You can tell that Northanger Abbey is one of Jane Austen’s earlier stories because it isn’t quite as long as the rest, and the main essence of the story isn’t in the love triangles and misunderstandings. In fact, this book is simply about loving books. Although Persuasion is the last of the Jane Austen books, and the only one I haven’t read, I feel safe to say that Northanger Abbey is by far my favorite novel. It is just as ripe with social commentary on the upper and middle class, the educated and non-educated, the pious and the selfish.
The story takes place mostly in Bath, England when a young Catherine Morland is sent to spend a few months with friends of the family, the Allens. On one her first days she encounters a very sociable young man named Henry Tilney. Catherine soon develops a strong crush on Tilney, but unfortunately, he is nowhere to be seen for the next few chapters. Enter Isabella Thorpe. She reminded me very much of Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park. Isabella also came with a brother, John Thorpe, who did nothing but torment Catherine with his obnoxious behavior. Through a series of missed chances, Catherine is finally able to keep her engagements with the Tilney siblings once they return to Bath. Striking up a pleasant friendship with Henry and Eleanor, Catherine is soon invited to spend a few months at Northanger Abbey with the Tilney family, and here the fun ensues. Her mind ripe with images of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Catherine lets her imagination get the better of at the abbey. Henry, even encourages Catherine’s fantasies by drafting an entire plot of her adventures exploring Northanger Abbey in a scene that could have been taken straight out of Udolpho. Henry’s imagination and sweetness in this scene made it one of my favorites in the whole book.
Catherine Morland is an extremely likable heroine. She is early on defined as “almost pretty” by her parents, but also very humble and simple. Isabella is a flirt more concerned with fashion than her friend’s well-being. John Thorpe and Henry Tilney are polar opposites of each other in virtually every way. Henry comes from a family with money, the Thorpes only pretend to have money. John abhors reading: “I never read novels; I have something else to do” (p32), whereas Henry tells Catherine “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”(p85). But at the heart of the story is just a love of a good story, which is why the romance of the Catherine and Henry, and that of Catherine’s brother James and Isabella is almost in the background to Catherine’s love of books and love for a good story.
This book is one best read late at night. I was up until 1am reading before I finally made myself go to bed. I kept falling into that trap of “one more chapter” but that’s not so easy when each chapter is only 2 or 3 pages long, and you are dying to know where Catherine and Henry will finally meet, or if the Thorpes will keep interrupting their plans.
FINAL GRADE: A+Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen Bantam Books, 1818 (original publication date) ISBN 0553211978 212 pages *****