As she heads to Northanger Abbey, Catherine at first feels very uncomfortable among the Tilneys. Although Henry and Eleanor are kind to her, Catherine feels that the General’s constant concern for her comfort is, perversely, making her uncomfortable. But once she is in a carriage with only Miss Tilney, she relaxes. When they change horses, the time spent with General Tilney at the inn reinforces Catherine’s sense that he is a damper on his children’s moods.
Catherine was not able to understand why her dinner with the Tilneys was less pleasant than she had expected, because she has not yet come to trust her own judgment of people’s characters. But as she realizes that the family acts in a constrained way around the General, she shows that her ability to draw conclusions for herself is maturing.
General Tilney suggests that Catherine should ride the rest of the way to Northanger Abbey with Henry in his open carriage. She thinks of what Mr. Allen said about young people riding alone in open carriages and is about to refuse, but decides that General Tilney would not have suggested something improper for her to do. Catherine feels that being driven by Henry is the “greatest happiness in the world” and is impressed by how much more pleasant it is to be a passenger in his carriage than in John Thorpe’s.
Catherine’s ability to judge character is still not perfect. Although she finds the General unpleasant, she still assumes that he must be a true gentleman interested in acting as a good guardian to a young woman he has invited to his home. Although she enjoys the ride with Henry, who acts like a gentleman while driving her, she would be better off relying on the advice of Mr. Allen than on the General.
Henry tells Catherine that he is very glad she is coming to spend time with his sister, who has no female companion, and is sometimes left completely alone when General Tilney travels. Catherine wonders at Henry not being Eleanor’s companion, and he explains that he has his own house at Woodston, twenty miles away. Catherine says he must be very sorry to live in an ordinary parsonage, after growing up in an old building like the abbey.
Henry shares Catherine’s taste in fiction, so she assumes that he will also find it thrilling to spend time in an old building that could be the setting for a Gothic novel. Catherine does little to conceal her childlike excitement about going to an abbey, nor does she notice the more serious matter of Eleanor’s usual isolation that Henry has touched on.
Smiling, Henry asks if Catherine has a very high opinion of the abbey. She says she does, and asks if it is really “a fine old place, just like one reads about?” Henry Tilney asks if she is really prepared for the horrors that occur in such old buildings, to have her bedroom far away from all the others, and to be brought to it by an ancient servant named “Dorothy” who stares fixedly at her and suggests that she is in the haunted wing of the abbey. Is she prepared for a loud storm, during which she discovers a secret division in an enormous tapestry? Is she prepared to walk through this division into a vaulted room and through a passage, passing a dagger, and blood, and an instrument of torture, to a chapel—and is she prepared to find an old-fashioned black and gold cabinet she had never noticed, and in its drawers to find a manuscript, but to decipher only that it is the “memoirs of the wretched Matilda” before her candle is extinguished? Catherine is spellbound, but Henry is too amused by how worked up she has become to continue. Catherine says she knows Eleanor wouldn’t let any of this happen to her and that she is not afraid.
Henry is amused by Catherine’s childlike excitement and her assumption that the experience of staying at the abbey will be straight out of a novel. He sees that she hopes something dramatic or even frightening will happen, and so teases her by weaving a story out of components from several Gothic novels, along with some details drawn from the real layout of Northanger Abbey thrown in for good measure. These details are drawn from The Mysteries of Udolpho, which both characters loved and discussed reading on their walk, and another Ann Radcliffe novel, Romance of the Forest, as well Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Catherine knows she is being teased, but this cannot ruin her innocent enjoyment in the scary possibility that what Henry says may happen.
As they come close to their destination, Catherine keeps her eyes peeled for a sign of the grand old building. She passes through its gates without seeing anything antique looking, but instead sees modern lodges nearby. As they arrive, it begins to rain, and Catherine hurries into the house without experiencing a single presentiment of horror. She is distressed, moreover, to see modern furniture and large, clear, light windows, instead of the cobwebbed, dirty, stained glass she had hoped for.
Catherine’s expectations for the abbey have been drawn from fiction full of uncanny incidents, and she expects the abbey to look and make her feel a certain way. She is then disappointed on both these counts, although she might have predicted that the orderly, modern Tilneys did not live in a rundown house that had not been updated for hundreds of years.
The General sees how Catherine is looking around and explains that the room is very simple and plain, but that there are other, better rooms at Northanger. He exclaims that it is almost five, and Miss Tilney rushes Catherine to her room to get ready. From this Catherine understands that everything at Northanger happens punctually.
The General misunderstands Catherine’s disappointment as a sign that she thinks the room is not fancy enough. Catherine then doesn’t understand that the General has misinterpreted her in this way, but she is more and more sensitive to the nervous way the Tilney children treat their father.