From its very first sentence, Northanger Abbey draws attention to the fact that it is a novel, describing its protagonist Catherine Morland as an unlikely heroine. Catherine is “unlikely” because, in most of the novels of the late 18th and early 19th century, heroines were exceptional both in their personalities and in their lives’ circumstances, while Catherine is a rather average young woman. Throughout Northanger Abbey, Austen mocks typical novelistic conventions for their predictability, though never suggesting that this formulaicness makes novels unworthy of being read. Elsewhere in the novel, Austen also upends conventions of the typical courtship novel, especially in the way she describes the deepening relationship between Catherine and Henry.
Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey during a period when the popularity of novels had exploded and novel-reading had become an obsession, especially for women. British society was divided on the value of these books and debated novels’ impact on the values and behavior of the women who were their most avid readers.
The most popular works of the second half of the 18th century fell into the related genres of sentimental and Gothic novels. Sentimental novels often portrayed the difficulties faced by a heroine in her pursuit of love and happiness, while Gothic novels placed this same plot into an even more dramatic context, by setting them in spooky old castles during exciting historical times and by including supernatural elements. Many critics condemned such novels as silly, and worried that the dramatic stories of love would influence young women to disobey their families when selecting a spouse. On the other side of the debate, proponents of the novel said that reading about the experiences and emotions of different characters strengthened readers’ ability to feel compassion and act morally in their own lives.
Northanger Abbey sides strongly with the pro-novel side of this debate, but also does not portray the effects of novel-reading in an entirely positive light. In general, the book presents novels as influencing readers to explore the world and seek to understand it, although this sometimes leads to trouble. That trouble, however, can often lead to better self-understanding and a broader understanding of the world.
When Catherine seizes on the wild idea, drawn from novels, that General Tilney murdered his wife nine years earlier, Northanger Abbey is mocking the way that readers of novels can take their dramatic content too much to heart. Yet in this instance, Catherine’s mistaken idea leads her into an embarrassing encounter with Henry, which ultimately teaches her to be a better judge of situations. Although her reading of novels led her into trouble, it also forced her to confront her own ignorance and to grow and mature.
Northanger Abbey is able both to defend and parody novels, in the end, because Northanger Abbey itself is an innovation in the novel form. In the book, Catherine Morland learns that the drama of her real life is no less vivid than the worlds she reads about in novels. This discovery of Catherine’s functions as a kind of turning point for novels themselves, a marker signaling a shift in what constituted a novel. Soon after Austen published Northanger Abbey, novels more generally shifted away from the sentimental works that dominated the eighteenth century to the realist novels that dominated the nineteenth. It was a shift that Jane Austen anticipated.
Novels and the Heroine ThemeTracker
Novels and the Heroine Quotes in Northanger Abbey
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother; her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.
When the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart with sadness, and drown her in tears for the last day or two of their being together; and advice of the most important and applicable nature must of course flow from her wise lips in their parting conference in her closet. Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations.
She could not help being vexed at the non-appearance of Mr. Thorpe, for she not only longed to be dancing, but was likewise aware that, as the real dignity of her situation could not be known, she was sharing with the scores of other young ladies still sitting down all the discredit of wanting a partner. To be disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement, is one of those circumstances which peculiarly belong to the heroine's life, and her fortitude under it what particularly dignifies her character. Catherine had fortitude too; she suffered, but no murmur passed her lips.
It was painful to her to disappoint and displease them, particularly to displease her brother; but she could not repent her resistance. Setting her own inclination apart, to have failed a second time in her engagement to Miss Tilney, to have retracted a promise voluntarily made only five minutes before, and on a false pretence too, must have been wrong. She had not been withstanding them on selfish principles alone, she had not consulted merely her own satisfaction; that might have been ensured in some degree by the excursion itself, by seeing Blaize Castle; no, she had attended to what was due to others, and to her own character in their opinion.
“Morland says exactly the same,” replied Isabella; “and yet I dare not expect it; my fortune will be so small; they never can consent to it. Your brother, who might marry any body!”
Here Catherine again discerned the force of love. “Indeed, Isabella, you are too humble.—The difference of fortune can be nothing to signify.”
“Oh! my sweet Catherine, in your generous heart I know it would signify nothing; but we must not expect such disinterestedness in many. As for myself, I am sure I only wish our situations were reversed. Had I the command of millions, were I mistress of the whole world, your brother would be my only choice.”
This charming sentiment, recommended as much by sense as novelty, gave Catherine a most pleasing remembrance of all the heroines of her acquaintance; and she thought her friend never looked more lovely than in uttering the grand idea.
To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets, was not very likely. There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed. Shocking as was the idea, it was at least better than a death unfairly hastened, as, in the natural course of things, she must ere long be released. The suddenness of her reputed illness; the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the time—all favoured the supposition of her imprisonment.—Its origin—jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty—was yet to be unravelled.
“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad. Upon this conviction, she would not be surprized if even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, some slight imperfection might hereafter appear and upon this conviction she need not fear to acknowledge some actual specks in the character of their father, who, though cleared from the grossly injurious suspicions which she must ever blush to have entertained, she did believe, upon serious consideration, to be not perfectly amiable.
That room, in which her disturbed imagination had tormented her on her first arrival, was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers. Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then—how mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror.
She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.