A Literary Critique
During the late 18th and early 19th century, a new literary genre has been hitting the stands. Gothic fiction, later on referred to as gothic horror, has been making waves, reeling in more readers in its wake. Its exploration of horror and death, coupled with the torrential waves of romantic elements, made for an atmospheric and engaging read. Its propensity to elaborate on emotions and terror was instrumental in the growth and development of the romance genre. From gothic fiction emanated popular and influential literary masterpieces such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. However, the genre was without its fair share of critics. One of its most popular critics came in the person of a literary heavy weight, Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey charts the story of Catherine Morland. She was one of ten children of a country clergyman. She has unimpressive features and was referred to as “plain”. She was also described as a young girl who had “a thin, awkward figure, a sallow skin wihtout colour,, dark lank hair, and strong features – so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind.” There was something else that made Catherine stand out from her peers. As she was growing up, she preferred male activities over the softer and girlish activities: “she was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyment of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.”
However, when Catherine turned seventeen, her grooming towards becoming a “trainee for a heroine” commenced. On a fine day, she was invited by the Allens, their affluent neighbors. She was called in to accompany the family in their winter season excursion to the town of Bath. The Allens planned to immerse in the winter season festivities which feature an endless array of balls, theater performances, and a plethora of other social delights. During one of these social excursions, Catherine was introduced to a cleaver young gentleman, Henry Tilney.
“She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance – a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”~ Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
As Catherine slowly ascends the social ladder, she also got to gain a new friend in Isabella Thorpe, the daughter of Mrs. Allen’s old schoolfriend, Mrs. Thorpe. It’s a small world indeed for Isabella’s older brother, John, is a friend of Catherine’s older brother, James; they were both studying at Oxford. The affairs of the Tilneys, Thorpes and Morlands inevitably got entangled. The Thorpes, who was hoping Catherine would choose to get engaged to John, continuously compromise her growing fondness for and relationship with Henry.
Jane Austen has established herself as a literary heavyweight with her timeless stories like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. These works have defined a literary era. However, her venture into the literary world commenced with Northanger Abbey which many a literary historian has cited as her earliest work. Unfortunately, it was only published after Austen’s death in 1817, together with another early work titled Persuasion. Within its premises are the buds of Austen’s literary genius.
Aside from being the earliest of Austen’s works, many a literary pundit credited Northanger Abbey as one of the earliest, and most direct critique of the prevailing literary genre of the period, gothic fiction. The titular Northanger Abbey pertains to the family estate owned by the Tilneys to which Catherine was invited to stay for a week. Catherine was naturally thrilled by the surprising invitation. Imposing homes and estates are seminal elements in most works of gothic fiction. Amongst the most popular are Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Du Maurier’s Manderley.
Despite the passage of time and the evolution of literature, such imposing manses still loom large in contemporary gothic fiction. Because of her fondness for gothic fiction, with Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho being her favorite, Catherine’s imagination was brimming with all kinds of images. Influenced by all the gothic fiction she has read, she was expecting Northanger Abbey to be imposing, exotic, and even frightening. To her surprise, Northanger Abbey was pleasant, a far cry from the image she had conjured in her mind. This, however, didn’t deter Catherine’s imagination from going askew as her imaginative mind next focused on the enigmatic denizens of the house and its many equally mysterious unused rooms.
“I am fond of history and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under ones own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such.~ Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
However, to dismiss Northanger Abbey as a mere satire or parody of gothic fiction is a disservice to all its merits. The first of Austen’s works, the novel provided a blueprint to her succeeding works, which are individually considered as literary masterpieces. Within the ambit of Northanger Abbey is Austen’s critical take on the complicity prevailing in the high society, a theme that would be situated in her succeeding works. The novel’s heroine, rather naïve and unacquainted in the inner machinations of the affluent, found herself out of her breadth when she was swept into the opulent world of the Allens, Thorpes and Tilneys.
Of the elements of English society explored in the novel, Austen placed the proverbial microscope on the tedious process of partner selection. Austen underscored the indelible marks of society on this process. Disparity in wealth, for instance, was one of the primary drivers, and consequently, an obstacle, in choosing a suitable partner. Catherine deviated from the norm, distancing herlself from someone society deemed as a good match for her. Despite her relative youth, she ignored the palpable pressures of society and opted, with conviction, to choose a partner because of love and beyond the diktats of society.
One of the facets of the novel that made it standout was its exploration of the spaces that reading, and literature occupy in an individual’s life. Whilst Austen promoted reading, she also provided a cautionary tale. A line must be drawn between reality and fiction. One’s active imagination must still be anchored to reality lest it compromises our relationship with others. Learning to separate one’s life from the world of gothic fiction was a critical juncture in the development and maturation of Catherine.
Catherine is well-read, but only in so far as gothic literature is concerned. This has clouded her interpretation of the world. Her misguided view made her believe that it is akin to one of her gothic novels. Her active imagination and rash actions nearly caused her dearly, but it provided her a fabric upon which she to reflect on her actions and its dire consequences. One moment stood out in the narrative – the unveiling of Northanger Abbey. The lifting of the veil came in with the seminal realization that life is not a book and that people are not what we always thought them to be. It was a subtle but astute literary masterstroke.
The romantic element of the novel was scaled down to create a grander stage for the parody that Austen wrote. Rather than focusing on creating a compelling heroine and romance, Austen turned her attention on the paradigms of gothic fiction. This, however, did not compromise the development of the characters. Catherine, naïve and misguided, matured and gained a new wisdom as the narrative progressed. Henry was a solid and a wonderfully crafted character, a stark dichotomy to Isabella who was shallow and hypocritical. Henry’s strongly sarcastic but witty remarks was an antithesis to Isabella’s mendacious comments.
“To be disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine’s life, and her fortitude under it what particularly dignifies her character.”~ Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey set many conventions upon which Austen built her succeeding literary works. It had the staples of her work – a budding romance, a slightly naïve heroine, and the ubiquitous and prying eyes of society. However, the voice and tone of Northanger Abbey was, overall, bolder compared to her other works. Her critical literary lenses were sharper and more pronounced, albeit more raw and cruder. It was, to say the least, a great steppingstone to what would be a grand and popular literary career that transcended time.
Austen’s reputation often precedes her. Many a reader often discount Austen’s work, misguided by the notion that her works can be studied under two lenses, that of a romance story and of a female character study. However, her works expand beyond these prejudices, and in her first literary work, Austen’s genius was already palpable. Northanger Abbey might have been published after her death, after her more renowned works, but its influence still reverberates in the contemporary. She wrote a compelling narrative that set the tone for her other works. With keen sense, she satirized the conventions of gothic literature by writing a novel that was ironically embellished with the elements of the very same genre she was satirizing.
In satirizing the absurdities of gothic fiction, focalized through the experience of Catherine, Austen was subtly underscoring a seminal message: whilst we must live outside of fiction, we must read novels in general, and not just one particular genre. This will allow us to gain better and broader insights and perspective. Parts-satire, parts-Bildungsroman, parts-romance, Northanger Abbey is the hallmark of a literary genius.
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
Jane Austen is, easily, one of the most recognized names in the entire literary spectrum. The influences of her work went beyond her time. Her novels like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma remain relevant in the contemporary. This is despite the fact that these novels were published over two centuries ago and that she only managed to publish four works before her untimely demise in 1817; three more of her works were published posthumously. This speaks volumes about Austen’s influence. When I bought Northanger Abbey nearly five years ago, I never realized how influential, powerful, and mesmerizing it was. I guess I can say I was foolish for holding back on reading it for I can say that it was one of my most memorable reads. Wit, humor, and most of all, sarcasm permeated all throughout Catherine Morland’s story and encounters with the Tilneys, Thorpes, and Allens. Northanger Abbey, I think, is my favorite of the four Austen novels I’ve read so far. Next targets: Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Lady Susan.
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1979
Number of Pages: 248
Genre: Bildungsroman, Romantic Fiction, Satire
Northanger Abbey, generally agreed to be Jane Austen’s earliest major work, grew out of her distaste for the absurdities of the novels of her time, and in particular for the conventions of the ‘Gothic novels’ with their impossibly perfect heroines and unnatural events. At Northanger Abbey Jane Austen’s charmingly imperfect heroine, Catherine Morland, meets all the trappings of Gothic horror and imagines the worst. Fortunately she has at hand her own fundamental good sense ant the irresistible but unsentimental hero, Henry Tilney. Disaster does eventually strike in the real world as distinct from the romantic one of her imagination, but without spoiling for too long the gay, good-humoured atmosphere of this most delightful of books.
About the Author
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