I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up Northanger Abbey. Austen’s charm I was expecting, of course, but I wasn’t sure what her spoof was going be like. I began reading, and I must admit, for the first half of this very short novel I’d completely forgotten that it was supposed to be Gothic in scope. However, it is clear right from the start that Austen was working with an anti-heroine. Of course, while such heroines we find in plenty these days, I’m sure, at the time Austen wrote, beauty and various accomplishments were the standard requirements of a heroine. One only needs to read the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson to know how true this is. But, right at the start, we are introduced to a young Catherine who is an absolute ‘plain Jane’ and a tom boy to boot. She has no accomplishments whatsoever, and does not seem to be in the least interested in acquiring any. She is content with who and what she is, and later loses herself in volumes of romances that her parents wonder are perhaps not good for her.
We see the effects of all her novel-reading when she sets off with her kind neighbours, the Allens, to seek her fortune (in the heroic sense of the term though she has no such thought in her head) in the society of Bath. She meets with a couple of families there, one of which provides the hero to the story. Harry Tilney is unlike the usual romantic hero. He reads novels, finds them entertaining, loves to laugh and goof about, and has no dark or gloomy or brooding past. The Gothic-ness of the novel begins when the Tilneys invite Catherine, half way through the novel, to come over to their home for a stay. She discovers that they live in an abbey and she is simply delighted, immediately thinking of all the ghoulish adventures open to her.
At the end, with no real adventure to find her, Catherine lets all her knowledge from the books she has read to come to play on her “sensibilities”. She finds a mysterious, ‘hidden’ cabinet in her room with a roll of papers secreted away in a hidden compartment, she ‘discovers’ that the master of the house (General Tilney) is loath to open up the rooms of his dead wife to Catherine which immediately leads her to suspect that perhaps his wife is not dead at all but is a prisoner within those ancient rooms, she ‘experiences’ the tell-tale weather of all Gothic romances, and generally sends herself into near hysteria with all her imaginings. Later, of course, she is made to see the error of her ways and is quite embarrassed to find that she was carried away by all her reading.
I simply enjoyed the way Austen wrote this entire spoof. It was charming and witty, and I don’t think I’ve ever chuckled so much while reading any of her other books. Right from the beginning to the end of Northanger Abbey I was well and truly entertained. There is mention of a great many books and writers in this novel (I’ve never seen so much mention of her literary contemporaries or fore-bearers, actually, hardly any, in her other novels), and I was soon under the impression that most of the spoofing was based off Anne Radcliffe‘s books – the one that gets mentioned most often and is our heroine’s favourite is The Mysteries of Udolpho. However, I did not get the impression that Austen despised the Gothic genre. In fact, she seemed to be a fan of Mrs Radcliffe, who was just amusing herself with gently poking fun at what she admired.
Northanger Abbey, is very different from the other Austen novels I’ve read (I’ve read all except Mansfield Park and Lady Susan). Besides its aim at being a spoof, it lacks the maturity of her other novels – not just in terms of style and her wit, which becomes more subtle and thereby sharp, but also in terms of the themes she deals with in her later books (yes, Northanger Abbey was meant to have been published in 1803…eight years before Sense and Sensibility, her first published work).
There are some who claim that reading Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho would help us to better understand and appreciate Northanger Abbey. But personally, I feel, that if you’ve ready even one or two Gothic novels from any era, you are bound to understand this novel really well. While I have yet to read Mrs Radcliffe, I have read the likes of Jane Eyre, Dracula, a couple of Victoria Holt books (all of them are Gothic) and have watched a couple of versions of Rebecca; and knowing these was enough for me to understand all the Gothic elements that Austen gently mocks at in her novel.