Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a seventeen year old girl visiting the town of Bath with some family friends. Having been bought up in a solid, happy family and yet possessed of an imaginative nature, Catherine is completely unprepared for life in town and the reality that people are sometimes not all that they seem. She quickly enters into a friendship with Isabella Thorpe, who showers plain Catherine with praise and affection and she also fancies herself in love with Henry Tilney from the moment of meeting him. When she receives an invitation to the Tilney's home, Northanger Abbey, her imagination goes into overdrive as she imagines all sorts of gothic horrors and mysteries awaiting her. But the real dangers for Catherine lie in the lessons that she must learn about human nature.
My original goal for the Austen in August event was to reread one Austen (I chose Emma) and read one new-to-me Austen, Northanger Abbey. I'm always a bit hesitant with the Austens I've neither read before nor seen a TV adaptation of; I find Austen fairly challenging as I'm not always good with subtext (much like Catherine!). But I shouldn't have worried - Northanger Abbey was by far the 'easiest' experience I have had with Austen and I just flew through the book in two days as I couldn't put it down. It has become my favourite Austen novel, an opinion I know most readers don't share!
I loved Northanger Abbey so much because I loved Catherine. This probably doesn't reflect too well on me, but Catherine at seventeen could have been me at seventeen. Like Catherine, I had come from a loving family in which everyone got on and said what they meant, without playing any games. I was always ready to believe the best of people, give second chances and accept apologies. I hated being thought badly of myself, so never would have done it to others. I looked for the positives in my friends, ignoring or not seeing the negatives. I believed what people told me to the extent that I was officially what you would call gullible. I lived in a fantasy world of my imagination based on the books I had read and was often not with reality at all. To tell you the truth, I haven't changed that much since then! I'm aware that I believe and trust too easily and do attempt to think things through more logically, but it's always a massive shock to me when people betray trust or deliberately deceive or hurt others. So it was most definitely easy for me to relate to Catherine and put myself in her shoes, even if Austen is poking gentle fun at her for most of the novel.
I also really enjoyed the romance between Catherine and Henry Tilney. Obviously Catherine thinks of herself as in love with him immediately (I may have been guilty of this in the past, too!) but throughout the novel we get to see the relationship develop slowly as they spend time together, first at Bath then at the Abbey. They spend a lot of time in each other's company as Catherine becomes friends with him and his sister, and this is when she genuinely does fall in love. This is how normal relationships work. Although Henry does sometimes lecture Catherine about the real world, it didn't annoy me as it did when Mr Knightley lectures Emma in Emma. Henry never aims to embarrass or hurt Catherine, only to gently prod her in the right direction. When he really could embarrass her (after her imagination runs away with her about his father), he never holds it over her head or uses it against her, showing quite a lot of sensitivity.
When I finished this book, I read Andi's review, in which she points out the difference in intelligence between Catherine and Henry. Whilst it is true that Catherine isn't Henry's intellectual equal, I think that she offers him something beside that. As the son of a scheming, manipulative father, Henry is sick and tired of playing games and the acting that being part of society requires. Catherine is incapable of deception or game playing, and I think this is something to admire. I particularly liked the scene where she runs across town to Miss Tilney's house as she can't bear that she will think badly of her.
Although we do get to poke fun at Catherine throughout the novel, especially when her over-active imagination gets her into trouble, I was pleased to see her get a happy ending and for things to work out. Sometimes being quick to trust and think the best of others isn't always a bad thing.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1818
My Edition: Modern Library, 2002
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 15/72