Northanger Abbey

Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? What if they’re homeschoolers, too – that’s even better, right? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image and it will take you to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!

NACatherinereading“Catherine reading Udolpho and getting scared.”

By Tab Olsen

I’ve always been a fan of Jane Austen, and yet I never got around to reading Northanger Abbey until recently. Now it’s one of my favorites! Northanger Abbey was probably the earliest of Austen’s completed works, dating back to 1798, but it was not published until 1818, a year after her death. It’s a bit different from her other novels because this one has a Gothic theme!

Northanger Abbey tells the story of a 17-year-old girl, Catherine Morland, who reads a lot of Gothic novels and imagines herself as a Gothic heroine. The book is not a Gothic novel itself, but rather a lighthearted parody of the common literary convention of the day. Gothic novels of romance and terror were cheap escapist literature, mostly written by women for women, and were immensely popular in Jane Austen’s time. Austen mentions several famous Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey – most notably The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

In Northanger Abbey the main character, Catherine, has lived all her life in a small rural town with her parents and nine siblings. Her father, Richard, is a clergyman and her mother “was a very good woman in her turn, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be. But her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves” (Chapter 1).

Catherine is a generally kind, cheerful, and well-behaved young lady who is concerned about others and believes in doing the right thing. However, she is quite uninformed and generally ignorant about society, having grown up in somewhat sheltered conditions in a happy family, and never having been away from home for an extended period of time. In fact, Catherine’s mother tells her, “Wherever you are you should always be contented, but especially at home, because there you must spend the most of your time” (Chapter 30).

As a child, Catherine was something of a tomboy, preferring active pastimes – such as cricket, horseback, and traipsing around the countryside – to studying or playing with dolls. In Chapter 1 she describes her elementary education at home “and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it.” Catherine pursued various interests but lacked the persistence necessary to develop advanced skills in any one area, and she doesn’t appear to have any particular talents or genius.

Catherine enjoyed “tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet,” but she hated learning music, and “the day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest in Catherine’s life.” She also dabbled in basic art but cannot draw well, and neither does she like writing, accounts, or French. Catherine especially dislikes history:

“If people like to read [history] books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be laboring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and through I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person’s courage that could sit down on purpose to do it” (Chapter 14).

Although Catherine has little interest in books of information, she does say “I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels.” As a teenager she began reading Pope, Gray, Thompson, and Shakespeare – “all such works as heroines must to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing” (Chapter 1). And of course, she became an avid reader of Gothic novels.

Jane Austen wrote that it is in novels where “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (Chapter 5). However, Catherine’s vivid imagination – spurred on by a tendency to blur the lines between fiction and reality, and coupled with her naivety – eventually causes her a great deal of trouble and leads her into some awkward misadventures…

Read the book online or I’d suggest Northanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition for a more thorough literary study.

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