Bea Reads: ‘Northanger Abbey’

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

My rating: 5/10

One Sentence Verdict: Youthful and sharp in equal measure like other works by Austen, not the most engaging of her works but an amusing social commentary and entertaining read regardless


I think I must have been biased against Northanger Abbey since before I even picked it up, if I’ll be brutally honest. I’ve heard too many complaints from friends forced to study it to death at A-Level standard, to be able to approach it with a completely open mind!

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but from the description given to me by my first Workaway host, a fan of Jane Austen who introduced me to Persuasion, I expected a lot more of the novel to be set at the titular location, and mistakenly had the impression that the story would be a lot darker than it turned out to be.

Catherine Morland is, at seventeen, younger than a) most of Austen’s more engaging heroines and b) me. Because of this, she seemed, a lot of the time, to be silly and more than a little shallow. As the novel is a Bildungsroman in a sense, before the style was so named, this is probably a stylistic choice on the part of Austen, but it does make the main character quite unlikeable and not as easy to root for as perhaps Anne Elliot or Elizabeth Bennet.

As I live so close to Bath, it’s always interesting to read Austen because there’s hardly a work where someone doesn’t “take a season” there! And the names of the streets, and the locations such as the Assembly rooms, are familiar, having visited most of them myself, numerous times. And of course, Austen herself lived there for part of her life. There is now a museum dedicated to her life and works in her old home.

Catherine is an avid reader herself, and the book references countless novels of the time, many of them totally unknown to modern readers, myself shamefully included! I intend to read some of the books mentioned when I get a chance; in this edition helpfully compiled into a list by Professor Marian Butler.

The main character leaves her family to go to stay in Bath for six weeks with acquaintances, Mr and Mrs Allen, and meets the sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who befriend Catherine, and the former of the pair immediately catches Catherine’s eye, and she his too. She falls quickly in love, or more accurately infatuation, with Henry, and after some time is invited to stay at the siblings’ father’s home, the titular Northanger Abbey, with the mysterious General Tilney himself.

Catherine is forced to grow up quickly and learn to differentiate between real life and fantasy as life at Northanger Abbey takes a turn for the strange. Friendships she thought were true crumble, and a shock announcement sends her back home without warning. This, all in all, seems a promising synopsis, but the novel has something of a cookie-cutter ending which left me feeling a bit deflated. I suppose it’s meant to be optimistic?

The fact that so much of the novel is set in Bath, with next to nothing happening except outings and pointless conversations, with perhaps only the last fifth set at Northanger Abbey, means that there is quite a large amount of plot squeezed into a few pages at the end, which makes it in parts a little difficult to follow towards the close of the story. Although it ends happily, there are questions left unanswered, although admittedly not ones burning enough to warrant any further thought.

Other than Catherine, I found the majority of the characters fairly colourless, with the exception of perhaps the mysterious General Tilney, and Isabella, Catherine’s friend and guide in Bath. General Tilney is just abrasive and brooding enough to warrant interest, and Isabella is, at twenty-one, quite the shameless sister-figure to Catherine. It is through her that Catherine meets all her other acquaintances in Bath, but Isabella is revealed to be less of a friend than she first appeared when she dashes the affections of Catherine’s brother, James, on the rocks.

I loved Austen’s writing style, as always, and particularly her little digs at those who dismiss novels as a woman’s pastime. Despite the fact that the plot appears quite shallow, Butler’s commentary in this edition reveals it to be somewhat more sophisticated than the reader may first realise, once it is placed within it social and literary context. Austen addresses the reader on more than one occasion, which I found helped me come back to the novel when my attention had drifted a little.

If you’re a fan of Austen, or looking to read a classic without the commitment, then Northanger Abbey might be right up your street. If you prefer the witty banter of Elizabeth and Darcy, or the drama of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, you might be better off giving this one a miss.

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