Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and other things


The week before last, I watched the BBC TV series version of Sense and Sensibility with my sister (the version with Hattie Morahan). My sister was going on about how much better this version was compared with the Hollywood version, which I remembered quite favorably. So, when I returned home at the beginning of last week, I set out to watch said Hollywood version all over. I still like it but there are certain aspects for which the BBC version is superior, such as the casting for Elinor. As much as I like Emma Thompson, she does look too old for the part, compared with Hattie Morahan. And Alan Rickman looks too gloomy even for Colonel Brandon; I much preferred David Morrissey. However, Willoughby in the BBC version is downright creepy and that does not quite work for me.

There were differences between the two versions that I will have to double-check against the book, such as the existence of an extra Steele sister. I have never read the book and it’s about time I do.

So, as I was in a Jane Austen kind of mood and since I did have some of her works on my Kobo (but not Sense and Sensibility), I started reading Northanger Abbey. It is interesting that the behaviors that Emma Thompson highlights in her commentary to Sense and Sensibility, that is the relative lack of status of women, their being left to wait to be noticed by men, and their lack of choices regarding their own futures, are very much present in Northanger Abbey. It may also be the case that I paid so much more attention because of her comments. The main character, Catherine Morland, describes herself as a reformed tomboy. At the age at which we meet her, she is quite ladylike and given to fret about her dress and beaux. Friends of the family, the Allens, offer to take her to Bath to enjoy the social scene and her parents agree she should go. Her brother goes as well. After some time spent without meeting familiar faces, the Allens encounter acquaintances, the Thorpes. Young Isabella Thorpe becomes friend and confident to Catherine. She had previously met Catherine’s brother James and renews this connection which eventually leads to their getting engaged. While in Bath, Catherine meets the Tilneys and becomes attached to Henry, the younger Tilney son. The father, quite impressed with the young lady, invites her to his country estate, Northanger Abbey, and she gladly accepts. Following a misunderstanding regarding her fortune (or lack of it), she is sent home. Henry’s stubbornness is instrumental in resolving the misunderstanding and they eventually marry.

The book is also a parody of gothic novels. Catherine has a preconceived notion of what an abbey should look like based on reading gothic novels so she quite expects something dark and frightening. Henry Tilney plays on her fears by describing his childhood home along the same terms. This leads Catherine to become quite frightened of objects she finds in her room and of the noises she hears at night. However, Austen means these reactions to be comical rather than seek to produce fright in her readers. Another way in which the gothic influence is obvious is in the conclusions made by Catherine about the relationships between Henry Tilney’s parents, when she finds out that the mother died suddenly some years ago. She is given very little information about this and yet, she starts imagining that the husband did not care about his wife and may have murdered her, or that she may still be alive but kept as a prisoner in part of the abbey she was discouraged from visiting. We eventually find out that the mother died from a recurring health problem and that the husband grieved very much for his wife.

A novel which had quite a bit of influence on Catherine is The mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe. There are repeated references to this book thoughout Northanger Abbey; Cathering and her friend Isabella Thorpe are quite fascinated by it. I did find a copy of it on the web; it will be interesting to see if the book corresponds to the image I have of it based on Jane Austen’s description.

There is also a great deal of discussion of reading as a pastime. Novels are at one point described as unworthy of one’s time, as “trash”. Austen also refers to novelists as writers of low status, about whom “there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.” However, they also lead to people connecting based on similar interest and Austen has her narrator state that she cannot approve of novelists putting down the act of reading novels and refraining from showing their heroine enjoying “some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” So whereas, the heroines of Sense and Sensibility are entranced by the reading of poetry and the images of romantic love and its raptures, those of Northanger Abbey are fascinated by novels and the horrors portrayed by the gothic genre.


Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. First published in 1803. Web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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2 responses »

    • Thanks, Melanie! Jane Austen is one of my favorite writers and I just love that period. But I don’t think I would have liked living in it!

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