Northanger Abbey’s comedy has serious takeaways for the aspiring romantic heroine.
Northanger Abbey is seemingly no one’s favorite Jane Austen novel. It’s not Pride and Prejudice, which needs no introduction; it doesn’t have numerous beloved adaptations, like Emma; and it’s not her most mature and serious work, Persuasion, which the internet assures me should be the favorite of real adults. Northanger Abbey’s superlative, per Vox’s Constance Grady, is Jane Austen’s funniest novel. And I agree. That’s why it’s my favorite.
Northanger Abbey’s main character is Catherine Moreland, a 17-year-old who reads a lot of novels and fancies herself a heroine. When she goes to stay in Bath, she meets the Tilney and Thorpe siblings, hijinks ensue, and she ends up falling in love with the dashing Henry Tilney, and goes to stay with him and his sister in their family’s austere manor. Having internalized too many novel plots, Catherine surmises she’s walked into a real-life murder mystery, and keeps finding clues that Henry’s father murdered his mother.
These assumptions understandably offend Henry. Being an Austen romance, however, interpersonal and family conflict is resolved and the characters end up in the “perfect happiness” of marriage.
I was around 17 when I first read the book; I too read a lot of novels and fancied myself a heroine. Perhaps less has changed since then than I’d like to admit. I still sometimes have the tendency to imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennett walking around the muddy countryside, or Frederick Wentworth, returning from a long journey abroad, love letter in hand.
But not to digress. What I most loved about this novel at 17, and now, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Austen has her tongue firmly in her cheek from the first chapter:
[Catherine’s] greatest deficiency was in the pencil—she had no notion of drawing—not enough even to attempt a sketch of her lover’s profile, that she might be detected in the design. There she fell miserably short of the true heroic height. At present she did not know her own poverty, for she had no lover to portray. She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed!
When I was planning this piece, I read about the Gothic Novel themes of Northanger Abbey that had passed me by as a teenager. While it undoubtedly provides a deeper perspective, you don’t need to know the context to enjoy the book. I am struck by how funny Austen is, how humor is a deeply accessible and human thing that can transcend centuries and cultures. John Thorpe’s obsession with carriages and the refusal to slow down wouldn’t be out of place in 21st-century America, except with cars. Upon Henry and Catherine’s first meeting, they are immediately bantering and laughing.
“And are you altogether pleased with Bath?”
“Yes—I like it very well.”
“Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. “I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—“I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: 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.”
“Indeed I shall say no such thing.”
The following discussion, touching on the equality of women and Henry buying dresses for his sister, is perhaps my top Austen hero moment, because a) it is funny — Henry is funny — and b) romance is great and all, but with gender household labor gaps still stark 200 years later, aren’t all women-looking-for-men searching for someone who contributes equally to the household?
Humor is important to romance. One of the first things my mom wants to know about my dating prospects is about their sense of humor. I’ve never been quite sure this is the No. 1 quality I’m looking for, but far be it from me to argue with my parents’ wonderful 30-year-marriage, in which they contribute equally to housework and laugh together every day.
It’s Catherine’s realization that she needs to take herself less seriously that leads to her happy ending. There’s a lesson here for those of us — like my teenage self who sometimes slips her way into my now — with the tendency to see ourselves as the main character of a story, going through life with little thought about the effects on others.
As Catherine comes of age, she has to learn that she’s not living in a novel — though, paradoxically, she is — and is not the heroine she thought she was; and in fact, her misconceptions are driving her actions to hurt a person she loves. When she realizes this, she opens herself to the possibility of other paths, and finds that she is a heroine in a way she couldn’t have planned or expected.
While the book recognizes the limitations of novels for life-planning, it’s also a celebration of them, decrying the sexism from which critique of novels stems. Austen’s rejoinder to critics of young ladies who read novels is just as relevant as a rejoinder to those who critique my love of romance novels today:
It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which 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.
It is Catherine and Henry’s mutual love of novels, along with their shared wit and humor, that makes them a good match.
I’m not an Austen heroine, nor was I meant to be. But we’re all Catherine to some extent: as we mature, learning to act with more compassion for the feelings of others, realizing we’re not the main characters, and finally, unabashedly experiencing the joys of conversations and novels and affection, coming to not take life too seriously.
I love Jane Austen; give me your heartfelt love confessions, agony and hope, sense and sensibility. But what I’ve always loved most about her is her humor. Life, and love, are better when you’re laughing.