A Basic Gal’s Guide to Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey

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WHERE DO I EVEN BEGIN WITH THIS BOOK?!?!?

Sorry for yelling. Miss Austen would not appreciate my impropriety.

But honestly, I called it last month — Northanger Abbey has to be the author’s most left-field novel. It has all the usual trappings of her stories (a leading lady, the love interest, talk about money and marriages, dancing, etc.), but throw in the story’s heroine being kind of not-so-secretly interested in the macabre and mystery. Essentially, to the point where she even concocts in her head a story that her friends’ dad could have had something to do with the death of his wife. Whaaaaaaaat?! Let’s dive in.

Catherine Morland is a silly teenage gal who is, like most teenage girls, crushing hard. The object of her desire is a gentleman named Henry Tilney. Through the course of the first part of the book, Catherine pines for Henry while spending time with friends in the town of Bath. She enjoys seeing her friend Isabella Thorpe (who has a crush on Catherine’s brother James), but also has the pleasure of making the acquaintance (I felt like Austen as I wrote that) of Henry’s sister Eleanor. And while Catherine only has eyes for Henry, Isabella’s brother John makes it pretty obvious that he only has eyes for Catherine. Whoosh! That was a lot of relationship stuff.

Deep breath.

The group dances, goes on walks and carriage rides, reads books and talks about books while spending time in each other’s company. After a while, Eleanor and Henry’s father, General Tilney, comes to Bath and after meeting Catherine, invites her to come to their home Northanger AbbeyThat’s where Catherine’s fascination with the idea of something dark going on there begins. Earlier in the novel, there was much discussion among the characters about Anne Radcliffe’s work The Mysteries of Udolpho. While at the Abbey, Catherine takes a page out of the gothic playbook and takes it little too far. In her mind, every cabinet she opens could contain a diary with accounts of scary stories of the Abbey (spoiler alert: she finds the equivalent of a dry-cleaning bill) and every new room might contain a new horror (but they don’t). Oh, and she thinks her crush’s dad could have killed his mom (he didn’t).

I mean, when I was a kid I saw the movie Poltergeist and thought I was going to get sucked into my closet by ghosts to an alternate dimension. So, I get it. Go on, girl.

As you can well guess, Henry and Catherine do end up together. Although it doesn’t happen until the last few pages of the book (this seems like a theme with Austen books, the heroine doesn’t get her man until the very end).

I think one of my issues with this story is that I don’t really understand Henry and Catherine’s attraction. I kind of think Henry is a jerk. Actually, a lot of guys in this book are not nice guys. Like John, who you may remember has an unrequited crush on Catherine, routinely lies and schemes to try to win her affections (it almost costs her Henry). And Henry’s brother Frederick flirts with an engaged woman.

Other people who read this book probably see Henry differently than I do. As the love interest for me, he doesn’t hold a candle to the sweet, heartbroken Captain Wentworth from Persuasion (read my thoughts on that book here). Here are some reasons why:

  • Henry likes to mansplain things. Ug. He and Catherine get into a discussion, where he essentially tries to school her and ends with this: “Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearing her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline…” Too much wisdom at once? Henry, please.
  • Henry’s ultimate sorry-I’m-not-sorry. After Henry calls his sister stupid (seriously), Eleanor tries to make Henry apologize to Catherine for being so cruel to his own sister. His response? “Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Uhhhh, I don’t think that was what they were looking for.
  • One of the only moments when I found Henry to be a little cute, and maybe the moment when he started recognizing his feelings for Catherine a bit, is when on the way to the Abbey that he teases her about the horrors she might expect once they arrive. It was kind of like when a boy pulls your pigtails on the playground — it was the most playful moment that I really enjoyed between the two.
  • FINALLY at the end of the book, Henry admits he loves Catherine. Why does he love her? “…for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” Wait a minute. She liked him and that was what made him eventually realize that he liked her too? Oh…and his controlling father forbade him from being with her. So, there might have been a rebellious element to their relationship as well.

*Sigh* This is not the Austen love story I was hoping for.

Allison’s Ranking of Jane Austen Novels

1. Northanger Abbey

2. Persuasion

While I connected more to the main love story in Persuasion, Northanger Abbey takes over first place because I found it to be so interesting. The gothic touches to this story were just too fun, and I recognized some elements of a teenage Allison in young Catherine (naive, chasing boys and wanting to visit a haunted castle — check, check, check!).

Stay tuned! Mr. Darcy, here I come! Next month I’ll take on Austen’s arguably most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Have you ever read Northanger Abbey? Do you feel the same way I do about Henry? Tell me all about it in the comments below!

Allison C.

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Allison works at CLP – Main in the External and Government Relations Department as a Development Associate. She enjoys long walks, good books and bad reality television.