Northhanger Abbey

Having read Udolpho and looked at what chiefly characterises the Gothic genre (and its really important to keep these features of plot, character and style uppermost in your mind when approaching your topic paper texts) you should have become aware, in your reading of Northanger Abbey that it is by no means a "straight" example of the genre.

As I have mentioned previously, Jane Austen took a delight in exposing in her own writing that which was ridiculous in the literature of her time. An early example of this is Love and Freindship (her misspelling) which dealt in a 13 year old's way with material which she was to look at in her mature writings with Sense and Sensibility, a novel which contrasts the way an "augustan" young lady and her more "sentimental" sister experience life.

The object of her scorn in Northanger Abbey is the Gothic and the Sentimental, two closely linked forms, the Gothic being a more extreme and darker extension of the Sentimental. Actually, to be more precise, Jane Austen is not attacking the novels themselves, some of which she rates highly (bottom p.57 - 59) so much as the credulous way in which they were read by some of her contemporaries. It is not, therefore Udolpho which comes under attack here- indeed it is defended by no less a character than Henry Tilney, whose judgement both we and Catherine come to rely on, and who claims to have finished it "in two days (Samantha!) my hair standing on end the whole time" (p.121). No, the problem lies in the reader, and our attention is repeatedly drawn to the fact that Catherine, whilst a fountain of Augustan good sense in areas with which she is familiar, doesn't know how she ought (a frequently used word in this context) to think and behave in circumstances which are new to her. We see this on her walk with the Tilneys when drawing and the picturesque is discussed (I'm surprised the word sublime wasn't used); in this instance she has the wise and trustworthy Henry to guide her, but her malleability appears in a much more sinister way when we see how her reading of "horrid" i.e.. Gothic fiction has affected her judgement at Northanger.

In fact this novel is much more than merely a spoof on the contemporary novels of the time, although it began life that way, in its first incarnation as "Susan". Alongside this literary strand is the examination of a young girl's development from trustful naivet� to a more sound and realistic view of the world and people around her. The two strands are skilfully interwoven; the two arch deceivers of the novel, Isabella and General Tilney, are inextricably linked with the Gothic thread, Isabella being the cause of Catherine's introduction to the genre and the General the focus of her most serious "gothic" misjudgement. It seems that, in learning to distinguish between fact and literary fiction, she also comes to see in the people around her the difference between their real and assumed characters. Both are painful lessons for Catherine, much of whose charm, both for Henry and the reader, lies in the fact that she is so innocent and trusting.

So, having taken this overview of the novel ( in addition to which you must read the introduction which you will find in your text) let's take a more detailed chapter by chapter look at some of its salient points and key moments. You must remember that Jane Austen's style is very economical and subtle, and that often a great deal of reading between the lines is required if you are not to "do a Catherine" and take what is on the page at face value.

Chapter 1

We have already discussed how, at the beginning of this chapter, Catherine is deliberately and very consciously introduced in a way which portrays her as being quite the opposite of what a fictional heroine should be. This sets the tone for what is to come, and I think we talked last term about the way in which other characters are also cast as anti - stereotypes. Just in case we didn't, or in the very likely event that a long hot summer has obliterated all recollection of it, I'll draw your attention to it as we go along.

It would be a useful revision exercise to go through this first chapter and list all the ways in which C is made to defy the Gothic stereotype.

Chapter 2

As promised, more anti-stereotypes; our notice is drawn to the very unliterary way in Mrs. Morland and Sally/Sarah deal with the departure of Catherine, as contrasted to the way in which they ought (there's that word again) to behave. Mrs Allen too is cast then uncast in the role of wicked older woman, filled in the "straight" Udolpho by Madame Cheron; we are told the she shows

"more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protegee"

, but this more or less plumbs the depths of her wickedness.

Chapter 3

We are introduced to Henry Tilney, and here Jane Austen's economy and subtlety come into play; our expectations of a match between he and Catherine are immediately (I think) raised by the information that he "if not quite handsome, was very near it." (p.47) We haven't forgotten the description of Catherine as "almost pretty" (p.38) and the symmetry should not go unnoticed, (and, yes, I do think Jane Austen did it on purpose.)

Chapter 4

We are introduced to the Thorpes, the superficiality of whom is evident to us but not to the trusting Catherine who, sincere and good natured herself, assumes all around her to be so too.

Your task is to pick out a selection of phrases from this chapter which show the reader the true nature of the Thorpes. Don't take things at face value, be aware of Jane Austen's use of irony.

Chapter 5

We learn more of Isabella; more hints of an attachment between Isabella and James are dropped; we laugh more at Mrs Allen and her vanity; Catherine behaves like a real person, not a heroine, in her response to Isabella's sighs; Jane Austen makes it clear that she has no quarrel with novels, drawing the reader's attention to the fact that this is one. We must bear this in mind when talking about what precisely is the focus of this book's attack.

Chapter 6

More of Jane Austen's economic irony. The word "reasonableness" in the first paragraph of p.60 highlights for the reader the fact that this quality is , in fact, entirely wanting in this friendship. This undermines all the other commendations contained within the paragraph, convincing the reader that, in each area, exactly the opposite is true. Isabella again shows herself to be a shallow, lying flirt, and Catherine again remains oblivious to this, because she isn't.

Chapter 7

James and John make personal appearances. John immediately shows himself for what he is, but Catherine only sees what is good; "That was very good natured of you." p67. In fact we see that he is ill mannered (p.66) dishonest (p.66, 67) thoughtless, regarding his horse(p.68) ignorant (p.69) racist(p.69) and altogether unpleasant. Jane Austen even indicates that Catherine would also have thought so but for her desire to like her brother's friend and friend's brother, and his flattery. James is shown to be as deceived by Isabella as is Catherine, describing her as "so thoroughly unaffected and amiable" and possessing "such a superior understanding". (p.71)

At the end of this Ch. we find a good description of what the gothic novel relied on and aimed to produce: "a raised, restless and frightened imagination" (p.72)

Chapter 8

The description of Catherine's "suffering" whilst waiting for John Thorpe is a clear spoof of the more extreme but fictional sufferings of the heroines of popular novels, and her failure to jump to romantic conclusions about Eleanor serve a similar purpose, as well as showing the reader that. as yet, Catherine is still behaving in an Augustan, if naive manner. Her response to Isabella's query about dancing with James again(78) shows this.

Interestingly, though this novel deals with the gap between appearance and reality (though to the reader the difference is usually apparent) Eleanor is one example of a character who is absolutely what she seems to be (p.76) and the description of her, with its direct contrast to Isabella, shows the reader that we have here someone we can trust.

Chapter 9

"The progress of Catherine's unhappiness" is introduced in the way a fictional heroine's would, but again reality is more prosaic, an Catherine, far from tossing the night away anxiously, falls asleep for nine hours!

The ride in the gig shows us more about John, particularly his motivation in courting Catherine- he thinks she's Mr. Allen's heiress. It also reveals once more Catherine's simple, straightforward nature;

"Catherine listened with astonishment...would alarm herself no longer." (p.85)

Interestingly here it is her very Augustan reasonableness, allied with her naivety, that deceives her.

Chapter 10

Isabella continues to betray to us her awfulness, Catherine continues to fail to behave as she "ought" as a character in one of Isabella's novels, in that she's too straightforward to read between Isabella's very heavily drawn lines. Just as she misses the hints Isabella deliberately drops about her interest in James, she is unaware of how she is giving herself away to Eleanor over Henry- "How well your brother dances...without the smallest consciousness of having explained them" (p.91- 92)

Again the "set piece" situations of the gothic novel are taken and trivialised, as Catherine's attempts to avoid John Thorpe are written up as if she were Emily pursued by Verezzi. This chapter juxtaposes Catherine's conversations with John and Henry in order that the reader may compare.

Chapter 11

In this chapter we see another "set piece" brought down to size- the abduction of the heroine by the villain. Remember that Morano tried it with Emily. This is as close as John Thorpe gets to an abduction of Catherine, yet we are alive to the real distress which it causes her.

Chapter 12

This is the chapter in which John misleads the General as to Catherine's prospects, though we don't know exactly what has been said yet. Near the end of the chapter the line

"she joyfully thought, that there was not one of the family whom she need now fear to meet." p.112

acts as a warning that in some way there is; by now we should be used enough to Jane Austen's way of working to pick up on this inverted clue. In fact it is Frederick Tilney who steals Isabella away from James.

Chapter 13

This chapter sees Catherine beginning at last to see in part Isabella's faults- "Isabella seemed to her ungenerous and selfish, regardless of everything but her own gratification."p.114. This is a "one off" incident however, & Catherine continues to see the best in all around her.

Again, novelistic set pieces are ridiculed; Catherine's heroic moral struggle over the trip to Clifton is presented in a way akin to Emily's willingness to give up her inheritance for Madame Cheron's safety, though it represents a secure future for herself & Valancourt. (p.115). Later, when Mr.Allen expresses his sense of the impropriety of the excursion and Mrs Allen explains why she didn't warn Catherine we see that she is as unable to see the difference between the trivial and the important as Catherine is later to be between fiction and reality. This "escape" is presented, in mock heroic style, as an avoidance of a dishonoured reputation.

Chapter 14

The chapter begins by again differentiating between the worlds of reality and fiction; Catherine's ability to fulfil her engagement would only be unnatural in the world of novels, in which a cloaked Italian figure would have spirited her away in the night. Though Jane Austen cannot in truth be saying that she is dealing with reality, not fiction, she is at least claiming that it's not that kind of fiction.

In this chapter Jane Austen expresses, through Henry, many of her own views on novels and contemporary attitudes; we cannot believe that either she or Henry really believe that

"A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can." (p.125)

On p.128 we have a reference to the second Miss Thorpe an

"two of the sweetest girls in the world who has been her dear friends all the morning."

This is clearly superficial, and we are reminded that Isabella speaks in the same easily gushing tones of Catherine. We suspect, once more, that her affection is equally shallow and meaningless.

Chapter 15

At last Catherine is made aware of the relationship between James & Isabella. Isabella's vehement declarations that money is nothing to her lead us to guess that she believes James is rich and is motivated by greed in her pursuit of him; by now we know that we have always to believe the opposite of anything Isabella tells us. Indeed, the point at which we are told that Isabella has

"worked herself into a state of real distress" (p.134)

may be the only occasion upon which we see Isabella demonstrate real feeling of any sort; usually she is pure pretence.

This chapter also contains the comic "proposal" by John Thorpe, which Catherine utterly fails to recognise for what it is, though we are painfully aware of John's intentions. The humour of this encounter is added to later in the novel when it is revealed that Catherine proceeded to forget entirely the whole conversation though he believed he had "her explicit encouragement." (p.137)

Chapter 16

We are prepared for later revelations about General Tilney's character by the knowledge that

"John thinks very well of him, and John's judgement-" (p.140)

Jane Austen leaves the sentence unfinished, inviting the reader to contradict in their ending the one which Isabella had obviously intended.

Explicit comparison is made between the General and gothic villains, leading us to expect that he will, in some non-gothic but very real sense, contribute to Catherine's unhappiness.

Chapter 17

Still the exaggerated language of the sentimental/gothic novel is used, here to describe the relatively trivial likelihood of Catherine having to go home. For this to be presented as " an evil which nothing could counterbalance" (p.147) undermines the use of such language for more major occurances in other people's novels. It also shows us the girlish intensity of Catherine's feelings, however, thus serving the purposes both of literary satire & of characterisation.

Everything is presented as going Catherine's way, but the reader is less sure than Catherine of a happy ending, as we have already begun to suspect both Isabella & the General.

Chapter 18

In this chapter our convictions that Isabella is false are strengthened by her behaviour towards Frederick Tilney. Her deceit is all the more clear when contrasted with Catherine's honesty, which Isabella has the nerve to question with regard to John;

"I do not pretend to determine what your thoughts & designs in time past may have been " (p.154)

Her subsequent assertion that

"Circumstances change, opinions alter." (p.154)

prepares the ground for her later abandonment of James. This is patently obvious to the reader but, because Catherine is so far from deceit herself, she persists in believing that

"To doubt her truth or good intentions was impossible" (p.155).

Thus our judgements of both girls are strengthened by this chapter.

Chapter 19

Catherine, unhappy with Isabella's behaviour but thinking it thoughtlessness not wilful cruely, attempts to tackle the problem via Henry. Henry's response shows a practical & realistic approach to the situation but, though Catherine is persuaded by his arguments, we are not, being better acquainted with Isabella's true nature.

Chapter 20

In this chapter Catherine travels to Northanger with the Tilneys. Her coach ride with Henry serves to highlight two things: firstly, the slightly unseemly haste the General seems to be in to throw Catherine & Henry together - the ref. to Mr. Allen's views on young men & women riding together shows this - & secondly the contrast between Catherine's two suitors. Jane Austen draws an explicit comparison between the driving skills &, indirectly, the characters of John & Henry.

Henry's description of Catherine's possible experiences at Northanger is entertaining in itself, as a pastiche of the standard gothic ingredients. It becomes more so, as well as contributing to Catherine's personal growth into maturity, when it comes so near the truth on her first night in the house. This growth is a slow thing however & progresses only by stages; just as her disillusionment with Isabella is moving at a creeping pace, so is her awakening to the unreality of her novel inspired ideas. Early signs can be found in her feelings of disappointment with the comfort & convenience of Northanger, but she has to make more painful & humiliating mistakes before finally being convinced that life is not like books.

Chapter 21

The language, emotional responses, and "props" in this chapter are pure gothic, yet we are distanced from the terror felt by Catherine by our knowledge that this is, as far as this novel is concerned, the "real world". (Oh dear, Russian dolls again!) Because of this we are free to laugh at the extremity of Catherine's responses in a way which we are not in "straight" gothic. I feel that this sense of emotional distance could well be carried by a reader over into the next "straight" gothic novel read, thus undermining the seriousness of any response to it. Since Jane Austen was attempting in this novel to satirise &, perhaps, educate the more gullible gothic reader, this may have been her intention.

Catherine's loss of her candle at a critical monent replicates a similar experience of Emily's in Udolpho, if I remember right.

Chapter 22

Catherine awakes to another disillusionment -

"She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?" (p.177)

but still does not truly learn the error of her ways; it takes Henry's discovery of her misapprehensions about the General to do that, & these misapprehensions are formed in this chapter by her once more basing her responses to the real world on her reading. In this case her wrongheadedness is underlined for us by the reference to Mr. Allen's views on such literature. He feels characters such as Catherine is likening the General to are "unnatural & overdrawn" (p.185), & Mr. Allen is a man whose rarely expressed views we have been taught to trust.

Chapter 23

The "well read" Catherine moves deeper into her mistake in this chapter, & sees events at Northanger increasingly in terms of a gothic novel. The language used shows how far she has moved from rational judgement;

" the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown & receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food was the conclusion that necessarily followed."(p.191)

This chapter is, indeed, dotted with "probably", "not unlikely", "plausibility" , "certainly" etc. The reader is well aware that Catherine's suppositions are anything but probable, likely, plausible & certain, but Catherine is now so enmeshed in her novelistic delusions that she is unable to separate fact from fiction, imagination from reality. Though originally presented as an essentially sensible & augustan character, Catherine is now demonstrating the dangers of imagination unrestrained by judgement.

Chapter 24

Catherine continues to wallow in her delusion, though entirely without hard evidence, & convinced that such evidence could be faked anyway. Her ability to "remember" many cases of heartless villains is not based on her personal experience! Prevented by the General from visiting the late Mrs. Tilney's rooms with Eleanor, Catherine goes alone & is discovered by Henry. Now this really is a crisis, & could lead Henry into dismissing all ideas of her. Instead he responds with surprise but courtesy, gently showing her the origin of her errors. The passage on p. 199 beginning

"What have you been judging from...what ideas have you been admitting?"

demolishes her fictional world & brings her painfully back into the real world.

Chapter 25

Catherine is now shown to have reached self awareness as far as her response to novels goes;

"it had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from an imagination resolved on alarm, and everything forced to bend to one purpose by a mind which, before she entered the abbey, had been craving to be frightened." (p.201)

In the very same chapter she is also finally disillusioned about Isabella, so her growth to maturity is achieved almost simultaneously in the areas of both fiction & character reading. Her realistic assessment about her feelings on losing Isabella, which do not accord with those of a sentimental heroine as described by Henry, show that she is once more in the real world, though she still feels unable to trust her own judgement - "ought I?" (p.208)

Chapter 26

The General here shows his two-facedness in the insignificant issue of the meal to be served at Woodston. The reader extends this characteristic to what he has said about inequality of fortune, though Catherine herself is still naive: "why he should say one thing so positively, mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?" (p.212) This suspicion that the General would regard lack of fortune as a barrier increases our suspicions that he is in error about Catherine, just as she was in error about him. There is a pleasing symmetry about this, to my mind, which is typical of Jane Austen's structuring.

Chapter 27

Isabella's letter conveys to us the information, without her actually saying it, that she has been dropped by Frederick Tilney. By now we are so used to reversing everything Isabella says that

"I rejoice to say, that the young man whom, of all others, I particularly abhor, has left Bath"(p.216)

clearly communicates this message. Catherine has progressed far enough for us to read that

"Such a strain of shallow artifice could not impose even upon Catherine" (p.217)

Chapter 28

In one & the same chapter Catherine is entreated to extend her stay then as good as thrown out of doors with the greatest incivility. Now this is what a heroine might expect, & it only comes to Catherine once she has cast off all notions of heroism. Jane Austen explicitly contrasts the real awfulness of this situation with Catherine's earlier gothic imaginings -

"Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then - how mournfully superior in reality & substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability." (p.225)

Having been shown that Catherine's imaginings were but that, Jane Austen now suggests to us that real life can produce situations just as distressing, though not as improbably "romantic".

Chapter 29

Catherine's journey & arrival home are presented in a deliberately & explicitly unheroic way - "

A heroine in a hack post-chaise, is a blow upon sentiment" (p.230)

. Her parents are indignant but "without suffering any romantic alarm" (p.231)

Chapter 30

Henry arrives to propose to Catherine in the face of his father's disapproval. Now that is conventionally heroic. He doesn't follow it up by eloping with her, however, & they end up married in less than a year having suffered no gothic torments of imprisonment etc. After all, in terms of this novel, this is the real world.

Chapter 31

Mr. & Mrs. Morland don't make the lovers promise not to correspond, as Madame Cheron did Emily & Valancourt. Eleanor is conveniently married to a hitherto concealed lover, & Jane Austen is conscious enough of the unlikelihood of this expediency to jokingly justify him in the light of the washing bills in the desk. By this point we are being forcefully reminded that we are in a novel which is drawing to its close.

Like Udolpho & other gothic novels which excused all their exploitations of human terror by the imposition of a moral ending, Northanger Abbey also has such a moral. It is typical of the novel, however, that the moral is mockingly immoral -

"I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience." (p.248).

To the end, Jane Austen cannot resist cocking a snook at the literary conventions she is satirising.

There. Now I'm totally thought & typed out, & if I ever have to produce a set of notes like this again I shall probably move to a deserted castle in the Alps with a friendly headless nun and a garrulous maidservant. Just don't say I never do anything for you!