Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008
“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey.
Before embarking on a discussion of this novel it’s worth our while to consider the titles of Jane Austen novels and the three main groups they neatly fall into. The first is a group typified by abstractions: titles such as Persuasion and the two with alliterative pairings, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. (The latter of course was originally called First Impressions and then apparently re-named following publication of another novel with the same title.) The second group takes on the names of personages, Emma, for example, or Elinor and Marianne (as the first draft of Sense and Sensibility was called) or Susan, which was later revised as Catherine due to the appearance of another novel of the same name, and published posthumously as Northanger Abbey.
And then we have the group which reflects significant place-names, most famously Mansfield Park and, of course, Northanger Abbey (which, as noted above, Austen originally intended to be published as Catherine).
The chief reasons for changes of name are either another novel pre-empting the title or a posthumous re-naming by Austen’s family. In the case of Northanger Abbey we can see that it began life as Susan, then was revised so that the young heroine was re-named Catherine, and finally published after Austen’s death under the title we know today. It’s worth noting this evolution to gain an inkling of how Northanger Abbey is sometimes misjudged for what it is not rather than what it is. Can we judge a book by its cover or can the title misdirect us? I suspect the name change, plus the frequently cited label ‘Gothic parody’, has led many readers (me included) to expect a full-blown melodrama, only to be disappointed; whereas in truth it appears to be another take on Austen’s usual comedy of manners.
The plot concerns a young ingénue, Catherine Morland, who leaves her home in Wiltshire with the older Allens as chaperones to spend time in Bath, then a popular venue for English society. Gauche at first, she meets first the Thorpe family and then the Tilneys, becoming friends with her contemporary Isabella Thorpe and then enamoured of Henry Tilney. Partly to escape the tedium of the Bath season, partly because of her partiality to gothic novels, she accepts an invitation to the Tilney home of Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, believing it to be the very stuff of romance. Once there she falls victim to her overheated imagination before the modern world intrudes, at first painfully, and then with an Austen-esque happy ending. The novelist Joan Aiken suggested (in Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America) that the plot of Northanger Abbey is, as conceived at the close of the 18th century, “much less complex than any of the three later novels. There is a simple chain of events: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” Aiken gamely speculated on how Jane may have later tried to revise the narrative before finding herself defeated, but mostly we will have to make do with what we find.
However, the apparent simplicity of the plot is for us made more confusing by the fact that we don’t get to the much vaunted abbey till well after the second half of the novel (Volume II as it was first published) has started. The first volume of Northanger Abbey is largely set in Bath (the city, incidentally, where Jane’s parents were married) and reflects the fashionable streets and meeting places that can still be seen today, two centuries and more later. Jane Austen produced her first draft of Susan somewhere between 1798 and 1799, at a time when she apparently first visited Bath. The social events and rituals that the young Catherine Morland takes part in will have been based on Jane’s own experiences in her early twenties, long before the Austens’ residency in Bath in 1801 to 1806, during which Susan was revised and placed with a publisher. The second volume, however, is set in a fictional country house, where perhaps we as much as the first readers (let alone Catherine) are led to expect dark goings-on.
As her own Advertisement in Northanger Abbey makes clear, “this little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication”. We don’t know why the bookseller never did issue it, but Austen apologises that her treatment of “places, manners, books, and opinions” are now, thirteen years later, “comparatively obsolete”. (As it was, Northanger Abbey was published, not in 1816, but after her death at the tail end of 1817.) However, the public’s appetite for gothick horror hadn’t actually disappeared: 1818 was to see the appearance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein followed by Polidori’s The Vampyre a year later. So, if we don’t get to visit Northanger Abbey till the second volume, why did Jane’s family not publish the novel as Catherine, her own choice? Did Catherine sound a bit tame as a title? Were they trying to, as it were, cash in on the public’s taste for the supernatural? Or was this Jane’s own ironic choice? Did she see a place-name title such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as a magnet to draw in a readership that today might be attracted to teenage vampire romances or zombie horror stories? Did it suggest, to quote a frisson-filled Catherine Morland, something horrid?
I mentioned that Northanger Abbey is a novel of dualities: two titles (if we discount the earlier Susan); two main settings, one real, one imaginary; two suitors, one boorish, one heroic; two female friends, one false and one steadfast; two views of the owner of Northanger Abbey, one mistakenly as a murderer in the best Gothick tradition, the other more truly as an ungentlemanly father seeking status in the profitable marriage of his eligible son. There is also the contrast between what is plausible reality and what is romantic fantasy, though of course the novel, as is the way with all metafiction (my favourite word at present), is fantasy, pure and simple.
Is this truly parody? The attempt by Isabelle and John Thorpe to force Catherine into a carriage to drive to Blaize Castle certainly borders on parody, echoing the frequent abductions in gothick literature. Catherine’s imaginings of the father of the honourable Henry as a wicked murderer, though as it turns out he is merely pecuniary, seems more like pastiche. Does Northanger Abbey celebrate rather than mock the work it imitates? I confess I’m in two minds about it. Referential but not reverential is how I prefer to think of it in relation to the standards of the genre.
Since we’re stuck with the novel’s title we now have, let’s consider how Austen means us to picture the Abbey. Is it like the imposing residential folly built by William Beckford, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire? Or a more modest but still impressive remodelling as at Lacock Abbey in the same county? It may be, as with the misdirection Austen gives in her description of Blaize Castle, that like Catherine we may be imagining the towering edifice of Fonthill, while the reality is that we should be expecting the more edifying Lacock. Either way, Northanger Abbey is a witty subversion of many of our expectations while, conversely, giving us much of what we hope from an Austen novel.
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The three other titles included in this excellent edition, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, deserve more space for discussion than this review allows, and will appear in a separate post, as will a consideration of the critical commentaries and elucidation of context.
Review first posted June 5th 2013; reposted to coincide with the bicentenary of its posthumous publication, along with Austen’s final novel (review in due course).