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As in Jane Austen’s other novels her heroes are caring and thoughtful and her villains are selfish and deceitful.
Northanger Abbey tells the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman who goes to Bath one summer. Through a series of events she is believed to be an heiress and subsequently a wealthy man named General Tilney invites her to live at Northanger Abbey as part of his plan to see his son Henry, whom Catherine has befriended and developed an attraction to, marry someone wealthy. During her time at Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s vivid imagination gets the better of her and the General evicts her and she is forced to return home to her quiet, boring country life at her family’s home. Distraught, Catherine wonders if her life will ever change for the better.
Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey and her life takes her from her quiet, unassuming village life to a visit to the city of Bath one summer where she is exposed to society and also to the power of love. Here is an example of how the narrator describes Catherine at the very beginning of the novel: “Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.” Catherine falls in love with Henry Tilney, whose father is the villain of the novel. Catherine is notable for being a keen reader, notably of Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic novels.
Through her experiences in Bath, Catherine learns how people can manipulate each other. Like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Catherine comes to know her own mind and behaviour more clearly and she is eventually able to distinguish between fantasy and reality having made a number of misjudgements about people she has encountered in her adventures away from the narrow confines of home.
Henry Tilney is the novel’s romantic hero. He meets Catherine early on and their mutual attraction develops throughout the book. Henry can sometimes be a little negative about women but he is mostly an energetic and good-natured character. Here is how the narrator describes Henry Tilney when he is introduced to Catherine and the reader: “He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it…He talked with fluency and spirit… ” The most heroic act that Henry performs is to defy his father for the sake of true love.
General Tilney is an oppressive man who owns slaves in Antigua and this novel makes clear Jane Austen’s objection to slavery. In chapter twenty-one the narrator gives the reader a brief description of the atmosphere when the General is not in the same room as Catherine: “The evening passed without any further disturbance, and, in the occasional absence of General Tilney, with much positive cheerfulness. It was only in his presence that Catherine felt the smallest fatigue from her journey…”
Like Jane Austen’s other novels, Northanger Abbey explores the importance of conversation. Northanger Abbey shows the reader how conversations can both reveal, and conceal, the things that people want to communicate. In this novel conversations often show how people use talking to manipulate situations, in the short and longer term.
Chapter 6 of the novel begins with this very clear statement of the importance of conversation (in this case between Catherine Morland and Isabella Tilney, the sister of Henry): “The following conversation, which took place between the two friends in the pump room one morning, after an acquaintance of eight or nine days, is given as a specimen of their very warm attachment, and of the delicacy, discretion, originality of thought, and literary taste which marked the reasonableness of the that attachment.”
Another key example of the importance of conversation can be found in Catherine’s early conversations with the novel’s romantic male character, Henry Tilney. In her conversations with Henry, Catherine realizes that she must pay attention to what the meanings and intentions are of what is being talked about. People use language very cleverly to make their ideas and feelings known or to conceal them.
As in Jane Austen’s other novels Northanger Abbey offers us a narrator who we feel that the narrator is having a conversation with us, the reader. In this way, the narrator is able to comment on the characters’ strengths and weaknesses.
In chapter one, look at how the narrator talks to us about the essential characteristics of Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine: “…from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful loves.”
In chapter 4 you will find an example of how the narrator talks to the reader, on this occasion describing the way in which a first-time conversation unfolds between Catherine and Mrs Allen in Bath “Compliments on good looks now passed; and, after observing how time had slipped away since they were last together, how little they had thought of meeting in Bath…talking both together, far more ready to give than to receive information, and each hearing very little of what the other said.”
Towards the end of the novel, in chapter 30, the narrator clarifies at length various plot points and character feelings, particularly the reason why General Tilney orders Catherine to leave Northanger Abbey.
In this novel about reading and the power of literature Jane Austen includes a chapter in which Isabella and Catherine talk at length about why they enjoy reading. In chapter 14 they talk excitedly about what they have read. Catherine explains that reading history books is less interesting for her. Her comments prompt us to think: what is important about reading history ? In what ways are history books and novels the same ?
Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey is the one that most powerfully reminds the reader about how important reading is to the ways in which we see the world and understand human relationships.