been in Catherine’s situation where no matter how hard you think you’re trying, sometimes you will still come across like a blethering idiot, which is unfortunate in Catherine’s case where the end goal is to get married.
What I do respect about the protagonist is her guts to constantly brush off advances from John Thorpe, who is pretty relentless and pushy. Catherine also seems quite ordinary, and like many young women of various generations; the universality of her story is one of the most understandable reasons why Austen is so loved by her fans. Although Catherine is rather silly, something Austen exploits as a biased narrator, the novel has a more realistic view of love when compared to Austen’s other works: love is not straightforward and full of niceties. In that respect, the story actually feels quite modern and creates a universality that is hard to achieve when transcending time periods.
I would have never read this novel without the helping hand of a charming bookseller in Waterstones who recommended it to me and, hand on heart, I can say this is definitely an essential read. It provided me with the optimism to attempt to read other classic fiction, something which, as a horror fan, is hard to do unless it is H.P. Lovecraft or Bram Stoker. Overall, Northanger Abbey is the perfect taster for those who may not list classic fiction as a favourite genre, and it lets you start at the shallow end rather than the deep end of Austen’s work, making it a totally essential read.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);