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Reviving the classics: Northanger Abbey

‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine’[1]

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is characterised by the young age of the heroine. Catherine Morland is seventeen years old, making her a few years younger than Elisabeth and Jane Bennet and the same age as their younger sister Kitty, known for idleness, vanity and ignorance. This obviously affects the novel’s plot, as Catherine regards herself as ‘in training for a heroine’[2].

In the novel, Catherine accompanies Mr and Mrs Allen to Bath, where she enters the Society. She meets the impressive Isabella Thorpe, who introduces her to the pleasures of Gothic fiction and makes the acquaintance of dashing Henry Tilney, who steals her heart on the first encounter. The world is described by a slightly sarcastic narrator, as seen by a young, innocent, somewhat naive, easily impressed, imaginative and emotional girl. Her fascination with sensational novels and especially Gothic fiction makes her misunderstand many situations and see dark schemes or hidden crimes around her, just as her lack of experience affects her ability to judge others, their intentions and actions. This leads to many comic situations.

Northanger Abbey can be read as a parody of Gothic fiction, which was one of the novel genres of the Victorian era. It was characterised by ‘an over-abundance of imaginative frenzy, untamed by reason and unrestrained by conventional eighteenth-century demands for simplicity, realism and probability.’[3] It would usually take place in a castle in Italy in Middle Ages or Renaissance period. It always involved some menacing and oppressive tyrant figure who would keep the innocent heroine imprisoned. It was sensational fiction and considered low or even harmful literature.

Jane Austen satirises the form and convention of Gothic fiction in her work. Catherine’s wild imagination and her impulsive responses are ridiculed and presented as childish. The genre is satirised in the tale, especially on Catherine’s arrival at Northanger Abbey, where the Tilney family live. During the journey, the heroine is entertained by Henry’s Gothic tale, which is created by borrowing elements from famous novels, especially Ann Radcliffe’s. The story is exceedingly elaborate, imaginative, and delivered mockingly (‘And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce?’[4]). The tale increases Catherine’s anticipations towards the abbey as a place of her own Gothic plot. It is contrasted with a reality of a modernised building and the monotonous life of the inhabitants.

The parody of the Gothic gives an extra flavour to an interesting plot about a young girl entering the adult world. It is a coming of age novel, where Catherine needs to learn to judge situations, characters and distinguish reality from fiction. It is worth adding that Henry Tilney is genuinely charming, funny and intelligent, making him one of my favourite male characters. I recommend this book to all the fans of an older kind of romance, where the characters court and not date each other, and everything always ends well. I rate it at 4.5 out of 5 stars.

[1] Jan Austen, Northanger Abbey (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 15.

[2] Austen, p. 17.

[3] Fred Botting, Gothic (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 3.

[4] Austen, p. 149.


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