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Northanger Abbey | Context

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Publishing History

Northanger Abbey was initially written from 1797 to 1798. It was sold in 1803 as Susan. Although it was advertised, it never went on sale. In 1809 Jane Austen wrote and asked about the delay, signing the letter Mrs. Ashton Dennis (or MAD). The publisher offered to sell it back to her at the price he had paid her, to which she agreed in 1815. She renamed it Catherine and prepared to publish it, but in March 1817 she sent a letter to her niece saying she had set it aside.

Only two months later Jane Austen died. The book was published by her brother, Henry Austen, in December 1817 (the title page says 1818, however) as part of a four-volume set along with Persuasion, which Jane Austen had entitled The Elliots.

Bath

Bath, England, was, after London, the center of high society. It was already a popular resort area when medieval Roman bathhouses were discovered there in the 1700s, but its popularity increased afterward. The pump-room, which is central to the daily life in Northanger Abbey, was a place where one could not only go to drink the mineral waters but also to see and be seen.

The character of Catherine Morland's presence in Bath, especially accompanied by the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Allen, leads to the mistaken notion that she is a young woman of means, possibly the goddaughter of the childless couple who have brought her with them. That she attracts the attention of the wealthy Thorpe family and General Tilney is not surprising in this context. A not insignificant part of society was involved in making a "good match." Being in the second city where society would gather, dressed fashionably by Mrs. Allen, and in the company of a wealthy couple would mark her as marriageable.

Novel of Manners

The novel of manners is a realistic genre in which the concern with rules, society, and convention is a driving force. The first half of Northanger Abbey reflects the convention of a novel of manners: A heroine is under the care of a wealthy childless couple. With their support, she is provided fashionable clothing and taken to Bath, the second city for the members of society at that time to pursue their leisure. With them she attends the pump-room, dances, the theater, and shops.

The humorous misunderstandings that complicate the relationships in Northanger Abbey stem from the unspoken rules of society. Catherine rebuffs Henry's first invitation to dance because her dances are promised to John. Henry and Eleanor are rebuffed when Catherine is not home, although they had made plans with her. Catherine is rebuffed at their door when, after first being told Eleanor is at home, the servant returns and lies that, in fact, she is not.

Further difficulties in Catherine's friendship with Isabella stem from Catherine's naïveté, which is contrasted with Isabella's ongoing deceit and manipulation. Isabella, who grasps Catherine as a friend instantly, assumes Catherine is wealthy and values her more highly because of it. But Catherine's unfamiliarity with society leaves her unsure of the right choices—and subject to Isabella's deceit, despite the latter's increasing transparency.

Satirizing the Gothic Novel

The latter half of Northanger Abbey follows the conventions of the Gothic novel for the purpose of satire or humor. The Gothic novel is believed to have begun with English writer Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). Common traits of the Gothic novel include:

  • settings such as cloudy skies at night, a full moon, graveyards, castles, abbeys, ruins, secret passageways, or hidden doors;
  • sounds in the night—owls, screams, laughter, or footsteps;
  • characters such as an innocent heroine, a rescuing hero, a villain with a dark secret, and a kidnapper;
  • mood of apprehension, fear, terror, horror, suspense, or mystery;
  • a sense of coming disaster; and
  • supernatural elements.

Gothic novels were, by and large, written and read by women. They were not considered to be serious literature, in part due to both their formulaic and sensational nature. As a female author, Austen triumphs over such criticism by at once mastering the genre and satirizing it.

In Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine Morland, is anything but the traditional heroine of a Gothic novel. Rather than being intelligent, rich, beautiful, or tragic, Catherine is naive and silly. As an avid fan of Gothic fiction, she repeatedly relies on such fiction as a template for interpreting her experiences, often to mistakenly comic effect. When Catherine travels to the Tilney estate of Northanger Abbey, she anticipates a setting that matches her Gothic reading—an abbey, filled with secrets. Henry Tilney encourages this fantasy by telling her a Gothic novel–style story set in Northanger Abbey. However, the secrets found in the locked cupboard in Catherine's room turn out to be nothing but old receipts, and General Tilney's dark secret is not that he's a murderer but that he thinks Catherine is an heiress.

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