…Why you should read Northanger Abbey

by Katherine Birchall

  By the time Jane Austen reached 23 years of age, she had accomplished many things. This includes writing some short works known as her Juvenilia, working on the first draft of ‘Elinor and Marianne’, that was later to become Sense and Sensibility, and the first draft of ‘First Impressions’ that was later to become Pride and Prejudice, and she also managed to complete her novel ‘Susan’ that was to be published after her death as Northanger Abbey.

 At the age of 23, I am proud of myself if I manage to get through the day without walking into something.

 Yes, Jane Austen was really rather remarkable. And don’t even try to pretend that you’re not interested in her, that you believe her to be the creator of just some “girly rubbish” that is only concerned with how to wear a bonnet right and the importance of a dance partner. Someone who has created so much fuss must be more than that, it’s just logical, so don’t you go brushing her aside.

 Jane Austen was cool. And I am here to prove it. And I might as well start with her earliest completed novel, the wonderful and wonderfully relevant Northanger Abbey.

 You might be interested to know that Jane Austen was actually a little bit of a rebel in her day. She didn’t exactly go around smoking cigarettes, downing shots of port whilst wearing a t-shirt that said “Make Love, Not War”, looking at all the toffs gasping in horror and turning to them to say “and what?” But she did have a knack for taking the mick out of people who simply needed to hear it. Her novels are filled with characters not unlike many she would have come across herself and the narration delights in making them a laughing stock.

 Jane was an absolute laugh, she enjoyed a bit of banter, and even when she became unhappy she managed to discover her sense of humour. As she grew older she would have begun to acknowledge the fact that she would not be married, despite being close to matrimony a couple of times, and in her day that, unfortunately, was rather a curse. Left to be pitied and, usually, without much financial support, single older women did not have a fun time of it.

 Jane, however, saw the light at the end of the tunnel. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane noted that there were several advantages to her situation that few took notice of. She was usually placed comfortably near the fire, she mentions happily, and ‘can drink as much wine as I like’. What a legend.

 Now that she has gone up a few notches in your respect (don’t act like she hasn’t after reading that wine comment) I would also like to put forward the fact that her novels are as relevant now as they were back in the day, because Jane Austen isn’t just about lace and marriage proposals. She is one feisty little lady and none of her novels show her opinionated side like Northanger Abbey. Centred around a young woman from a lower class, the novel follows naive Catherine Morland on a journey to Bath to mingle with good society and soon she finds herself invited to the daunting Northanger Abbey, an estate of mystery, intrigue and, Catherine gradually begins to believe, possibly even murder.

Catherine Morland as Jane Austen

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in the television adaptation of Northanger Abbey

 The novel begins: ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.’ Immediately, Jane launches into a mocking of the conventional literary heroines of her age. The first paragraph explains Catherine’s ‘awkward figure’, her plain looks and her preference for ‘cricket’ over ‘nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush’. This heroine, Jane is saying, is certainly not the perfect accomplished lady that women in the eighteenth century were expected to be. And that is why to Jane she is the perfect heroine.

 Relevant much? Just a bit. Why is it so you reckon that in today’s culture, characters like Bridget Jones, Betty Suarez from Ugly Betty, clumsy Bella in the Twilight novels, and unusual Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, have become iconic heroines to a mass audience? Because they aren’t perfect at all, they are, we begin to feel, just like us. That is why we love them because suddenly it seems that you don’t need to be perfect to be a hero or a heroine. This doesn’t just appeal to women, by the way. Mr.Darcy is as flawed as his leading lady, Colonel Brandon is, let’s face it, kind of boring, Captain Wentworth flirts with other women in front of the love of his life (such an error Wentworth, sort it out), Mr Knightley nags like there’s no tomorrow, and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey is so arrogant that the only reason he is attracted to Catherine in the first place is simply because she’s infatuated with him. And he’s like, well yeah, she clearly has good taste. Chill out Henry, your chat isn’t that great.

 This is a running theme in Austen’s work, largely notable in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Collins is desperate to read aloud to the Bennett girls from Fordyce’s conduct manual, Sermons to Young Women. Published in 1766, this would have been a book present in several households during the eighteenth century and do you know what this Fordyce man had to say about the desirable conduct of women? They shouldn’t be witty and they must only be meek and beautiful. Jane must have laughed her bonnet off her head when she read that one. In fact, Jane may have found all the fuss about female appearance pretty tedious as in a letter she remarks that ‘my hair was at least tidy which was all my ambition’.

 Perhaps something that might have angered Jane more than that within these sermons, and one of the most prominent themes running through Northanger Abbey, is a comment on the form of the novel. Novels, Fordyce exclaims with passion, are completely unfit for a lady and they certainly contain no instruction. Interestingly, when Jane started writing, novels weren’t particularly popular and were generally looked down on as a load of old tosh. Poetry was considered the respectable form and the novel was considered by major critics and upper-classes to be cheap entertainment.

 As you can guess, Jane Austen did not agree. And she wasn’t about to sit around curling her hair, complaining about the weather and sighing about young eligible men when there was a lot to be said to the world. Her imperfect heroine also had an imperfect hobby: Catherine is a huge fan of reading novels. She is embarrassed to admit as much to Henry Tilney, the object of her affections, expecting him to get all grumpy about it and potentially launch into quotations from that numpty Fordyce. Instead he feels differently: ‘“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid”’. Good man, Tilney, good man.

 Northanger Abbey is Jane’s way of sticking two fingers up to all those upper-class snobs who went around spouting Coleridge all day and saying things like “read a novel? My dear Sir, I’d rather dance with someone who owns less than 300 acres of land. HAHA like that would ever happen! Let’s go shoot some peasants and then take tea”. Jane states her view quite clearly about Catherine’s joy in reading:

 ‘Yes, novels; – for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.


[A novel is] 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.’

 In your face, Mr I’m-a-bit-of-a-twat-Fordyce. Austen’s opinionated narration is a break from the plotline and a direct message to the readers. She takes no chances in letting her audience miss her stance on the issue, an issue that is extremely significant to her: a young, astoundingly intelligent, witty woman, encouraged to read by her father and very talented at writing herself.

 Jane’s writing is always class conscious. In her society, it would have been difficult not to be. How interesting, then, that in Northanger Abbey there is a reference to riots. When Catherine talks of ‘“something very shocking”’ that will be coming out in London in reference to a forthcoming novel publication, the sister of Henry Tilney, Eleanor, misunderstands and believes she is referring to riots, of which in the 1790s there was a great fear. Why were people nervous about the outbreak of rioting? Because of the high cost of wheat and a grain shortage. While the upper classes, represented in the novel by the repellent General Tilney, help themselves to daily feasts, the lower classes were struggling to feed their growing families. Lower classes began to resent the upper classes, and one way to put their case forward, to gain attention, was to riot.

 With the riots we ourselves faced last year, Jane Austen’s novel suddenly becomes as relevant as ever. We must, Austen encouraged through the voice of her pen, the only voice as a woman that she had, take note or we will suffer.

 But enough about politics! For what is the most attractive angle to Northanger Abbey, as well as Austen’s consistently brilliant writing style, is surely the fabulous characters she creates. Isabella Thorpe is horrifically two-faced, completely fake and yet surprisingly entertaining. You almost feel that you can’t blame Catherine for being so taken in by her. Yet towards the end of the novel, you certainly want to punch her in the face. Completely infatuated with snaring a rich husband, as many in her position would have been in order to secure financial stability for their future, Isabella is as subtle as a Go Compare advert. One particularly lovely moment in the novel is when she complains in anguish about the two men she believes to be staring at her. When Catherine comforts her in the announcement that the two men have left, Isabella immediately enquires as to their direction of leave: ‘“One was a very good-looking man”’. Exclaiming her absolute pleasure in finding them gone, Isabella immediately sets off ‘in pursuit of the two young men’. We’ve all been there.

 And what of General Tilney, Henry’s charming, mysterious father. Oh yes, he is just that to Catherine for the majority of the novel. Charming her at every turn, complimenting her and treating her like a princess, General Tilney is seemingly approving of his son’s fondness for this particular young lady. That is until he discovers she is not the woman of high class he thought her to be, but the daughter of a clergyman and one of ten children! Alas! The evil side to him comes out soon enough and then, shockingly, he goes and…oh, well that would be telling. You can find out his evil actions when you read the book.

If I thought that your attention span could take it, I might further ramble on about Northanger Abbey and all the reasons why you should read it but I fear that I have pressed on your patience long enough. So one evening, when you feel up to it, grab a copy, settle down comfortably by the fire, give it a read and drink as much wine as you would like. Jane would have wanted you to.