I'm a longtime fan of Jane Austen but Northanger Abbey remained the only novel of hers unread. I was encouraged to read it by a Christmas viewing of the 2007 ITV film starring Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan. Northanger Abbey tells the tale of Catherine Morland, a naive teenage girl with a love for Gothic novels. Catherine is new to society and is excited about the prospect of making new acquaintances when she visits Bath with some family friends. There she makes friends with two sets of siblings: Isabella and John Thorpe, and Henry, Eleanor and Frederick Tilney. Catherine's two new sets of friends place conflicting demands on her time and opinions, and along with the reader, she has to learn to evaluate the character and motives of any new acquaintances. Over the course of the novel Catherine develops from a girl who always assumes the best of other's motives, into a more discerning character.
Northanger Abbey was a fascinating look into the perception and role of the novel in the lives of men and women in the 19th century. Catherine is a lover of Gothic novels, and at the end of the book learns that life is not as linear and carefully planned as a novel, which are written to excite and entertain, and in this way Northanger Abbey is a parody of Gothic fiction. Catherine and Isabella are both fans of the Gothic novels, and Catherine assumes that Henry, Eleanor's brother and Catherine's love interest, as man, is not:-
Northanger Abbey is full of little asides like these where Austen can be seen to talk directly to the reader in defending the novel form, or remarking upon its structure. A further example is at the very end of the novel, where Austen makes the remark that unlike the characters in the novel, as a reader, we can tell the lovers are to be married soon, by the short amount of pages that are left. This is perhaps something that is changing with the advent of eBooks and their ability to, on our command, show or hide from us the length of the text.
One of the things that impressed me the most about this novel was how well it showed the attitudes of women in the 19th century and how clear it was that Jane Austen was a highly perceptive, intelligent and funny woman. Her writing uses humour to cut right through the patriarchal attitudes of the time, and her books show how an intelligent woman could live in a society with so few options open to her- through social satire, observation, comedy and education. Northanger Abbey has numerous quotes that show that Austen was aware of how ridiculous the expectations and restrictions upon women were at that time, (in short, what a feminist she was) but to choose a few as examples:-
"In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable for the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties and exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, whilst she furnishes the fan and the lavender water." / "You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only has the power of refusal."
"If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body." / "The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference."
I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey, and find it improves upon further study into its themes and historical period. I would really recommend it for Austen fans, and it is quite accessible in terms of plot and length, being her shortest novel. You can download Northanger Abbey on Kindle for free here, and the book is available to buy for only £1.99 here.