Northanger Abbey begins with a description of its unlikely heroine Catherine Morland as a child. Catherine is the fourth child of ten, and the oldest daughter of a sensible mother and a clergyman father with a comfortable but not very large fortune. As a child, Catherine is neither very beautiful, nor very accomplished at drawing or playing the piano, nor very good as a student. But neither is she mean or stubborn.
By pointing out that its heroine may seem unlikely, the novel begins by drawing attention to the fact that it is a novel, while also addressing itself to readers of its time, who were accustomed to female protagonists being consistently portrayed as paragons of virtue and beauty.
By adolescence, Catherine’s appearance is less plain and she begins to have more of an interest in being well-dressed and to lose her taste for playing sports and getting dirty. Her parents begin to think she might be “almost pretty,” which she takes as a wonderful compliment. Catherine’s mother is very busy taking care of the six younger children and pays little attention to the development of her elder daughters. As a teen Catherine begins to read romantic plays and poems and learn about romance from them. By the age of seventeen, she has never had a crush on anyone or made anyone fall in love with her, which, however, is perfectly understandable, because she knows no one of her own age and rank. But, the Narrator observes, Catherine is destined to become a heroine, and a heroine must meet a hero. The Morlands’ neighbor Mr. Allen, who owns much of the land around their home, invites Catherine to travel with him and his wife, Mrs. Allen, to Bath.
By emphasizing that Catherine is an average young woman, the novel pokes fun at the vast majority of novels written about exceptional people. The novel suggests that it is worthwhile to make average women the heroines of novels, as even average women dream of romance and go out into the world to have adventures. Even though Catherine’s adventure is not an exotic one, it is a big change for her. As the narrator foreshadows, it is by going away with the Allens that Catherine will be able to meet “a hero.” Not only will Catherine be going to a new place, she will travel there with the well-off Allens, which will be likely to impact who she socializes with when she is in Bath.