Though Jane Austen never married, she’s known for being vocal about her society’s obsession with marriage and romance. Her novels feature parodies of love-matches, foolish matches, and matches of convenience. We all know the first line of Pride and Prejudice.
Fewer people think of the messages woven into the lines of Northanger Abbey. Though it is one of Austen’s first novels, it was published posthumously in 1817 (Persuasion was also published posthumously.) Northanger Abbey is a coming-of-age story which follows Catherine Morland.
Catherine’s childhood is summed up in the opening sentence, which packs as humorous a punch as that of Pride and Prejudice:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Does anyone ever see themselves born to be an heroine?
Catherine was an unremarkable child. She has no talent with the skills young ladies were taught at the time; she is a poor artist, her looks are mediocre, and she prefers playing cricket to dolls. Austen mentions that Catherine is the fourth of ten children, which can account in some way for the way she behaved.
I could relate to Catherine in a specific way: she loves to read. She enjoys the Gothic novels that were popular in Austen’s day. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho appears to be Catherine’s favorite story. She will talk about it with anyone who will listen.
It’s difficult to find someone who’ll take it seriously because it’s a novel. Austen also pokes fun at society’s aversion to novels, making her opinion on this known in chapter five. She mentions that Catherine and her friend Isabella Thorpe read novels together–
(emphasis is mine)
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us 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.
Northanger Abbey is a parody, taking elements of Gothic literature and exaggerating them. However, I could not help thinking when reading the above that Jane let her own frustration slip.
In a previous post about the book Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees, I mention a similar theme. Women wrote a great majority of novels in that time; many chose to publish with the alias By a Lady to avoid shame if discovered.
Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey in print, though she tried many times. This must have been a source of great frustration. Jane was constantly editing Northanger while alive, so it is possible that she added that rant after many failed attempts with the publisher.
I wonder if she chose to make Northanger and its heroine a reflection of herself. Catherine Morland isn’t very interesting and shows little promise (Jane was not very good at simple things such as chores–I heard in one biography that her family seemed to keep her away from the household tasks!) Morland wasn’t surrounded by suitors growing up. Friendship doesn’t come easily to her, either.
She sees the world through the eyes of a reader, as did Jane. Visiting the Abbey, Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. She imagines a murder and a cruel husband and all sorts of dark common in Gothic books.
The real monsters in Northanger Abbey are greedy people with charming tongues who cheat and double-cross. This is not interesting enough for Catherine, nor is it for us.
In real life, the monsters we face are rude bosses, traffic jams, and math equations. Seldom do we write novels about these problems; like Catherine, we search for more dramatic beasts in the books we read.
Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book The Storytelling Animal points out our human tendency to seek dramatic problems in story. We ignore the piling bills on the table, looking instead at the murder in a mystery novel. We like trouble–we like drama–just not the sort that we actually deal with.
It seemed to me that Catherine Morland’s greatest character flaw was her preference for Gothic monsters and skeletons in the closet. A mysterious chest and a locked cabinet are more exciting than her backstabbing friends.
Catherine appears to finally grow up when she realizes that fiction is exaggeration. The real monsters in life are people who make decisions to benefit themselves, who discriminate based on social status, who don’t think twice about breaking a heart.
Truthfully, heartbreak is the worst tragedy I can think of.
Life is not a novel. Jane Austen knew that people become addicted to the thrill of fiction. She was more clever than Pride and Prejudice; she understood humans and how they behave. Northanger Abbey was more relatable to me than Pride and Prejudice.
If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so. You might also decide that Catherine Morland represents bookworms and their habits over the centuries.