Northanger Abbey /ˈnɔːrθˌæŋɡər/ was the first of Jane Austen‘s novels to be completed for publication, though she had previously made a start on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. According to Cassandra Austen’s Memorandum, Susan (as it was first called) was written circa 1798–99. It was revised by Austen for the press in 1803, and sold in the same year for £10 to a London bookseller, Crosby & Co., who decided against publishing. In the spring of 1816, the bookseller was content to sell it back to the novelist’s brother, Henry Austen, for the exact sum—£10—that he had paid for it at the beginning, not knowing that the writer was by then the author of four popular novels.
The novel was further revised by Austen in 1816/17, with the intention of having it published. Among other changes, the lead character’s name was changed from Susan to Catherine, and Austen retitled the book Catherine as a result.
Austen died in July 1817. Northanger Abbey (as the novel was now called) was brought out posthumously in late December 1817 (1818 given on the title page), as the first two volumes of a four-volume set that also featured another previously unpublished Austen novel, Persuasion. Neither novel was published under the title Jane Austen had given it; the title Northanger Abbey is presumed to have been the invention of Henry Austen, who had arranged for the book’s publication
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland is one of ten children of a country clergyman. Although a tomboy in her childhood, by the age of 17 she is “in training for a heroine” and is excessively fond of reading Gothic novels, among which Ann Radcliffe‘s Mysteries of Udolpho is a favourite.
Catherine is invited by the Allens, her wealthier neighbours in Fullerton, to accompany them to visit the town of Bath and partake in the winter season of balls, theatre and other social delights. Although initially the excitement of Bath is dampened by her lack of acquaintances, she is soon introduced to a clever young gentleman, Henry Tilney, with whom she dances and converses. Much to Catherine’s disappointment, Henry does not reappear in the subsequent week and, not knowing whether or not he has left Bath for good, she wonders if she will ever see him again. Through Mrs Allen’s old school-friend Mrs Thorpe, she meets her daughter Isabella, a vivacious and flirtatious young woman, and the two quickly become friends. Mrs Thorpe’s son John is also a friend of Catherine’s older brother, James, at Oxford where they are both students.
James and John arrive unexpectedly in Bath. While Isabella and James spend time together, Catherine becomes acquainted with John, a vain and crude young gentleman who incessantly tells fantastical stories about himself. Henry Tilney then returns to Bath, accompanied by his younger sister Eleanor, who is a sweet, elegant, and respectable young lady. Catherine also meets their father, the imposing General Tilney.
The Thorpes are not very happy about Catherine’s friendship with the Tilneys, as they (correctly as it happens) perceive Henry as a rival for Catherine’s affections. Catherine tries to maintain her friendships with both the Thorpes and the Tilneys, though John Thorpe continuously tries to sabotage her relationship with the Tilneys. This leads to several misunderstandings, which upset Catherine and put her in the awkward position of having to explain herself to the Tilneys.
Isabella and James become engaged. James’s father approves of the match and offers his son a country parson’s living of a modest sum, 400 pounds annually, which he may have in two and a half years. The couple must therefore wait until that time to marry. Isabella is dissatisfied, having believed that the Morlands were quite wealthy, but she pretends to Catherine that she is merely dissatisfied that they must wait so long. James departs to purchase a ring, and John accompanies him after coyly suggesting marriage to the oblivious Catherine. Isabella immediately begins to flirt with Captain Tilney, Henry’s older brother. Innocent Catherine cannot understand her friend’s behaviour, but Henry understands all too well, as he knows his brother’s character and habits. The flirtation continues even when James returns, much to the latter’s embarrassment and distress.
The Tilneys invite Catherine to stay with them for a few weeks at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine, in accordance with her novel reading, expects the abbey to be exotic and frightening. Henry teases her about this, as it turns out that Northanger Abbey is pleasant and decidedly not Gothic. However, the house includes a mysterious suite of rooms that no one ever enters; Catherine learns that they were Mrs Tilney’s, who died nine years earlier. Catherine decides that, since General Tilney does not now seem to be affected by the loss of his wife, he may have murdered her or even imprisoned her in her chamber.
Catherine persuades Eleanor to show her Mrs Tilney’s rooms, but General Tilney suddenly appears. Catherine flees, sure that she will be punished. Later, Catherine sneaks back to Mrs Tilney’s rooms, to discover that her over-active imagination has once again led her astray, as nothing is strange or distressing in the rooms at all. Unfortunately, Henry joins her in the corridor and questions why she is there. He guesses her surmises and inferences, and informs her that his father loved his wife in his own way and was truly upset by her death. “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? … Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” She leaves, crying, fearing that she has lost Henry’s regard entirely.
Realizing how foolish she has been, Catherine comes to believe that, though novels may be delightful, their content does not relate to everyday life. Henry lets her get over her shameful thoughts and actions in her own time and does not mention them to her again.
Soon after this adventure, James writes to inform her that he has broken off his engagement to Isabella and that she has become engaged instead to Captain Tilney. Henry and Eleanor Tilney are shocked but rather skeptical that their brother has actually become engaged to Isabella Thorpe. Catherine is terribly disappointed, realising what a dishonest person Isabella is. A subsequent letter from Isabella herself confirms the Tilney siblings’ doubts about the engagement and shows that Frederick Tilney was merely flirting with Isabella. The General goes off to London, and the atmosphere at Northanger Abbey immediately becomes lighter and pleasanter for his absence. Catherine passes several enjoyable days with Henry and Eleanor until, in Henry’s absence, the General returns abruptly, in a temper. He forces Eleanor to tell Catherine that the family has an engagement that prevents Catherine from staying any longer and that she must go home early the next morning, in a shocking, inhospitable move that forces Catherine to undertake the 70 miles (110 km) journey alone.
At home, Catherine is listless and unhappy. Her parents, unaware of her trials of the heart, try to bring her up to her usual spirits, with little effect. Two days after she returns home, however, Henry pays a sudden unexpected visit and explains what happened. General Tilney (on the misinformation of John Thorpe) had believed her to be exceedingly rich and therefore a proper match for Henry. In London, General Tilney ran into Thorpe again, who, angry at Catherine’s refusal of his half-made proposal of marriage, said instead that she was nearly destitute. Enraged, General Tilney returned home to evict Catherine. When Henry returned to Northanger from Woodston, his father informed him of what had occurred and forbade him to think of Catherine again. When Henry learns how she had been treated, he breaks with his father and tells Catherine he still wants to marry her despite his father’s disapproval. Catherine is delighted.
Eventually, General Tilney acquiesces, because Eleanor has become engaged to a wealthy and titled man; and he discovers that the Morlands, while not extremely rich, are far from destitute.
Catherine Morland: A 17-year-old girl who loves reading Gothic novels. Something of a tomboy in her childhood, her looks are described by the narrator as “pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty.” Catherine lacks experience and sees her life as if she was a heroine in a Gothic novel. She sees the best in people, and to begin with always seems ignorant of other people’s malign intentions. She is the devoted sister of James Morland. She is good-natured and frank and often makes insightful comments on the inconsistencies and insincerities of people around her, usually to Henry Tilney, and thus is unintentionally sarcastic and funny. (He is delighted when she says, “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”) She is also seen as a humble and modest character, becoming exceedingly happy when she receives the smallest compliment. Catherine’s character grows throughout the novel, as she gradually becomes a real heroine, learning from her mistakes when she is exposed to the outside world in Bath. She sometimes makes the mistake of applying Gothic novels to real life situations; for example, later in the novel she begins to suspect General Tilney of having murdered his deceased wife. Catherine soon learns that Gothic novels are really just fiction and do not always correspond with reality.
James Morland: Catherine’s older brother who is in school at the beginning of the story. Assumed to be of moderate wealth, he becomes the love interest of Isabella Thorpe, the younger sister to his friend and Catherine’s admirer John Thorpe.
Henry Tilney: A 26-year-old well-read clergyman, the younger son of the wealthy Tilney family. He is Catherine’s romantic interest throughout the novel, and during the course of the plot he comes to return her feelings. He is sarcastic, intuitive, fairly handsome and clever, given to witticisms and light flirtations (which Catherine is not always able to understand or reciprocate in kind), but he also has a sympathetic nature (he is a good brother to Eleanor), which leads him to take a liking to Catherine’s naïve straightforward sincerity.
John Thorpe: An arrogant and extremely boastful young man who certainly appears distasteful to the likes of Catherine. He is Isabella’s brother and he has shown many signs of feelings towards Catherine Morland.
Isabella Thorpe: A manipulative and self-serving young woman on a quest to obtain a well-off husband; at the time, marriage was the accepted way for young women of a certain class to become “established” with a household of their own (as opposed to becoming a dependent spinster), and Isabella lacks most assets (such as wealth or family connections to bring to a marriage) that would make her a “catch” on the “marriage market”. Upon her arrival in Bath she is without acquaintance, leading her to immediately form a quick friendship with Catherine Morland. Additionally, when she learns that Catherine is the sister to James Morland (whom Isabella suspects to be worth more financially than he is in reality), she goes to every length to ensure a connection between the two families.
General Tilney: A stern and rigid retired general with an obsessive nature, General Tilney is the sole surviving parent to his three children Frederick, Henry, and Eleanor.
Eleanor Tilney: Henry’s sister, she plays little part in Bath, but takes on more importance in Northanger Abbey. A convenient chaperon for Catherine and Henry’s times together. Obedient daughter, warm friend, sweet sister, but lonely under her father’s tyranny.
Frederick Tilney: Henry’s older brother (the presumed heir to the Northanger estate), very handsome and fashionable, an officer in the army who enjoys pursuing flirtations with pretty girls who are willing to offer him some encouragement (though without any ultimate serious intent on his part).
Mr. Allen: A kindly man, with some slight resemblance to Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.
Mrs. Allen: Somewhat vacuous, she sees everything in terms of her obsession with clothing and fashion, and has a tendency to utter repetitions of remarks made by others in place of original conversation.