Written initially as Susan in 1797 and 1798 and published in 1818 after Jane’s death, Northanger Abbey deals with adolescence. I always feel it should have been the first Austen Six. But the Austen scholars tell us Northanger Abbey was probably written third. A publisher had bought the manuscript for ten pounds quite early in Jane Austen’s life and had failed to publish it. Jane’s brother Henry was able to buy it back after Jane had died without the publisher knowing the author’s identity. Now that is a face I would have liked to have seen when he – yes it was a man – realised the mistake he had made.
The Chief Characters
God’s-Gift John Thorpe
‘Philosophic Mother’-Mrs Morland
Doting Mother Mrs Thorpe
Northanger Abbey is about a very young girl who is about to begin her adventure as a woman. Northanger Abbey is much more the view of life from a teenager’s point of view. Genuine-Girl-Catherine Morland is seventeen and naive. She is pretty but not stunning, from a plain and sensible family. Her indulgence is an obsession with the pop literature of her time, gothic horror. In today’s terms she would be a drama queen wanting the drama of the soap opera to invade her life; falling for a vampire and transforming into a heroine in love, Twilight style. As with other Austen heroines, Genuine Girl Catherine must walk the Austen circuitous path to true love; she must face her own fanciful dreams of drama which, when found out by her beau, Humble-Henry Tilney, nearly destroy her hopes. But Tilney is a true Austen hero. He seems to have a high score in our modern emotional intelligence stakes; he can cope with the knowledge that Genuine Girl Catherine is a flawed human after all. And so all ends as we would expect it.
For those who want more:
Morelands: The Morelands are portrayed as a stable and sensible family with too many children- ten – but with a philosophical mother and a busy father. They live in a small village where Mr Moreland is the parson and there seems little opportunity for heroic circumstances. At a disadvantage because of their simple life and simple values Catherine, when she leaves the village, must negotiate the superficial world outside. Upon Catherine’s return, ‘The Philosophic Mother’– Mrs Morland seems to be able to see things the way they are, not the way she’d like them to be. She imparts excellent advice: Genuine-Girl-Catherine has been hurt by her experiences but there is resilience to be learnt from her experiences. Similarly ‘Philosophic Mother’, sees that Catherine’s brother, Nice-Guy-but-Stupid-in-Love-James Moreland will learn from his misadventures with the superficial New-Best-Friend-Isabella Thorpe. Catherine is not a typical heroine as she is not clever or especially captivating; it is as if Jane Austen allows the ordinary to have their time in the sun.
The Thorpes: The Thorpes are very unlike the Morelands: they live in the much more sophisticated and stylish metropolis London; they are much more urbane with more mercenary values and consequently are on the lookout for people who can lead them up the ladder of aspiration. New-Best-Friend-Isabella Thorpe professes undying love to Catherine and her brother. Isabella had been engaged to James but seems disappointed to find that Mr Moreland cannot do more in terms of providing financially when they marry. Obviously she had thought the Morelands were richer. Her eyes begin to wander and they light on Captain Tilney who enjoys the sport of seduction; she plays a dangerous game and loses both James Moreland and Captain Tilney. Her brother is God’s-Gift John Thorpe who is a man who would feel at home in the modern world with his toys and gadgets and his bragging big mouth. He makes a play for Catherine but his absorption with himself makes him inattentive and he doesn’t even notice that Catherine has eyes for another. Their mother Doting-Mother–Mrs Thorpe is insensitive; she enjoys the fact that her children are handsome and does not seem to mind that they are also vacuous. What is inside matters little!
The Tilneys: Genuine Girl Catherine is rescued from social isolation by Henry Tilney at a dance in Bath. She knows no one but the neighbour she has travelled with and Henry is happy to oblige a young petty girl. He easily falls in love with her obvious infatuation with him and her total lack of artlessness and scheming. Henry has a sister, Supportive-Sister-EleanorTilneywho dotes on him, and he in turn is loyal to her, revealing a Jane Austen blueprint that how a man treats his sister often is a good insight into the man’s character. But all is not bliss in the Tilney household. The mother has died and there is another brother and a father who is not as enamoured in the niceness stakes. The brother, Callous-and-Conceited Captain Tilney is selfish and arrogant and is happy to make a play for the engaged Isabella Thorpe. The father is a bully and another hypocrite. Like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in Pride and Prejudice, Bully-and-Greedy-General Tilney is a great believer in keeping the riches amongst the rich. Why is it that no matter how rich people are they feel the need to be richer? General Tilney could be called the Count of Control. Ironically, as with Pride and Prejudices’Countess of Control, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he inadvertently brings the couple together.
The Bit Players: There are not many extra characters outside the three families except for the Allens, who are a couple who are very important in terms of plot as it is they who invite the heroine to Bath so that Mr Allen can take the waters. Born-to-shop-Mrs Allen is a wonderfully crafted character with neither education nor intelligence. Jane Austen’s description: “her passion was dress”. However, despite this she has a wonderful conversation with Mr Tilney where Mr Tilney comments on Ms Moreland’s gown and is able to say, “ but I do not think it will wash well” – it is almost as she has earnt her place for this alone.
Jane Austen seems to showing that the ordinary have a chance to be heroes too and that by behaving well to others and treating them with respect the ordinary can indeed be heroes. Many modern eulogies no doubt reflect such values but our celebrity culture reflected though our media sometimes seems to imply that it is only the famous and those of importance who are the heroes. Jane Austen’s messages are just as apt today as when she wrote them.