Northanger Abbey was my O level set text and my introduction to Jane Austen. I was hooked. I read the other five novels over the next couple of years including Persuasion which was part of the Bishop Otter College English course – much better than anything to do with teacher training which was what I was meant to be there for. Then, 20 years later, I studied Mansfield Park in some depth on my Open University degree course.
Northanger Abbey is different from the others because, as our rather pedestrian O level teacher who kept coyly referring to “Janeites” told us, it’s really a joke against the gothic novels which were very popular with young females at the time. With that in mind, Miss Vincent kept boring the pants off us by reading large chunks of Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), I think, with hindsight she was time-filling because she only had three texts to teach over a two year course. A more enlightened teacher might have spent the first year widening our literary horizons with, say, Keats, George Eliot, Larkin and the Brontes. But I digress.
Catherine Morland is a naïve 17 year old clergyman’s daughter who is taken to Bath for the social life by her flighty friend Isabella’s mother, Mrs Thorpe. Of course it’s all about meeting the right sort of chap in the Pump Rooms and Catherine soon encounters, and is very taken with, one Henry Tilney – definitely Mr Right. Miss Vincent kept telling us how very attractive he is which made us 15 year olds sneer pityingly behind her back.
The plot is complicated – with a lot of flirtation and nastiness along the way. Mrs Thorpe is one of Austen’s spitefully but accurately drawn, dim but dangerous social climbers. Cf Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park. In time Henry invites Catherine to stay at his family home, Northanger Abbey, where she meets his delightful sister Eleanor who is a much better friend to Catherine than Isabella. Other memorable characters include Isabella’s ghastly brother John and the tyrannical General Tilney who mistakes Catherine for an heiress and sends her away when he realises the truth.
The best bit in the whole novel is Catherine’s first night at the Abbey. She is very excited to be visiting a place which, obsessed with her favourite reading, she imagines to be full of gothic romance. In her room is a “mysterious” chest which surely must contain a vital letter or other document relating to something sinister or macabre? Austen wittily builds the tension up and up until Catherine opens the chest and finds – to her horrified delight – a piece of paper. It turns out to be a laundry list.
Of course it all works out in the end. Henry is a better man than his father and …. well, I won’t spoil the ending for you if you’re new to this novel. Suffice it to say that every Austen novel ends with wedding bells.
Although Northanger Abbey has never been as popular as some of the other Austen novels there have inevitably been dramatisations which fail to do it justice. The 1987 BBC version, for instance, starring Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine and Peter Firth as Henry lost all sense of Regency England although Robert Hardy was memorable as General Tilney. Then there was a film in 2007 with Felicity Jones as Catherine and JJ Feild as Henry. Good as Carey Mulligan was as Isabella I didn’t care for it much.
I read Northanger Abbey four or five times when I needed to know every detail for O Level. Returning to it 20 years later I was surprised how well I still knew it. And re-reading it now feels like visiting an old friend. Familiarity, however, does not blur the spiky wit and observation. This is Austen, after all, and I appreciate her more with every passing year.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Border Zone by John Agard