The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

X. Jane Austen

§ 3. Northanger Abbey

Of the six published novels, Northanger Abbey is, probably, that which comes nearest to being Jane Austen’s earliest work. Finished before 1803, it may have been revised after she recovered the manuscript in 1816; but it seems unlikely that it received so complete a revision as did Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. In the “Advertisement by the Authoress,” which prefaced the book on its publication, Jane Austen writes:

  • The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.
  • The novel paints the world of 1803, not that of 1816. It has, moreover, features that distinguish it from the other published works. It is linked to the earlier stories, in which Jane Austen made fun of the sensational and romantic novels then popular. As the source of Joseph Andrews was the desire to ridicule Pamela, so the source of Northanger Abbey was the desire to ridicule such romantic tales as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe; and, as Joseph Andrews developed into something beyond a parody, so did Northanger Abbey. Secondly, there is a youthful gaiety, almost jollity, about the work, a touch of something very near to farce, which appears in none of the other novels. Catherine Morland, again, may not be the youngest of Jane Austen’s heroines (Marianne Dashwood and Fanny Price were certainly younger); but the frank girlishness which makes her delightful gives the impression of being more in tune with the author’s spirit than the more critically studied natures of Marianne and Fanny. Be that as it may, Northanger Abbey has more in it of the spirit of youthfulness than any of the other novels. Its idea was, apparently, intended to be the contrast between a normal, healthy-natured girl and the romantic heroines of fiction; and, by showing the girl slightly affected with romantic notions, Jane Austen exhibits the contrast between the world as it is and the world as imagined by the romancers whom she wished to ridicule. The first paragraph of the first chapter, in telling us what Catherine Morland was, tells us, with delicate irony, what she was not; dwelling, in every line, upon the extraordinary beauty and ability of romantic heroines. As the story goes on, we learn that a girl may completely lack this extraordinary beauty and ability without falling into the opposite extremes. At Bath, Catherine Morland comes into contact with silly and vulgar people, the Thorpes; and the contrast makes her candour and right feeling shine all the brighter; while, under the educative influence of wellbred people with a sense of humour, the Tilneys, she develops quickly. Staying at the Tilneys’ house, she is cured of her last remnant of romantic folly; and, on leaving her, we are confident that she will make Henry Tilney a sensible and charming wife. Jane Austen’s sound and lively sense, her Greek feeling for balance and proportion, are not less clear in Northanger Abbey than in the other novels. None of the others, moreover, gives so clear an impression of the author’s enjoyment in writing her story. The scenes of amusement at Bath, the vulgarity and insincerity of Isabella Thorpe, the broader comedy of her brother, the ironic talk of Henry Tilney, all are executed with high-spirited gusto; and we may believe that Jane Austen loved the simple-minded, warm-hearted girl, whom she tenderly steers between the rocks into harbour.