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Northanger Abbey is an early novel by Jane Austen. Though it wasn't published until after her death in 1817, Austen wrote the novel in 1803, intending it as a satire of the gothic novels that were popular during this period. Northanger Abbey follows the life and loves of its unlikely heroine, seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a naïve young woman away from her family for the first time and trying to navigate the world and the heart—with all their innate complexities. This study guide references the 2002 paperback Modern Library Classics edition, which is edited and introduced by Robert Kiely.
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Catherine is one of ten children born to a clergyman in the small English village of Fullerton. Life is fairly humdrum and routine, and Catherine finds escape in the gothic novels of the day, which exercise an enormous influence upon her. Mr. and Mrs. Allen are a wealthy childless couple who invite Catherine to visit the resort town of Bath with them as their guest. In Bath, Catherine meets Henry Tilney, a charming young man of good social standing. She also strikes up a friendship with Isabella Thorpe, a daughter of one of Mrs. Allen's old friends. Coincidentally, Isabella's brother, John, is at Oxford with Catherine's brother, James, and the two are friends.
As Catherine's feelings for Henry grow, so too does her friendship with Isabella. She and Isabella attend all the balls of the season and spend their idle hours sharing gossip and reading the gothic novels they both love so much. Catherine, due to her naivety, does not initially realize how superficial and false Isabella’s friendship is, although this becomes more apparent as the novel progresses. Meanwhile, Isabella and James plan to marry. This quasi-engagement does not stop Isabella from overtly flirting with Henry's older brother, the dashing Captain Frederick Tilney, just a few days later. Catherine's innocence causes her great confusion as she tries to make sense of Isabella's contradictory behavior.
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Henry, his sister, Eleanor, and their father, the controlling General Tilney, leave Bath, but they ask Catherine to visit them at their family home, Northanger Abbey. While there, Catherine’s gothic reading habits lead her over-active imagination to misinterpret her surroundings and to speculate that General Tilney may have murdered his wife. Henry eventually confronts her about her overly gothic perspective on life, informing her that his mother's death was of natural causes. Catherine then fears that her imagination and lack of worldliness have driven Henry away for good. However, Henry never mentions it again, and their relationship continues.
James breaks off his engagement to Isabella after he learns that Isabella has been secretly seeing Frederick. However, Frederick never intended to marry her; he was only flirting. Isabella's predicament makes her the source of considerable gossip and all but ruins her. As Catherine watches Isabella's ostracism from polite society, she comes to realize for the first time that Isabella and the Thorpes had been using and manipulating both her and James for some time. The friendship she shared with Isabella, Catherine realizes, was all a charade, as was the romance between Isabella and James.
Shortly thereafter, General Tilney leaves Northanger Abbey for a trip to London. The atmosphere in the home immediately brightens, and Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor enjoy themselves for several days. Then the General returns home in a fury. He kicks Catherine out, forcing her to make the seventy-mile trip back to Fullerton by herself. Dejected and utterly confused by this chain of events, Catherine returns home. She struggles to reconcile all the joy of her newfound feelings for Henry and her fondness for Eleanor with the sudden exile imposed upon her by the General.
Henry follows her to Fullerton. He explains that the General encountered John Thorpe in London, and John told the General that the Morlands were impoverished. General Tilney felt the disparity in social classes was too great, which is why he cast Catherine out. Nevertheless, Henry has made the journey to Fullerton in defiance of his father and as a testament of his love for Catherine. He proposes, and she accepts. When they tell her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Morland accept the news, but they inform the couple that the marriage can only move forward with General Tilney's approval.
In the meantime, a wealthy nobleman proposes to Eleanor. This leads General Tilney to change his mind about Catherine, since Eleanor's husband will ensure the Tilneys stay in solid social standing. The General also learns that while Catherine's family is not wealthy, they are far from penniless, as John had claimed. With the General's approval granted, Catherine and Henry marry.
By Jane Austen