Monday, 19 December 2016


Despite the fun and the gothic parody, there is a realistic love story at the heart of Northanger Abbey.

Our sweet seventeen-year-old, on holiday away from her large family, quickly falls in love with the bright, humorous Oxford-educated clergyman Tilney. Charmed by her interest in him, he eventually falls in love with her and all ends happily.

In the Twentieth Century, television and film producers noticed that Jane Austen's novels were sexy. In innumerable unobtrusive passages she conveys the excitement that comes from heightened awareness of a person of the opposite sex. After only two meetings with Henry Tilney, Catherine Morland is in love, sure enough. She tries desperately to avoid being invited to dance by John Thorpe. She sits, eyes averted, telling herself she is absurd to hope Tilney will notice her. Suddenly she 'found herself addressed and again solicited to dance, by Mr. Tilney himself. With what sparkling eyes and ready motion she granted his request, and with how pleasing a flutter of heart she went with him to the set, may be easily imagined ... it did not appear to her that life could supply any greater felicity'.

It is possible to recognize much of Jane Austen's own character in Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood. But in Northanger Abbey, Jane herself is in the hero Tilney rather than the heroine. The urbane and entertaining Henry Tilney speaks with her voice. He 'talked with fluency and spirit – and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her'. Typical of Henry's delightful teasing at his first meeting with Catherine are his comments on ladies' skills as letter-writers. 

Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is particularly female ... the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars ... A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.

Tilney is a charmer, 'a very gentlemanlike young man ... about four or five and twenty, ...rather tall' with 'a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye'. If 'not quite handsome', he is 'very near it'. Within a few minutes, he has Catherine giggling. His Austen-like imagination suggests what she might write in her journal:

Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings – plain black shoes – appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.

Even his appreciation of Catherine's dress and appearance, whether calculated to do so or not, would be bound to charm. His knowledgeable interest in ladies' clothes scores him more points: he discusses the purchase of muslins with Mrs. Allen, explaining that his sister often relies on him to assist her with purchases. Invited to comment on Catherine's dress, he surprisingly says ('gravely examining it'): 'It is very pretty ... but I do not think it will wash well; I am afraid it will fray'. Catherine is bewitched: '"How can you," said Catherine, laughing, "be so – " she had almost said, strange.’

After she has declined to reveal what she is thinking, Tilney says 'I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much'. He obviously hopes to see more of her, with advancing 'intimacy'. And Jane Austen frankly depicts Catherine suffering the pangs of disappointed love when he fails to appear in the Pump Room the following day. Henry also is not long before mentioning the word 'marriage', albeit in another of his playful conversations. Having secured Catherine as his partner for a country dance, he argues that they have to give complete attention, fidelity and complaisance to each other throughout the duration of the dance, for it is 'an emblem of marriage’.

Henry has a curate but still takes his duties at Woodston fairly seriously, going there three times during the novel, twice leaving Catherine with his sister at Northanger. 

Catherine is a young woman whose thoughts (despite her reactions at the Abbey) are normally pure, ingenuous and generous. There is a touching moment when Eleanor comes to her room late at night, wondering how to break the dreadful news of her expulsion. Immediately Catherine fears the news will concern not herself but Henry, 'and turning as pale as her friend, she exclaimed, “Tis a messenger from Woodston!"' (There is a similar moment near the end of Emma, when the promise of sensational news makes Emma’s thoughts leap at once to Mr. Knightley.)

Catherine's ingenuousness attracts Henry. When she tells him how 'good-natured' it was of Captain Tilney to partner Isabella in a dance after saying that he hated dancing, Henry says, 'your attributing my brother's wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good-nature alone, convinced me of your being superior in good-nature yourself to all the rest of the world’.

Catherine displays an engaging readiness to learn from Henry during the walk round Beechen Cliff. As the author comments:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

The walk advances the love story as well as any ballroom scene. Catherine gives Henry the pleasure of teaching a sweet, enthusiastic pupil the theory of the picturesque. She rapidly learns to appreciate Gilpinesque notions: the best view is not 'from the top of an high hill' and clear blue skies are not necessarily to be admired. She listens to Henry lecturing on 'fore-grounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives', unaware that 'a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man'. She soon has the confidence, at the top of Beechen Cliff, to reject 'the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape'!

Throughout the walk, Tilney dazzles and charms. He impresses Catherine by liking Mrs. Radcliffe's gothic stories and (in contrast with John Thorpe) claiming to have enjoyed 'hundreds and hundreds' of novels.

He may strike us as a little pedantic: his courtship of Catherine is a series of lessons in semantics! Maybe, because Jane Austen had not yet reached her full maturity as a writer, she allowed Tilney's teasing to be a little ponderous, as when he challenges Catherine's use of the words 'nicest' and 'torment', and when he takes his time explaining to his sister that she and Catherine are talking at cross-purposes. Yet his pedantry dissolves into charming mock-pedantry.

Her mind on books, Catherine remarks that 'something very shocking indeed, will soon come out of London'. Miss Tilney thinks she is talking politics, though Catherine means a novel. The outcome is that Tilney is invited to give his opinion of 'the understanding of women'. Urged to be serious, he says: 'Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half’.

Yet Catherine is not so dull-witted as to be overawed by his conversation. Like Harriet Smith in Emma, she can suddenly prove articulate. Making a case against history books, she marshals cogent arguments: such books are about quarrels, wars and pestilences; they ignore women ('the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome'); speeches put into characters' mouths are obviously 'invention'; and the books are used to 'torment' small children who have to read them!

Catherine's tears and her regret at Henry's absence when she is sent away are touching. We are the sorrier for her (and the more aware of Eleanor's sweet nature) when Miss Tilney kindly lends her some money. After fourteen miles of the journey, begun at dawn on that Sunday in March, she passes the turning to Henry's parsonage and can think of nothing but her separation from him.

The sincerity of her joy in seeing her family again illustrates what a sweet girl she really is: 'in the embrace of each, as she stepped from the carriage, she found herself soothed beyond any thing that she had believed possible. So surrounded, so caressed, she was even happy! In the joyfulness of family love every thing for a short time was subdued’.

In the time Catherine now spends at Fullerton (not long) before Henry arrives to claim her, Jane Austen presents a touching and convincing picture of a woman deeply in love. Though neither demonstrative like Marianne Dashwood nor stoical like Elinor, 'She could neither sit still, nor employ herself for ten minutes together, walking round the garden and orchard again and again ... in her silence and sadness she was the very reverse of all that she had been before'. Her mother does not guess what the problem might be, but offers her a magazine article to read – about 'young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance'!

In the chapter in which Henry finally proposes, Jane Austen has a problem. She has set out to write a romantic novel that subverts romance, but here she has to describe Henry defying a tyrannical father and offering Catherine his hand. Jane Austen tries to tone it down partly by misdirecting us. Instead of building up to her big moment, she builds down. For the first few paragraphs we are inside Mrs. Morland's head, worrying about getting Richard's neckcloths done and whether the French-bread at Northanger has ruined her daughter's character. The tone is bathetic, not breathless. Secondly, Jane Austen deprives us of the most dramatic moment - the actual meeting of Henry and Catherine. We go upstairs with Mrs. Morland, and it is as much a surprise to us as to her when we open the drawing-room door and find Henry Tilney on the other side. Thirdly, she keeps the tone amused and playful. Her two lovers are in a highly-charged emotional state: she gently ridicules them both. Henry for once is hardly able to articulate. When he thinks of a way to get himself and his beloved out of the house, little absurdities conspire against him, including the kid sister helpfully pointing out that he can see the Allens' house from the window and so he will not need a guide. Also, the lovers are not permitted direct speech. Mrs. Morland has what little dialogue there is.

The couple are aged twenty-six and eighteen at the time of their marriage. Fielding-like, Jane Austen has fun talking directly to her readers about what is unconventional in her happy ending. With demure amusement, she admits the hero would not have fallen in love had he not happened to notice that the heroine was in love with him.

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. 

She says it is obvious her novel is coming to a rapid conclusion (the readers can deduce 'in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity’).