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NA742712 - AUSTEN, J.: Northanger Abbey (Unabridged)

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey


In 1816, prior to the publication of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen stated: ‘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.’ Her concerns arose from the fact that the popularity of the sentimental and Gothic novels which she was parodying in Northanger Abbey might have declined, and thus the point of her work could be lost. Similarly for us today, it is essential that we have some knowledge of those works, whose excesses Austen was quietly mocking, in order to fully understand and enjoy Northanger Abbey.

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, the seventh child of the family. At that time, her father was Rector of the Hampshire village of Steventon, near Basingstoke. She was a well-educated young woman and her early years had already seen her producing works for the amusement and entertainment of her family. She particularly enjoyed penning burlesques of popular romances, and A History of England by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian was one of her early, unpublished works which suggests her natural gift for gentle irony. Not surprisingly then, this is the style of Northanger Abbey.

Jane herself tells us in her advertisement for Northanger Abbey that the work was completed in 1803 but in fact she had been working on it as early as 1798 and 1799. Then entitled Susan it was purchased for £10 by Crosby, publishers of the then popular Gothic romances. These works, whilst retaining the romance of sentimental novels, added the elements of melodrama and fear. Crosby, however, did not publish Jane’s work and in 1816 the manuscript was bought back, by which time she had made changes, including renaming her heroine Catherine. By then, also, her other great works had been published: Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Parkin 1814 and Emma in 1816. After Jane’s death in 1817 Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published by her brother, Henry. He was the one to formally reveal her authorship since the four titles published in her lifetime were done so anonymously. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published together as a four-volumed work, the original Northanger Abbey being in two volumes, with Chapters 1 to 15, mainly concerning events in Bath, comprising Volume 1, and with Volume 2, containing Chapters 16 to 31, describing events at Northanger Abbey.

Jane Austen led a calm and unremarkable life. She did live for a while in fashionable, elegant Bath after her father retired in 1801, and following his death in 1805 she also lived in Southampton. However, in 1809, together with her mother and sister, she moved to the village of Chawton in Hampshire which she much preferred. She was said not to ‘. . . meddle with matters which she did not thoroughly understand,’ and, in spite of having two brothers in the Navy, she makes no references in her work to significant events of the time, notably the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, even though, living near the South Coast, invasion might have seemed a possible threat for her.

Although she herself said that, ‘Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,’ in Northanger Abbey she chose to place her heroine in Bath. Here, as later at Northanger Abbey itself, Catherine Morland, a young woman about to enter adult life, is placed in a new situation, where the way in which she handles the people and situations she meets allows readers to judge her. In Austen’s time readers would probably have experienced Bath for themselves and she therefore does not feel the need to provide lengthy descriptions of its appearance or of the pleasures available there. Similarly, sentimental and Gothic novels were well-known to readers at that time, and Austen makes reference to Mrs Radcliffe’s novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, expecting readers to appreciate her parody. She places Catherine in Northanger Abbey, a modern, comfortable home, but whose name suggests some sort of mysterious Gothic ruin. Similarly, Catherine herself is a parody of the heroines of sentimental novels. She is not prone to excesses of emotion, apart from her rather out-ofcharacter behaviour when her imagination allows her to become somewhat deluded regarding the fate of General Tilney’s wife. Even abductions of heroines are parodied, with Catherine ‘abducted’ by John Thorpe for a carriage ride she does not really wish to accept, and by General Tilney who whisks her off to Northanger Abbey, his mistaken belief that she is an heiress being a further parody.

Jane Austen never married although she was reputed to have become romantically attached in 1802. The man in question died in 1803, and in that same year Jane received a proposal of marriage from a wealthy Hampshire landowner. She accepted his proposal, only to retract it the following morning. In Northanger Abbey love and marriage provide an important theme, with Austen finally bringing Catherine and Henry together, after an enforced separation by her equivalent of the villain of the piece, General Tilney. She completes her work with one final parody of the sentimental novels, when, instead of their preaching conclusions she wonders whether her work will be seen to ‘…recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.’

By 1816 Jane Austen had become seriously ill and was taken to Winchester to be under the care of the best doctors. However, within two months of arriving there she died, on July 18th, at the age of 42. Austen was very modest about her gift for writing, describing her work as ‘...that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory, in which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour’. She was only moderately successful in her life-time, and it was not until the twentieth century that her works became established favourites.

Notes by Helen Davies

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