Readers of any age can benefit by reading Northanger Abbey. There are valuable lessons about education, friendship, artifice and truth. It is a rather difficult book to read and yet there is so much to be learned from this story, satirising as it does the Gothic novels of the 1800s when Austen was writing.
Most importantly for today is the lesson that emotional sensitivity is not necessarily a mark of virtue. Indulging in uncontrolled ‘feelings’ without reference to reality is a form of egoism. The story shows that true character must be developed with effort over many years. It doesn’t happen automatically.
The young Jane Austen might be described today as insensitive and even callous, describing her main character, Catherine, as, “…about as ignorant and uninformed as the mind of a 17-year-old girl usually is.”
Wow. One would expect today’s feminist world to take issue with this. We would do well, however, to take a better look at this seemingly plain and ordinary story, for history is showing a revival of the Gothic and the mysterious, the alluring power of ‘magic’ and ‘mystery’ without substance. Jane Austen was in fact writing to satirise the dominant popular literary heroines of her day. These were described as virtuous without effort, unblemished in every way and effortlessly accomplished in most areas. Young lady characters were extremely emotionally sensitive and usually ended up in dramas of one sort or other.
Catherine is happy that someone has called her “pretty”. She is obsessed with feelings and dreams rather than substance. Catherine sees her life as boring and ordinary, and so begins to reinvent herself according to the pages of the latest Gothic novel she is reading. She visits a real medieval monastery that has been converted into a modern home. Sadly she begins to read the popular Gothic novels over and over again so much so that she blurs the boundaries in her own life between fiction and real life. She thus makes mistakes with disastrously embarrassing consequences. She makes all the wrong friends as she fails to discern true strength of character and virtue from the mere appearance of manners.
Read on to find out whether her romances and friendships blossom at the end of the story.
Jane worked as a children’s and reference librarian for 14 years. She has a B.A. and a Grad Dip Library and Information Studies from Melbourne University.