This has got to be the funniest opening to all of Austen’s novels:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any.
That’s the beginning of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and why this doesn’t get more attention, I don’t know. After I read that marvelous beginning I had to stop and read it again and then spend some time giggling before I could go on.
Even though Northanger Abbey wasn’t published until December 1817, six months after Austen died, it is the first book she completed for publication. Written around 1788-99, Austen revised it in 1803 and sold it for £10 to a London bookseller who then decided not to publish it after all. Austen revised it again in 1816 intending to try publishing it again. It was during this revision she changed the name of the main character from Susan to Catherine and changed the title from Memorandum, Susan to Catherine. The title we have was very likely invented by Austen’s brother who had arranged for the book’s publication. I love Jane dearly but I think her brother came up with a better title!
Probably just about everyone knows the story. Our plain heroine Catherine is seventeen and like most ladies her age loves reading gothic novels. She has the pleasure of being invited to Bath by her rich neighbors, the Allens, to be Mrs. Allen’s companion. One day Mrs. Allen runs into an old school friend now the widow Mrs. Thorpe. She is in Bath with her daughter Isabella and her son John. Both children are pretty much fishing for rich spouses and because of Catherine’s association with the Allens, they assume she is wealthy too. John has designs on Catherine and Isabella on Catherine’s brother who happens to know John at Oxford. Much conniving and underhandedness ensues and the innocent Catherine has no idea what is going on because she is too busy falling in love with Henry Tilney.
Catherine becomes friends with Henry’s sister, Eleanor, and gets invited to stay at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine imagines all sorts of gothic mystery that leads to much embarrassment on her part when her overactive imagination is discovered and proved wrong.
Of course the gentle satire of gothic novels is great fun and what this book is most known for. Catherine is reading The Mysteries of Udolpho while in Bath and talks about it with whoever will listen. But this book is so much more than that. It is also a sort of coming-of-age novel as Catherine goes from sheltered innocence to a more worldly understanding and grows from a girl with a romantic imagination into one of good mannered practicality.
And then there is the commentary from Austen about the reading and writing of novels:
leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.
To be asked what one is reading and to reply “only a novel” is the norm but within that novel one finds on display the “the greatest powers of the mind” revealing the “most thorough knowledge of human nature” and doing it with wit and humor. I could hear Austen tsking, “only a novel! Humph!”
This being a Jane Austen novel our plain heroine gets her fella in spite of herself and the no-good machinations of the good-for-nothing selfish money grubbers. I first read this book so long ago that I had quite forgotten most of it. I seem to recall not being all that impressed by it back then when I was twenty-something. I didn’t know much about real gothic novels, certainly hadn’t read any, and so much of the humor was lost on me. Now, thanks to the RIP Challenge, for which I chose to reread Norhtanger Abbey, I have read quite a few gothic novels and this time around thoroughly enjoyed the humor. And with so much mention of Mysteries of Udolpho in the book, I immediately began reading it when I finished Austen. What fun!