An Unexpected Heroine: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland in the PBS production of Northanger Abbey

Catherine Morland in the PBS production of Northanger Abbey

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her to be born a heroine.” So beings Jane Austen’s first written–but last published–novel, Northanger Abbey. Written in 1788-1789, slightly revised in 1802, and finally published in 1818, Catherine Morland is an ordinary, tomboyish girl, in contrast to Austen’s other characters, who are usually “gentlemen’s daughters”, as Elizabeth says in Pride and Prejudice. 

Northanger Abbey is a mishmash of things: a Gothic burlesque–Gothic romances, like Anne Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho (which you can still read, by the way), were very popular at this time, and Austen “sent in up” in Northanger Abbey–but it also has other questions and themes. Catherine’s imagination clearly runs way with her–the expectations she has from the gothic romances she has read have colored her perception of reality to an insupportable degree. But it’s also a novel of the difficulty of growing up (which is something Marianne Dashwood also faces in Sense and Sensibility).

In today’s Dominicana post, “The Way of Shame: Moral Education in Northanger Abbey”:

Northanger Abbey is quite often the most difficult book for the Austen reader to enjoy, as it appears to lack the gravitas that underlies her other novels. Apart from a satirical reflection on the value of the Gothic genre, the novel seems to lack consideration of any serious issue. The language of the novel is replete with playful banter, pointing to the author’s youthful age when she penned the work, and the heroine is extremely naïve. Finally, there is the seeming mismatch of hero and heroine; Catherine Morland is a young and rather silly girl whose only purported source of attraction for the more mature Henry Tilney was “a persuasion of her partiality for him,” suggesting a certain shallowness in the hero. Given such a match, how could the narration of their history be gratifying for the demanding expectations of the avid Jane Austen reader?

Well of course it lacks the gravitas–it was written by Jane when she was a teenager! It has a rather complicated history of revising, but even with the revisions, it is, at its heart, a novel that parodies the gothic romance. Catherine is a silly girl, on purpose. She’s not quite seventeen when the novel opens. She is the oldest of ten children, born to a clergyman–a situation much like Austen’s own–and she is, in most respects, simply young. She has little experience of the world outside her family, which a trip to Bath quickly remedies. An avid Austen reader–who, let’s face it, are probably mostly women–can relate to Catherine, because a lot of us were probably that way when we were seventeen. We were a bit silly, a bit romantic, a bit tomboyish. The “playful banter” is a Jane Austen trademark, not a pointer to the author’s youth when she penned the work.

The article then states:

In light of the theme of virtue and the stark contrast that Northanger Abbey presents with regard to her other novels, I suspect that the key to getting over many of these concerns lies in a careful consideration of the importance Austen gives to moral education as a source for plot development.

I don’t know if I would say the moral education is the key. Obviously, Jane focuses on the morality of her characters. It’s expressed many times in all her novels. In all of her novels there is a general theme of maturity, of growing up, as a whole. The heroines tend to grow in virtue, yes, while those without it tend to be what they always were, even as they grow older (see Lydia Bennet for a good example of this).

I’m not really disagreeing with the author about Jane’s use of virtue and moral education. I am somewhat disagreeing with the idea that it’s quite as overtly a moral message as the author is implying. While she was the daughter of a clergyman (and the sister of several),one of the things that makes Austen different from other novelists of her time, and makes her still readable today, is that she doesn’t hit her reader over the head with the 2×4 labeled “virtuous women”. Yes, she writes heroines that grow in mortality and maturity; yes, the themes of virtue and vice are seen in her works. But they are imbedded in the novel with skill and art.

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2 thoughts on “An Unexpected Heroine: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

  1. Pingback: Seven Quick Takes No. 45 | Living Adventurously

  2. Pingback: The Great Jane Re-Read: Northanger Abbey | Living Adventurously

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