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NA207612 - AUSTEN, J.: Northanger Abbey (Abridged)

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey


Jane Austen was born in Hampshire in 1775, the seventh of eight children. Her father was a clergyman who ensured that his children were well educated. After a brief spell at boarding school when they were very young, Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated at home. In 1801, Mr. Austen retired and the family moved to Bath. Although Jane Austen never married, she is reputed to have had a romance in 1802, but she parted from her lover, who died the following year. In 1803, she was proposed to by a wealthy Hampshire landowner and after initially accepting his proposal; she refused him the following morning. In 1805, her father died, and she moved with her mother to Southampton and in 1809 to the village of Chawton.


In 1816, Jane Austen became seriously ill, and was taken to Winchester in search of a cure. She died there in 1817. She is remembered by six great novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818) — all available on Naxos AudioBooks.


Although not published until 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s death, Northanger Abbey was her first major work. It was originally written in 1797 and bought by a publisher in 1803. By 1816, the novel still had not been published so Jane Austen bought it back from the publisher and her brother eventually oversaw its publication.


In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen deals with two aspects of eighteenth century life with which her readers would have been very familiar. First she examines and satirizes the strictly-prescribed routine of the social scene in Bath where the wealthy would go to take the waters in the Pump Room, promenade along the Crescent, attend balls, card parties and the theater and generally partake of civilized society. Isabella and Mrs. Allen, obsessed with fashion and appearances, are shallow, self-obsessed and hypocritical, and fit in perfectly with everything Bath has to offer. Henry and Eleanor Tilney, however, represent different values, and throughout the book, Catherine Morland has difficult choices to make as she tries to pick her way through the demands of loyalty and social decorum. It is not difficult to see where Jane Austen stands on these issues and her subtle and masterful use of irony is never far from the surface.

Jane Austen’s view of the Gothic novel is not so very different from her position on the empty-headed goings-on in fashionable society in Bath. Her readers would have been very well aware of the fashion for these books, a genre that began with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (also available on Naxos AudioBooks). This, and its imitators, explored the world of the imagination; a world of ghosts, ancient castles, statues dripping with blood. Catherine Morland becomes so taken with these subjects that she is in danger of confusing fantasy with reality, she imagines foul play where there is none, but is the victim of wrongdoings of a very different kind. She concludes:

‘Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works...it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for.’


To present Northanger Abbey as merely a burlesque, and a parody of Gothic novels, would be to do it a severe injustice. Although a very early work, there is a layering and sophistication, such as when Jane Austen comments on the creation of her heroine with a wink over the reader’s shoulder; she deals with the confusion between reality and fantasy, and yet has the maturity to be able to remind the reader that when her writing is at its most acute, this too is fiction. Although she comes down firmly on the side of faithfulness and integrity, the novel never lapses into didacticism, thanks to her glorious lightness of touch, which she was to develop further in her later work.


Notes by Heather Godwin

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