In this story we follow Catherine Morland who is fortunate to be invited by wealthy neighbors, the Allens, to visit Bath for a few weeks. Of a modest estate with nine other siblings, this is a great opportunity for the seventeen-year-old, who
dreams of the stories her Gothic novels tell, to come out and enjoy a more exciting lifestyle. We soon see that Catherine is an innocent and naïve character, inclined to always think the best of others. Desperate to make acquaintances in Bath, both her and Mrs. Allen frequent the pump room, meeting Henry Tilney, a clever and sarcastic soon-to-be clergyman, and the Thorpes. Mrs. Allen and her young friend spend much of their time with the Thorpes, and their eldest daughter, Isabella, and Catherine get along very well. It is discovered that James, Catherine’s older brother, is a friend of the Thorpes, and soon attends Bath as their guest. Isabella and James are clearly attracted to each other, and Catherine must fend off Isabella’s older brother, John Thorpe, an arrogant, crude man who thinks very well of himself. Desperate to meet Mr. Tilney again, Catherine is delighted to see him at a ball along with his sister Eleanor, and soon becomes better acquainted with the pair. In her last few weeks in Bath Catherine finds herself in a difficult situation when Isabella, James and Mr. Thorpe whisk her away on adventures against her wishes, when she had previous engagements with the Tilneys. Appalled at, though inclined to excuse their behavior, Catherine apologizes to the forgiving Tilneys, and is soon invited to spend a few weeks at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine is delighted to spend more time with Mr. Tilney, his gentle sister Eleanor, and their father, General Tilney, a curious creature who is very kind to her. James and Isabella soon become engaged, but when her brother is out of town, Catherine is shocked at Isabella’s behaviour when she flirts with a new visitor to Bath, the eldest Tilney brother, who is very unlike Henry. Isabella is quick with excuses and professes her undying love for the Morland siblings, and our heroine is soon on her way to Northanger Abbey.
At Northanger, Catherine becomes better acquainted with the Tilneys, happy to spend more time with Henry, who seems
to think well of her, and Eleanor who is hard not to like. General Tilney, though attentive and kind, is an overbearing and strict presence in the house, and Catherine, under the influence of her fantastical novels, soon concocts terrible stories about him. With these foreboding ideas, Catherine is soon further distraught with news of her friends and family in letters, and later bears the wrath of General Tilney and is forced to make a hasty departure back home.
Through Catherine, our author points to many interesting themes that easily translate to our modern era. The struggle to marry for love or the need to marry for wealth is a common theme in many of Austen’s novels, and finds another prominent place here. We see innocuous, young Catherine grow up in the year this novel encompasses, through the difficult experiences she endures. We also come to know all the characters we have been introduced to for better or for worse, and as with Austen’s typical third-person narrative, have been able to form our own opinions of them without Catherine’s biased perspective. Finally, it is
interesting how Austen’s opinion of gothic novels from the previous century is displayed through our heroine, Catherine, mocking their fantastical stories through the reality of the novel. Northanger Abbey strays from its siblings, in that it is not only a tome about of love, character and wealth, but a parody of the Gothic genre.
It is strange how this novel compares to its siblings. It is clearly not as popular as some of the favourites, but, like Mansfield Park, still holds its own in terms of plot and characters. Catherine is a far better heroine than Fanny Price, yet her timidity, youth and fantastical imagination seem to do her no favours. As a fan of Austen, I’m glad to have read it, but am unlikely to ever revisit it.