Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: A 19th-Century Summary & Analysis
By Sarah Fanny Malden | On May 8, 2022 | Updated August 21, 2022 | Comments (0)
The first novel intended for publication by Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey was originally titled Susan. Completed in 1803, it wasn’t published until 1817, the year of the author’s death.
This coming-of-age novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland, at first young and rather naïve, learns the ways of the world in the course of the narrative.
Set in Bath, England, the fashionable resort city where the Austens lived for a time, Jane Austen critiques young women who put too much stock in appearances, wealth, and social acceptance. Catherine values happiness but not at the cost of compromising one’s values and morals.
A brief synopsis from a 1995 edition
From the 1995 Wordsworth Limited edition of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey is the most joyous of Jane Austen’s novels and is an early work conceived as a pastiche of the melodramatic excesses of the Gothic novel (a type of romance popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries).
Jane Austen was temperamentally incapable of keeping her youthful sense of fun from bubbling over, and the result makes the social and romantic trials of young heroine, Catherine Morland, a delight to follow.
The story is set in fashionable Bath, where Catherine is taken to come out is society by her neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Allen. There she meets a young clergyman, Henry Tilney and his sister, the children of the eccentric General Tilney who resides at Northanger Abbey in nearby Gloucestershire.
Having been invited to Northanger Abbey by the General on mistaken grounds that she is extremely well-off, there follows the series of hilarious misunderstandings and the Gothic suspicions which are the essence of the book.
Northanger Abbey was actually the first novel that Jane Austen completed with the hopes of publication, in 1803. It was first titled Susan and she sold the copyright to a London publisher for a pittance.
The publisher held on to it for years without ever printing it. It was tied up until 1816 when Jane’s brother Henry managed to buy it back, after much dispute. Jane spent some time revising the original, renaming her heroine Catherine, but by the time it was published in 1817, she died. That year, another of her novels, Persuasion, was published as well.
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Quotes from Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
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A 19th-Century Plot Summary and Critique
Jane Austen by Sarah Fanny Malden (1889) offers an excellent 19th-century view of Jane Austen’s works. The following analysis and plot summary of Pride and Prejudice (1813) focuses on this beloved novel, which was Jane Austen‘s second to be published. It followed Sense and Sensibility, published two years earlier.
Mrs. Malden said of her sources, “The writer wishes to express her obligations to Lord Brabourne and Mr. C. Austen Leigh for their kind permission to make use of the Memoir and Letters of their gifted relative, which have been her principal authorities for this work.”
The 1889 publication of Malden’s Jane Austen was part of an Eminent Women series published by W.H. Allen & Co., London. The following excerpt is in the public domain:
Unlike her other novels
Although not published until after her death, Northanger Abbey was one of Jane Austen’s earliest works; and the scheme of it is so unlike her other novels that it may be said to occupy a place by itself.
It is so complete and so clever a parody of many of the novels of her day, that it can hardly be appreciated by those who do not recognize the originals of its situations and characters or understand the kind of sensational writing in which Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding were leaders, followed at a considerable distance by a host of inferior writers.
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey. Her début is intentionally made unsuccessful to contrast with the outbursts of admiration that greeted Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Cecilia when they first appeared in public.
Enter Henry Tilney and the Thorpes
Soon Catherine meets her fate in the person of Henry Tilney, to whom she is introduced at a ball, and who is just the sort of brilliant, clever, cultivated young man to attract a girl of her age.
As is natural under the circumstances, she is much struck with him, and very ready to improve the acquaintance, but she sees nothing more of Henry for some time.
Meanwhile the Thorpes appear upon the scene. Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen were former school-friends, and Mrs. Thorpe’s eldest daughter, Isabella, professes a violent affection at first sight for Catherine, chiefly in hopes of renewing an old flirtation with Catherine’s brother James, who may come to Bath.
Catherine, quite unsuspicious of any double motive, is much flattered by Isabella’s warmth, and, being dazzled by her showy beauty, does not perceive her shallowness, vulgarity, and insincerity. A warm schoolgirl friendship is set up between them, in which Catherine’s simplicity and straightforwardness contrast much to her advantage with Isabella’s insufferably bad taste.
The acquaintance with Isabella Thorpe proves important for Catherine in more ways than one. James Morland comes to Bath, and—having, of course, light eyes and a sallow complexion—is very soon Isabella’s declared and accepted lover.
John Thorpe comes too; and having fallen in love—or supposing he has—with Catherine, she receives her first offer from him, though being quite unconscious of his admiration for her, which isn’t very intelligibly expressed, she doesn’t know, until later in the story, that he has offered himself. Last, but not least, Isabella introduces Catherine to the class of novels which are to influence her mind so powerfully.
Between these horrid novels and the society of Isabella Thorpe, Catherine is in danger of deterioration, but she is fortunately saved from any permanent ill effects.
An invitation to Northanger Abbey
Henry Tilney is in Bath with his father and sister; and General Tilney, under a mistaken impression of the amount of Catherine’s fortune, is quite willing to encourage his son’s dawning attachment for her. Elinor Tilney is charming, and Catherine has good taste enough to take greatly to her, and to be pleased and flattered by her notice.
Finally, to her unutterable delight, the Tilneys invite her to accompany them when they leave Bath. Their home is called Northanger Abbey; and Catherine, who has never seen an old house in her life, believes herself to be on the verge of similar adventures to those that befell her favorite heroines.
Henry Tilney discovers her expectations, and amuses himself with heightening them, having no idea that she will take his nonsense so seriously. The first sight of Northanger Abbey is disappointing to her, as it is modernized out of all picturesqueness or romance, and even her own room she finds very unlike the one by the description of which Henry had endeavored to alarm her.
Too influenced by gothic novels
Nevertheless, she has not been long in it, and is still occupied in dressing for the five o’clock dinner, when her eye suddenly fell on a large high chest, standing back in a deep recess on one side of the fireplace. The sight of it made her start; and, forgetting everything else, she stood gazing on it in motionless wonder while these thoughts crossed her:
“This is strange, indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this. An immense heavy chest! What can it hold? Why should it be placed here? Pushed back, too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it; cost me what it may, I will look into it; and directly, too—by daylight. If I stay till evening, my candle may go out.”
She advanced, and examined it closely; it was of cedar, curiously inlaid with some darker wood, and raised about a foot from the ground on a carved stand of the same. The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles, also of silver, broken, perhaps prematurely, by some strange violence; and on the center of the lid was a mysterious cipher in the same metal.
Catherine has sense enough to be abashed at the perception of her own folly, but not quite enough to get immediately over the effects of being really in an abbey like one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s heroines; and that night her courage is again put to the test.
It is a very stormy night, quite “like what one reads about,” but Catherine, determined now to be brave, undresses very leisurely, and even resolves not to make up her fire. When daylight brought returning courage and cheerfulness, her first thought was for the manuscript:
… springing from her bed in the very moment of the maid’s going away, she eagerly collected every scattered sheet which had burst from the roll on its falling to the ground and flew back to enjoy the luxury of their perusal on her pillow.
She now plainly saw that she must not expect a manuscript of equal length with the generality of what she had shuddered over in books; for the roll, seeming to consist entirely of small, disjointed sheets, was altogether but of trifling size, and much less than she had supposed it to be at first.
Her greedy eyes glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand.
Instead of finding a manuscript revealing deep dark secrets about the Tilney family, all she finds are ordinary household accounts, receipts, and bills.
Another pointless flight of fancy
Now, her great anxiety now is to conceal her folly from Henry Tilney’s satirical observation, and for some time she succeeds; but her lively imagination leads her into another hallucination, from which she does not escape so easily.
She gathers from Miss Tilney that her mother had not been so fully valued by the General as she might have been, and thereupon jumps to three conclusions, first, that he had been unkind to his wife in her lifetime, secondly, that he had been in some way instrumental in causing her death, and, finally, as her fancy continues to run riot, that perhaps Mrs. Tilney was not really dead at all, but kept somewhere in close confinement by a cruel and tyrannical husband.
The successive stages by which this crowning point of absurd delusion is reached are very well worked out, and they culminate in intense anxiety on Catherine’s part to see Mrs. Tilney’s room, which, she hears, has been left exactly as it was at her death, and from which she thinks she may discover something; she scarcely knows what.
Miss Tilney is puzzled by her extreme desire to visit the room but is very willing to show it to her. The inopportune presence of the General, however, more than once prevents them; and Catherine, convinced that his interference is not accidental, determines to visit the important room by herself, and see what revelations it will make to her.
It was done; and Catherine found herself alone in the gallery before the clocks had ceased to strike. It was no time for thought; she hurried on, slipped with the least possible noise through the folding doors, and, without stopping to look or breathe, rushed forward to the one in question.
The lock yielded to her hand, and luckily with no sullen sound that could alarm a human being. On tiptoe she entered; the room was before her; but it was some minutes before she could advance another step.
She beheld what fixed her to the spot, and agitated every feature. She saw a large well-proportioned apartment, a handsome dimity bed, unoccupied, arranged with a housemaid’s care, a bright Bath stove, mahogany wardrobes, and neatly painted chairs, on which the warm beams of a western sun gaily poured through two sash-windows. Catherine had expected to have her feelings worked, and worked they were. Astonishment and doubt first seized them, and a shortly succeeding ray of common sense added some bitter emotions of shame …
Thereupon Henry Tilney presents himself, having returned a day before he is expected, and is much amazed at finding Catherine there by herself. She is unable wholly to conceal from him what her delusions had been, and she gets from him, in consequence, a half lover-like, half brotherly lecture, which makes her thoroughly ashamed of herself, and as she really is a nice girl, does her a world of good.
Now that her mind is cleared of all its strange delusions, she has time and opportunity to consider their origin, and her conclusions, are given us with some delightful touches.
Imaginary troubles end, real ones begin
Catherine’s imaginary troubles are at an end, but there are some very real ones in store for her. Her brother’s engagement with Isabella Thorpe is broken off through Isabella’s hoping to secure a better match for herself; and Catherine, who receives the news in a letter from James, feels his sorrow as if it were her own.
The affectionate sympathy of Henry and Eleanor has just restored her to some comfort, when a far greater blow falls. The young Tilneys have never been able to understand their father’s marked partiality for Catherine, being quite unaware that when in Bath he had received from John Thorpe a glowing account of her parents’ position and her future expectations.
Thorpe had at that time intended to marry her himself, and, as his sister was also on the eve of an engagement to her brother, his vanity had led him into telling the General a series of untruths, all tending to the glorification of the Morland family.
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The Masterpiece adaptation of Northanger Abbey
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General Tilney’s interventions
While Catherine is at Northanger Abbey, General Tilney goes to London for a week, and there again encounters Thorpe, who being by this time greatly angered at the failure of all the projected marriages between his family and the Morlands, not only retracts all he had before said in their favor, but casts imputations upon them and represents them as not only poor but far from respectable.
The General is a man of ungovernable temper, and his rage at the mistake he has been led into is past all control. He returns instantly to Northanger Abbey, and forces Catherine out of the house alone, at a few hours’ notice, under the obviously flimsy pretext of an engagement for himself and his daughter.
He gives no explanation, even to Eleanor, of his motives; her grief and shame at the whole transaction are great, but she is powerless, and Henry is away. Catherine leaves Northanger Abbey under the full conviction that she shall never see it or any of its inmates again, and her wretchedness may be imagined.
The marriage plot concludes
She is not, however, left long uncomforted, for Henry, on learning what has happened, follows her as soon as possible, and makes her an offer of his heart and hand, which are, of course, accepted.
His conduct is in direct defiance of his father’s last directions; but he is independent as regards income; confident of obtaining the General’s consent when his rage has cooled down and he is able to understand the real position of the Morlands, which is far from despicable.
These explanations take place in about a year’s time; and the story winds up with the happy marriages of both Henry and Eleanor Tilney; Catherine being, as may be supposed, at the seventh heaven of felicity.
A critique of Northanger Abbey and its uninteresting heroine
I think that Catherine Morland, though in many respects attractive, is the most uninteresting of Jane Austen’s heroines, and betrays the writer’s youth. Emma Woodhouse (of Emma) Fanny Price (of Mansfield Park), and Elizabeth Bennet (of Pride and Prejudice) are all women we should like to have known. For Anne Elliot (of Persuasion), what words of praise are high enough?
But Catherine Morland is an obvious copy of Evelina: a good-hearted, simple-minded little goose, who will never develop into much.
She is distinctly inferior to Eleanor Tilney, and it is impossible not to have a lurking suspicion that Henry, after trying—as he would do for some years—to form his wife’s mind, will discover, like David Copperfield, that it is already formed, and that his life at Woodston Parsonage may someday be just a little dull.
Perhaps Jane Austen felt this herself, for she closes the story with a playful account of their marriage, and makes no attempt to picture their future life together.
It is the only one of her stories in which the heroine is decidedly inferior to the hero, and that was so often the case with the standard novels of her day that it is impossible not to see in this the unconscious plagiarism of a young author, and to feel that Northanger Abbey, in plan and construction if not in all its details, must have been one of her earliest attempts at novel writing.
More about Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Listen on Librivox
- The Six Brilliant Novels of Jane Austen (plus Sanditon)