Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I feel embarrassed admitting that I still haven’t read all of Jane Austen’s books, knowing how popular she is both with book bloggers and the world in general. The reason for that is because although I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice I was less impressed with Mansfield Park and Emma. I didn’t dislike them but I didn’t love them, so I haven’t been in any hurry to read the rest of her books.

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old girl who is obsessed with reading gothic novels. On a visit to Bath with some friends of the Morland family, Mr and Mrs Allen, Catherine gets to know Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. The Tilneys invite Catherine to stay at their family home and she is thrilled to discover they live in an abbey! But when on her first night at Northanger Abbey, in the middle of a thunderstorm, she finds a mysterious cabinet in her bedroom, Catherine’s imagination starts to run away with her…

This seems to be a book of two distinct halves. The first half, set in Bath, follows Catherine as she begins to fall in love with Henry Tilney and tries to escape the unwelcome attentions of her brother’s obnoxious friend, John Thorpe. She also meets John’s shallow, self-absorbed sister Isabella, who quickly becomes her ‘best friend’. In the second half, after Catherine accompanies the Tilneys to Northanger Abbey, the book becomes a parody of the gothic novel for a while before everything starts to tie together at the end. I’ve read a lot of gothic novels (including Catherine’s favourite Ann Radcliffe book, The Mysteries of Udolpho) and I think this probably helped me understand the humour, although all you really need is a basic knowledge of what a gothic novel involves (crumbling castles, dark passageways, sinister secrets, a gloomy atmosphere, melodrama etc). I imagine a lot of people are inspired to pick up a gothic novel for the first time after reading this book, rather than the other way round though!

Northanger Abbey could also be described as a coming of age novel. At the start of the book Catherine is very naïve and innocent, with romantic notions and an over-active imagination. As the story continues she begins to discover that there are some big differences between the world she lives in and the world of Ann Radcliffe’s novels. She also learns to be a better judge of character and to understand other people’s motives. Catherine is not a particularly strong character but she’s amusing and likeable, and so is Henry Tilney.

I found this a lot easier to read than the other Austen books I’ve read. The writing feels very bright and lively. This is the first Jane Austen book that I’ve really found funny and been able to understand why her wit and irony are so highly regarded. I know a lot of people don’t like it when an author ‘intrudes’ into the story and speaks directly to the reader, but it’s not actually something that bothers me at all. Austen does quite a lot of it in this book, particularly in chapter 5 when she defends novel-reading:

There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

I think I can see why this is considered one of Austen’s less popular books, because although it was a fun, entertaining and relatively quick and easy read, it did somehow feel less satisfying than the other books of hers that I’ve read. The ending seemed slightly rushed and some of the characters not as well developed as they could have been. But those are only minor criticisms because overall I loved this book. I still have two more Jane Austen books left to read and as I enjoyed this one so much, I’m now looking forward to reading the other two!

21 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

  1. Amanda says:

    This is the only one of the 6 major Austen novels that I haven’t read, though I will probably give it a chance next year. I read Pride & Prejudice fourth, and I admit, it’s the only one that really captivated me. The rest were more like Emma and Mansfield in prose and content for me. People seem to love Persuasion, but I thought the main hero was a complete cad (to put it nicely) so that’s one of my least favorite. For some reason, though, I really think I’d like Northanger Abbey if I just read it at the right time.

  2. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Northanger Abbey is always a fun, light read and I am always particularly delighted by the beginning. The pairing of Catherine and Mr. Tilney has always bothered me – such an intellectually unequal match! – but Austen’s defense of the novel in Chapter Five absolutely makes up for that. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?

    Still, it’s hardly on par with the best of Austen’s novels (to my way of thinking, Emma and Persuasion).

    • Helen says:

      I was in the mood for something fun and light, so this turned out to be the perfect choice! I liked both Catherine and Mr Tilney but I agree that they were an unusual pairing.

  3. Iris says:

    I really enjoy reading Northanger Abbey, precisely because her wit and observations on society are more explicit in the text, I think.

    I understand you haven’t read Persuasion yet? Please do! It is my favourite Austen and I’m curious what you’ll think of it..

  4. christina says:

    I haven’t read this Austen book yet. In fact, I’ve only read two of her books P&P and Emma. I do plan on reading all of them, of course. I just find that I can’t read one right after the other. (That rarely works for me with any author).

    Also, Emma has thus far been my favorite.

    • Helen says:

      It doesn’t usually work for me either – I prefer to spread them out over a few months or even years. I will read the remaining two Austen books that I haven’t read yet, but not right away.

  5. Anbolyn says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Northanger Abbey and think it is such an enjoyable read. You haven’t read Sense & Sensibility yet? You’re in for a treat – it is my favorite Austen.

  6. Kim says:

    As I stumbled upon your review, I definitely leaned over to check if I have copy. Good thing I do because I, like you, haven’t gone through all of Austen’s novels. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. This definitely encourages me to put Northanger Abbey up a couple of spots on my ‘to-read’ list.

  7. Karenlibrarian says:

    So, you still haven’t read Sense & Sensibility or Persuasion? They’re two of my favorites — better than Emma and Mansfield Park in my humble opinion. Of course the least of Jane Austen is still wonderful. I hope to read your review of Persuasion soon, it’s my favorite Austen (tied with P&P).

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear that they’re two of your favourites, Karen! I think I’m probably going to make Persuasion my next Austen, followed by Sense & Sensibility.

  8. Romantic Books says:

    This is one book that I have been meaning to read and have been hearing such wonderful things about it. Your review is great! It really gave me a good overview of the book and what to expect. I have to say that I am really looking forward to reading it now! Thanks for your review!

  9. Chloe says:

    Every Austen fan should read Persuasion- it’s fantastic! And perfect for first time readers of classic literature as it doesn’t drag. Sir Walter Elliot is a laugh.
    Northanger Abby was one of my least favourite.

Please leave a comment. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.