“It Is Only a Novel!”

Reading “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen.

Although Northanger Abbey was published posthumously, it was the first novel completed by Jane Austen. It was sold to a publisher who, for unknown reasons, never published the work, requiring her to buy it back when she had enough money to do so. It isn’t just the publisher who was uncertain about the book, many readers also seem to overlook it, with her other works such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma dominating in popularity. As I’m re-reading it though, it’s hard not to wonder…


Perhaps it is because the work is a satire of gothic novels, which were popular at the time but of which modern readers are largely unaware. While some of the humor may be lost on me, having never read The Mysteries of Udulpho (frequently referenced within the work), I found the narrator helpful in filling in the gaps by explaining what might be expected by fans of the genre, but at each step breaking expectations with normal middle-class life experience. From the very beginning she states, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Moreland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” and then she proceeds to tell us why: “Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor and a very respectable man… Her mother… instead of dying in bringing [Catherine] into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on – lived to have six children more – to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself.” – and of course Catherine is finally not expected as a heroine because she is not beautiful and starts out a tomboy, preferring cricket “not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of… watering a rose-bush”.

While the subject matter may be lacking in familiarity, the characters are not. There is, of course, the familiar Austen wit and humor as she develops them, but there is also something familiar to us in them, for despite the passage of some 220 years, we know these people. For example, I found the following scenario particularly humorous, having experienced the same situation myself: “Mrs Allen immediately recognized the features of a former school-fellow and intimate, whom she had seen only once since their respective marriages, and that many years ago. Their joy on this meeting was very great, as well it might since they had been contented to know nothing of each other for the last fifteen years.” Of course, one critique could be that many of the characters are more caricatures than real, but one must remember that it is a satire.

In the first part of the book, we follow our “heroine”, Catherine Moreland, on her first trip out of the country and away from home – to Bath. Here she experiences the normal ups and downs of trying to correctly navigate society and makes some new acquaintances; Henry Tilney, her first love, and his sister Eleanor; Isabella Thorpe, her first confidante, and her brother John (who is the friend and schoolmate of Catherine’s own brother, James). The reader quickly realizes that Isabella is vain and duplicitous but Catherine takes longer to understand this as she views her not only as a friend but as a future sister (James visits them in Bath and proposes to Isabella). In the second part of the book, Catherine visits the Tilney’s at their home, Northanger Abbey where she is at first preoccupied with flights of fancy related to gothic novels she has been reading in Bath. She is really quite carried away by her imagination until Henry snaps her out of it by providing a heavy dose of reality.

It is very much a coming of age story and in some ways, the gothic novel as presented in Northanger Abbey becomes a metaphor for Catherine learning how to read people. Catherine allows herself to be swept up in gothic novels in the same way the she is initially swept up by professions of friendship from Isabella. Both are exaggerated versions of what is real and true and through her encounters with both she gains the discernment necessary to be a better judge, both of character and propriety, allowing her to make her own choices, rather than relying on others to make them for her.

In conclusion, I will just add that, while Jane Austen does poke fun at gothic novels, she also emphasize the necessity of novelists sticking together, pointing out how they undermine themselves when they suggest that their heroines would not wish to be caught reading a novel. “‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.” To which Jane Austen retorts, “It is 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 livelist effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

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