Book review: ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

To properly appreciate “Northanger Abbey,” you must realize that the gothic novel (atmosphere of mystery and horror) was being widely read at the time Austen wrote the novel. It is commonly accepted that it was written as satire to that format.

Catherine Morland, 17, had a rare opportunity. Her neighbors, the Allens, were going to Bath on holiday. They invited her to accompany them for the six weeks. Bath, known for its Roman baths, was the gathering place for the who’s who in society. Mrs. Allen particularly like to dress for the social occasions, and they were a great opportunity for Catherine. This was especially true after Mrs. Allen met her old friend Mrs. Thorpe. A great friendship developed between Catherine and Isabelle Thorpe. The closeness was redoubled when Catherine’s brother, James, began a relationship with Isabelle.

As Isabelle’s time was often otherwise occupied, Catherine struck up a friendship with the Tillneys, Eleanor and Henry. The friendship became so close that Miss Tilney invited Catherine to Northanger Abbey for a few weeks’ stay. By now, Catherine thought she discovered that Henry might have similar feelings for her that she harbored for him.

And then the gothic satire appears. Abbeys as they appear in gothic novels are mysterious places. There are usually unexplained things happening there. It didn’t take much of a stretch, in the dark of night, to create a scenario in Catherine’s mind. After all, what had happened to General Tilney’s wife, the mother of Elenore and Henry? Did it have anything to do with the part of the abbey that the general refused to take them through?

Much to her embarrassment, Catherine discovered that she had been dealing with a mystery of her own making. “… (I)t seemed as if the whole might be traced to the influence of that sort of reading in which she had indulged.”

Even so, that’s not to say that the general did not have a dark side, perhaps just not the one she was imagining. 

The novel continues to a logical conclusion. “Northanger Abbey” is a study of English society at the time. The reader will have to judge whether it merits being called a classic.

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