Re-reading Northanger Abbey

As you, my faithful readers, know lately I’ve been thinking about heroines and reader responses to them more than somewhat. This led me to re-reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey because I’ve never had much of an opinion about Catherine and was curious to see where she fell on the blank page spectrum. I adore Lizzy Bennet and Anne Elliot. I don’t like Emma or Fanny Price. Elinor bores me and Marianne gets on my nerves but they both have their moments. But Catherine? I couldn’t even remember much about her other than she’s a bit wet. Cue re-read.

So what did I find? That Catherine and Henry’s pairing is unequal. It’s like the anti-Lizzy & Darcy. Catherine has nothing to teach Henry. He’s older, smarter and wiser. And I simply don’t see what he sees in Catherine. He must school her. Often. He is amused by her not because she’s witty but because she’s an idiot child. It verges on being what Diana Peterfreund describes as “the wiser/more cynical/world-weary/advisor dude who totally has the hots (or vice versa, or mutual) for our naive heroine.”

Except that Henry isn’t really into Catherine, not at first, not for some time:

[F]or, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, 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.

In other words, he came to like her because she was so besotted with him. Which, to be sure, happens all the time. But in this case when he’s so much smarter than her I just don’t believe it as the beginning of a wonderful marriage. In future years I fear they’ll wind up a bit like Mr & Mrs Bennet.

I don’t think Jane Austen believed it either. Northanger Abbey is, after all, a spoof on the novels popular at the time such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and very amusing it is too. But as a romance? For this reader the book is an utter failure. I need equality between my leads. I need for one of them to not be continually patronising the other. Don’t know about you but being patronised is not my idea of sexy.

Okay, now I must re-read Persuasion to see Jane Austen’s writing at its sexy best.


  1. Ying Lee on #

    Agreed! Bring on Anne & Wentworth. But don’t you feel that Persuasion should be longer?

  2. Justine on #

    I’ll let you know when I re-read it.

  3. Marjorie on #

    Oh yes, Persuasion is my favourite, too. I prefer Emma to Northanger Abbey – Emma may be irritating but at least she has character!

  4. Julia Rios on #

    I am also re-reading (slowly and lazily) Northanger Abbey at the moment, and I had forgotten just how really stupid Catherine is. In her favor, she’s very good-hearted, and I suspect Tilney appreciates that because he’s seen what smarter, but more callous people can do to hurt others, but generally, yes, I agree with you. Also, that it is awfully funny. And I love Persuasion best, though I am not at all bored by Elinor. Marianne is silly, but not truly irritating to me. Fanny, I feel for. Emma, well, she’s got a quick wit, and she does come round eventually. Lizzie of course is lovely. Everyone loves Lizzie.

  5. Aimee on #

    I love Northanger Abbey. It is potentially my favourite Austen (although that title changes frequently). And Catherine is one of my favourite heroines. I love her willingness to learn, her love of reading (her relationships with the Isabella and Eleanor in Northanger Abbey are fabulous), her kindness and her enjoyment of less ladylike activities. I really don’t think she’d ever turn into a Mrs Bennet.

    I agree though that they’re unevenly matched. I love Henry Tilney but the two of them together is less than perfect. Catherine would be better suited to a Mr Bingley.

  6. kristin cashore on #

    The recent Masterpiece Theatre version of Northanger Abbey actually redeemed that book for me. The adaptation was charming and sweet — the relationship was believable — and Catherine Morland didn’t come across as stupid. And the gothic parody scenes were very funny. It’s a thing that almost never happens — the movie was an improvement on the book, IMO. (NA is my least favorite Austen book. Mansfield Park is my least-comfortable-to-read Austen book, though I’m learning to appreciate that Fanny does have a backbone — just not the kind I tend to prefer. I love the other 4 books indiscriminately ^_^)

  7. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    I am with Kristin on the loving the other four books indiscriminately.

    Also as a big fan of the Sensible Ladies – Elinor boring? Oh Justine, you infidel.

    That said, equality is always the sexiest thing…

  8. Justine on #

    Marjorie: I think I’m afraid I’m a bit too like Emma. It makes the book too hard to read. I would, of course, love to be a Lizzy.

    Julia: I do like Catherine. But she is so dumb! How did she not notice how awful Isabella is? Honestly.

    Aimee: I think Catherine’s a beautifully written character. There’s definitely a there there. When I say they’ll wind up like Mr & Mrs Bennet I just meant the inequality in their understanding of the world. I cannot imagine Henry enjoying discussing books with Catherine. She’s not particularly insightful.

    Kristin: I haven’t seen that production. But there was one many many years ago from the BBC that got exactly what was so funny about the book.

    Sarah: I’ll re-read S&S, I promise. I haven’t read it since I was wee.

  9. Sherwood on #

    You are right–and I think this is why she abandoned the rewrite halfway through. The second half is basically a two joke wonder (the laundry list being the main one) and she would have had to utterly restructure the novel to make it work.

    Catherine and Fanny (the same age) are her youngest heroines, and I think she does a spiff job showing that girls that age can be observant, and even show nascent intelligence, but they are ignorant. And that “innocence” is not an attribute.

  10. Melanie on #

    It’s been at least a couple years since I first read Northanger, and I’m kind of sketchy on the specifics. I did recently see a movie adaptation with JJ Fields (I think), and Henry seemed to be younger.

    I’m definitely with you on Persuasion. It’s one of my all time favorites.

  11. Julia Rios on #

    I actually knew someone a lot like Catherin when I was a teen, and darned if she didn’t grow up to become a lot more world-wise and insightful. She always loved to read, and was willing to learn. I think she is the sort of person I would really enjoy conversing with now (though we haven’t really because we live far apart and only pass fleetingly online). I think Sherwood is onto something there with the innocence and ignorance point.

    Oh, and when I say Elinor doesn’t bore me, I mean she’s another of my favorites. I encourage you to re-read it if you haven’t since you were wee! You may also find Marianne more pitiable and giggle-inducing on the second go.

  12. Justine on #

    Sherwood: Absolutely. Her characterisation as ever is astonishingly good.

    Very good point about the innocence/ignorance. I still find her total blindness to Isabella heard to swallow.

  13. Dhobi ki Kutti on #

    Huh. I would never in a million years have thought to describe Catherine as stupid. Innocent, yes, and credulous, certainly. But someone with that strong a sense of honesty and forthrightness and kindness and enthusiasm just doesn’t read as stupid to me.

    Also, I thought the differences between the levels of Catherine and Henry’s intellectual engagements were meant to mirror their economic class differences; one is worldly and sophisticated and well-versed in the manner of meaningless small talk, even as he does not think much of the banality and hypocracy of it. And meanwhile the other has fundamental goodness and generosity of spirit, but has not learned how to read and be favourably read by society. Which makes them in some ways, a gender-reversed image of Darcy and Lizzy. So how come Catherine’s social cluelessness in the face of Tilney’s merry witticisms damn her to inferiority in a way that Darcy’s does not?

  14. Alexa on #

    Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen book. Linking to your post yesterday I think Noel, from the Ruby Oliver books, has a certain Captain Wentworth vibe, especially in the letter writing department 🙂

  15. Marni on #

    Persuasion is also my favorite book so far, slowly working through them one by one and I’ve only got Northanger Abby left. I finished Mansfield Park today and was a bit worried that I was going mad, because the few people who’ve talked about it to me have sung it’s praises to the high heavens. I, on the other hand, while I pitied Fanny, could not admire her and on the whole felt the book to be a bit preachy. That being said, Austen’s storytelling and characterizations remain engaging and interesting enough to merit any book of hers being read so I think I will try Northanger Abby after all.

  16. Sherwood on #

    Justine, re Isabella, I suspect that Austen was pulling a Charlotte Lennox–only doing it satirically instead of with preachy, high melodrama. There are too many meta essays on novels and Gothiks and young women and how they get their information–that novel might have begun as a one joke wonder but when she began rewriting it, it turned into a commentary on girls’ language and education and reading. Too bad she abandoned the rewrite halfway through, so we’re left with her journeyman version in the second half.

  17. Debbie Cowens on #

    I’ve always liked Catherine as a character and I adore Henry but I agree with Justine that their relationship seems less convincing than most Austen romances. Certainly, they don’t seem to spark with each other and there’s no real point when I understood why he would fall for her.

    I think Catherine is an excellent character for demonstrating the charm and folly of naivety mixed with enthusiasm. She both parodies the innocent heroines of the novels she loves and also embodies the passionate and devoted enthusiasm of gothic fandom. If she lived in the modern world, she would totally be wearing a ‘Team Edward’ T-shirt.

    Catherine doesn’t strike me as stupid, just lacking in maturity and understanding of the world. It feels like she’d grow up and would become a wiser individual that would be more suited to Tilney in a few years.

  18. margaret (aka Cassandra) on #

    I am in complete agreement with Kristin– the most recent BBC adaptation is marvelous. I think that the parody bits are actually much more fun to watch than they are to read about, making the funny bits funnier, and the actress they cast as Catherine is just so funny and so endearing that you can’t help but love her. And JJ Feld as Henry Tilney is just delightful.

    Aside from that, I feel Northanger Abbey serves an incredibly valuable function for Austen fans, at least for Austen fans who– like me– are sprightly and talkative and just a touch flighty: it finally gives me an Austen heroine I can compare myself to without feeling like I’m putting on airs.

    I mean, I think I’m a bit like Lizzie Bennett, but she’s LIZZIE. You can’t just say you’re like her! She’s possibly the most beloved heroine in the entire English cannon! That’s like saying I think I’m one of the most beloved people in the entire world. However, if you can’t say you’re Lizzie (and really, who could without blushing?) you’re plum out of luck for the rest of them. No one wants to be Fanny (what a wet blanket), if you’re like Emma you obviously don’t realize it (because Emma never would), if you’re like Marianne then you think you’re just like Catherine– Earnshaw, that is. If you’re like Elinor then you’re far too busy doing something practical to sit around comparing yourself to Austen heroines all day, and if you’re like Anne then a) well done, you and b) you’d probably far too humble to call attention to it.

    So that just leaves Catherine– she’s warm and funny and quite endearing. Even though she’s a bit dim, it’s really only because she hasn’t seen much of the world, and because she spent too much time reading books, and really, what Austen fan couldn’t relate to that? By the time you’ve reached the book’s end, she’s been burned by a couple rotten people, and she’s ended up much wiser. Most importantly, if you describe yourself as “Like Catherine Moreland, only a little more grown-up,” at least no one is likely to think you’ve got a swollen head.

  19. Ying Lee on #

    I’ve just realized that Mrs. Bennet is like a cautionary tale for what might have happened to Catherine Morland: ignorant, complacent and good-natured, married to a man too indolent (so Austen’s narrator tells us) to exert himself in the education and improvement of his wife & daughters.

  20. mb on #

    Gosh, poor Fanny. No one likes her. I rather do, though. I find Mansfield Park fascinating. Fanny is more constrained than any other Austen heroine — with less power, less social status, no money at all. No wonder she clings to her moral compass — what else has she got?

  21. Dhobi ki Kutti on #

    @mb – I love Fanny! The cousin-cest thing doesn’t bother me because its set in a time and place where the taboo does not exist, and I find her rightiousness and struggle to stay true to her self of morality to be feirce and compelling.

  22. kristin cashore on #

    My problem with Fanny was that I was always getting furious on her behalf — everyone treats her so badly! — and wished she would get mad more often, stand up for herself. I always came away from the book feeling that she was Austen’s weakest heroine. But then I was talking to a friend one day who pointed out that Fanny never, ever compromises her ideals; she never gives up on what she believes in; she would rather accept a life of hardship, and even heartbreak, rather than behave inappropriately or be someone other than herself. None of those things add up to “weak.” That made an impression on me. Next time I read it, I’m going to look at it through those glasses, and see if I can forgive her for being what she is — meek — rather than think of her as what she isn’t — weak.

  23. Liz on #

    Delurking here to fly to the defense of Northanger Abbey. While I agree that it’s one of the weaker of Austen’s books (although perhaps my taste is suspect–Mansfield Park is my all time favourite), the whole Catherine-is-besotted-with-Henry thing is what makes the book more than just a gothic parody. What Austen is doing here is creating one of the first feminist fictional characters. At that time period, it was pretty much a social code written in stone that women not only didn’t express, but didn’t feel love for a man until he had proposed to her. It was seen as unladylike. So the fact that Austen isn’t afraid to show that women can in fact fall in love first is pretty revolutionary! Although you’re right, the relationship is a little unbelievable.

    /end essay

  24. Harriet on #

    I’ve always kind of felt that Northanger Abbey straddles the divide between her juvenilia and her ‘real’ books. Although it’s not as broad as, say, Love and Freindship, the characterisation doesn’t even come close to being as sophisticated as in the other major works. Maybe on par with Lady Susan (though of course it’s a different style of book). If it hadn’t actually been published (posthumously) back in the day, I wonder if it would now be considered one of the “major” works, or if it would have been stuck in collections of juvenilia or minor/unfinished works.

    FWIW, I don’t think Henry and Catherine would end up a Mr and Mrs Bennet – or even a Mr and Mrs Palmer. She doesn’t have Mrs Bennet’s vulgarity, and although she may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, she is not unteachably stupid like Mrs Palmer. Unlike these two ladies, I don’t think she would continuously embarras her husband in public. Although I agree that I don’t ever see her being Henry’s intellectual equal.

    Incidentally, I’d argue that the Emma/Knightly pairing is almost as unequal, but much more believable. Emma has much to learn from Knightly, but I get the sense that his character is fully formed, and he’s not really going to change after the book finishes. Unlike, say, Darcy. Though I re-read Emma almost as seldom as Northanger Abbey, so maybe I’ve overlooked aspects.

    I’d also vote for Persuasion as Best Jane Austen – in fact, as Best Book In The Universe.

    Y’know, Justine, I have a distinct memory from the 1980s of you saying you thought Fanny was a strong character. Have I been imagining this all these years? Or do you admire her strength, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you like her as a person?

    Sorry for the really long comment. But I can never resist talking about Jane Austen.

  25. Harriet on #

    I agree with those who enjoyed the recent adaptation of Northanger Abbey. I thought it was a lot of fun – especially the scenes of Catherine’s wild imagination. (Not in the book, but very funny in their over-the-topness.)

    But the other two adaptations done at the same time …. I thought Persuasion had its moments, but it committed some truly unforgivable sins; and the Mansfield Park was so bad it defies description.

  26. Justine on #

    Harriet: Fanny’s an amazingly strong character. Totally has backbone and sticks to her principles under pretty trying circumstances. I do admire that but I cannot actually like her.

  27. imelda on #

    I love your taste in Austen. I, too, hate Fanny and hated Northanger Abby for exactly the reasons you gave. Henry was so condescending and I couldn’t figure out what he liked in Catherine. I did not feel any sort of triumph when they finally got together.

    And Persuasion has got to be Austen’s finest work. I mean, P&P is obviously magnificent, too. I wonder… are you a Bronte fan? I’ve found that Persuasion appeals to readers who like the Brontes and similar works, because it’s so much more introspective than the rest of Austen’s work.

    (Plus, Northanger Abbey making fun of gothic novels rubs Bronte fans the wrong way– another reason I’m asking)

  28. Justine on #

    Imelda: Oh no! I love Northanger Abbey. I think it’s hilarious! It’s just the romance that doesn’t work for me. It’s not my fave Austen—it may even be one of my least faves of hers. But I am an Austen lover so least fave is still good.

    I am also a Bronte fan. Yes, even poor neglected Anne. But I’ve never understood the Brontes being the opposite of Austen. For starters Charlotte’s books are not the same as Wuthering Heights of as Anne’s. While there are similarities the three sisters are their own writers. And none of them are the opposite of Austen. It is very possible to love all of them.

  29. imelda on #

    Justine: sure– as I said, I love Persuasion, and I also love the Brontes. That said, I think CB and EB tend very strongly in one direction (dark, gothic, morally preachy, emotionally overwrought, a little wild) while Austen tends in the other (witty, civilized, concerned with society and interactions more than the individual or inner mind’s workings). And Persuasion seems to toe the divide more closely than any other Austen work.

    (I’m not speaking of Anne because, like Kate Beaton, I can’t remember anything she wrote [though I have read her]. Also, for CB I’m thinking mostly of Jane Eyre, because I actually have never read someone who prefers any of her other books)

    Finally, sorry for misunderstanding your feelings about NA! For me, JA novels are so much about romance that I figured if you don’t like the romance, you don’t like the book. But I got you. I hate pretty much all the characters in Mansfield Park, but I think it has a lot of interesting symbolism when read from an imperialism/colonialism POV.

  30. imelda on #

    Oops. Above, I meant “I have never met someone who prefers any of her other books”, of course, not that I’ve never “read” someone who does. Hee.

  31. Kaethe on #

    Northanger is my favorite of Austen’s books, and as another who identifies with Catherine, I won’t hear ill of her marriage. In the modern film parlance, Tilney is a bit of a geek who needs a manic pixie dream girl to bring joy to his drab life. He needs a warm and loving wife in contrast to his awful father. Seriously, someone needs to do something with that man or Christmas dinners will be miserable forever.

    They will absolutely NOT turn out like the Bennets, because they both enjoy reading, and Catherine will make sure he gets outside and plays with the kids, rather than hiding in his study, and she is much too practical to be holding court in her boudoir while suffering from her nerves. Mrs. Bennet lacks Catherine’s ability to recognize her own flaws and to laugh at her own foolishness. Catherine will make sure her children are provided for.

Comments are closed.