Though published posthumously in 1817, Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen’s six novels, and, according to the advertisement accompanying the publication, was “finished” in 1803. It was in 1803 that publishers Benjamin Crosby & co had bought the rights to this novel, but they subsequently decided not to publish it. Austen had bought back the rights, but, despite the publication of her subsequent works, had not, for whatever reason, sought again the publication of this one. And it remains a matter of some controversy amongst scholars to what extent, if at all, the text that had been published in 1817 was the same as that “finished” in 1803. . Brian Southam, for one, believes that Austen had revised and re-written the text substantially since 1803, but he appears to be in a minority on this. It is impossible to be at all sure on this point, as there is little to go by except internal evidence of the text itself.
Compared to her later novels, the scope here is certainly modest; but the writing is very assured, and of great sophistication. Neither tells us much: there have been writers at the peak of their powers who have written works modest in scale; and novels as assured and as sophisticated as Buddenbrooks or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter have been written by their respective authors when only in their mid-twenties. Neither is there much that can be read from there being in the novel two distinct strands, which, though adroitly spliced together, do appear to indicate different levels of artistic ambition: there have, after all, been many other instances of slightness giving way, during the course of writing, to matters of greater substance. The most obvious example of this is Don Quixote, which, to begin with, is no more than a satire on chivalric romances, but which assumes greater stature as it progresses. Although Northanger Abbey is a work of a very different nature, something similar happens here also: it starts as a sort of parody of certain kinds of fiction, but soon, other more important themes come to the fore, displacing from the novel’s centre the parodic element.
The parody, as is well known, is of Gothic novels. The very opening sentence tells us that Catherine Morland is very different from the kind of protagonist readers may have been expecting:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Catherine is ordinary: no great beauty, no great intellect – no great anything really. Her childhood years are covered with a prose of delicate and mischievous irony that was to become Austen’s trademark. But the irony is entirely affectionate: Catherine’s ordinariness, though ironically contrasted with what one might have expected from a heroine of a Gothic romance, is never disdained.
When Catherine is a teenager, on the threshold of maturity, the Allens, well-off neighbours, offer to take her to Bath. Austen offers us images of various stereotypes of Gothic literature, only to dash them with delicious anti-climax:
When the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart with sadness, and drown her in tears for the last day or two of their being together; and advice of the most important and applicable nature must of course flow from her wise lips in their parting conference in her closet. Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations. Her cautions were confined to the following points. “I beg, Catherine you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the Rooms at night…
Austen also points out the various Gothic elements in which the journey to Bath was lacking:
Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.
All this debunking is amusing, but while they may be sufficient for a sketch, they cannot be expected to form the entire substance of a full-length novel – even of a novel as short as this. And in any case, Austen herself seems after a while to lose interest in debunking the Gothic: there are more serious concerns.
For, if the novel had – as seems probable – its beginnings in debunking Gothic fantasy, then the theme of greater import that arises from such debunking is the recognition of reality. And this Austen found far more interesting. In Bath, after an initial few days in which nothing much happens, Catherine becomes acquainted with the Thorpes – in particular, with Isabella Thorpe (who becomes her close friend), and with her brother John. Catherine possibly senses that Isabella is an airhead and her brother a bumptious bore; but if she does, she does so only vaguely. Her mind is still essentially that of a child, unable adequately to perceive reality for what it is. And it is the development of her mind, of her perceptions, that is the real theme of the novel. The ordinariness that is required to debunk Gothic pretensions becomes in its own right the principal focus of interest; and Austen was among the first of the great nineteenth century novelists to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. The human mind contains, after all, mysteries and wonders that are more fascinating by far than all the secret passages and torture chambers of Gothic castles.
The development of Catherine’s perceptions is achieved with a supreme mastery. After being introduced to the refined Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, Catherine finds herself, albeit unconsciously, preferring their company to that of the Thorpes. And hidden even more deeply in her consciousness is that she has fallen in love with Henry. Her distress in thinking that she had behaved badly to the Tilneys, and her mortification in imagining what they think of her behaviour, are communicated with the lightest but surest of touches. We, the reader, may know that she is worrying over nothing; but we nonetheless sympathise with her worrying, and do not look down upon it.
The mock-Gothic element reappears for a few chapters when Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey, the Tilneys’ home. Here, under the influence of various Gothic novels, she imagines that General Tilney, the father of Henry and of Eleanor, had murdered his wife. Possibly, this is where the idea of the novel had started. But if it had, Austen doesn’t now show much interest in it: far from drawing it out, as she could so easily have done, she puts a stop to it as soon as she can, setting Catherine right on these matters. Indeed, in the context of what has been achieved in the novel so far, these chapters may even seem somewhat crude: Catherine’s mistaking the character of Isabella, and mistaking her own feelings for Henry, are more subtle and more interesting by far than her mistaking General Tilney for a murderer.
Perhaps a more mature Austen could have achieved even more; perhaps a more mature Austen would have made more of Henry than the perfect paragon of virtue and goodness we see here. But what we get is remarkable enough. The theme of growing into adulthood, of beginning to see the world as it is, is a popular theme in fiction, but rarely, if ever, has it been done better. Indeed, so engrossing are the psychological insights, that when the plot has to move on, the emphasis on the events rather than on the subtleties of the mind seems a bit of an intrusion.
The climax comes when the general unceremoniously orders Catherine from the house, with no explanation given. Catherine is devastated, not only on account of the insult offered her, but also for other reasons – reasons of the heart, which she is only now beginning to recognise. But the strength of character Catherine reveals in her devastation is a mark of how far she has travelled, and the extent to which she has grown.
I suppose one could point to a structural flaw in that the climactic point of the story (Catherine’s eviction from Northanger Abbey) does not coincide with the resolution (Henry’s subsequent proposal to Catherine, and their marriage). Indeed, the chapters containing this resolution seem to appear almost as a sort of epilogue. But that’s a minor point. And if this is to be counted a flaw, it’s one Austen never repeated in her subsequent work.
Northanger Abbey has all the hallmarks of an early work – the first steps of a writer who will later go on to achieve even greater things. But these first steps aren’t by any means merely tentative: the relatively unambitious parody of the Gothic – which, I’d guess, was conceptually the starting point of this work – is soon overtaken by themes that, though clearly related, display a far greater artistic ambition. I am now looking forward to reading (not really re-reading, since I got so little from my earlier attempts) the novels in which this artistic ambition blossomed more surely.