Northanger Abbey is the most anomalous of Jane Austen’s novels. It was the first finished and the last to be revised; the first sold for publication, the last (with Persuasion) to see print; a novel of her youth that has many touches of an old master. It is also a book closely tied to one of the important forms of the eighteenth century, the gothic novel. Gothic tales feature innocent heroines who, betrayed or abandoned by family and associates, meet with strange and terrifying happenings in the dark corners of gloomy castles or eerie old houses. Several of Austen’s juvenilia played with gothic norms, making Northanger Abbey a bridge between her youthful writing efforts and her mature fiction.
Gothic motifs are only one aspect of the book, of course. The primary story involves a naïve country girl, Catherine Morland, who journeys to the big city to come out into the world. Her social forays in Bath introduce her to the Thorpes and the Tilneys; her own brother arrives to create three sets of brothers and sisters. The interactions among these six create friendships, love interests, and conflict. Brian Southam, citing Cecil Emden, believes that the gothic was an add-on to the main event: “Jane Austen added the gothic element to a story which was originally concerned with a young girl’s entry into society” (62). It is impossible, however, to reconcile this view with the book’s basic structure. Gothic elements set the edge and form the building blocks of the beginning of the work. A gothic parody opens the story, which is always the hardest step for every writer, then returns from time to time as part of a unifying framing device. Further, the love story grows out of the gothic, in two senses. First, Catherine’s interactions with Henry Tilney intersect at times with the gothic themes, which would not have been possible had the gothic been tacked on. Second, the relationship eventually moves beyond the gothic humor. To follow the Southam-Emden interpretation, Austen must begin with a mature relationship story and add less mature gothic sidebars. The book ripens in the opposite direction.
Using the gothic foundation as the starting point, this paper takes an approach noticeably different from most examinations of Austen. It asks the question: How did she write the novel? This architectural method of examining the way Austen, as a young author, built the story, expands beyond the technical; for the how also informs us of the novel’s why—its meaning. The process discovers new associations and contexts, leading us to a better understanding of her authorial intent and new insight into the sense of many passages.
Austen makes only a few comments about writing in her surviving letters, and nothing that addresses her methodology or her writing process. Her rewriting of the one canceled chapter from Persuasion shows her ability to fundamentally reconceive a scene. The final handwritten text also shows that she was a tireless reviser at the word and sentence level. But posterity has no information about how she planned a novel, how she structured the plot, or how she revised her novels to resolve major structural issues; for example, if it proved necessary to recast a sequence of scenes because a major subplot faltered. Certainly nothing exists to document how she approached the creation, organization, or revision of Northanger Abbey. Consequently, any reconstruction of her approach is inherently imperfect, and the results are inherently inexact. It is the literary equivalent of an archeological dig. Further, it’s more like a dig beneath an existing city than an examination of a separate and fully preserved tomb like King Tut’s. A modern literary explorer must trace the remnants of the original form and deduce changes and improvements by comparing what appear to be different levels in the writing—levels of time, levels of structure, and levels of quality. This “forensic” examination is based on a thorough sifting of the text, thoughtful reflections on how the discovered pieces fit together, and what conclusions can be logically drawn. But sensible extrapolation is not the same as formal proof. The reader must weigh the evidence herself. Still, the re-creation of Austen’s writing steps in Northanger Abbey leads to what this author believes are eye-opening results. If the reader does not agree with the general conclusion, the hope is that she will see and appreciate the individual literary artifacts that turn up along the way. After all, what could be more appropriate for a gothic-based novel than a journey down through its shadowy recesses?
A method to frame the work
Gothic features provide a running joke through the first half of the book. Catherine’s father did not routinely lock up his daughters. Her mother didn’t die birthing Catherine, which a decent gothic mother ought to do. As a child, Catherine is the tomboyish anti-heroine who “greatly preferred cricket” and other boys’ games to dolls and other traditionally feminine activities (13). It is not until she turns fifteen that she begins to pick up the attributes of the traditional romantic heroine, who must be able to survive the most outrageous calamities, usually by fainting at critical moments. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the best-known gothic novel, records at least eleven faints and seventeen near-faints by the heroine, Emily, and four faints and three near-faints by others. (The difference between a faint and a near-faint is whether the syncopette becomes fully “insensible.”) In Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s developing heroine skills include memorizing “those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives” (15).
When Catherine goes with her neighbors, the Allens, to Bath, she finds the gothic everywhere she looks. She exchanges commentary with her new friend Isabella Thorpe about Radcliffe’s book. “‘While I have Udolpho to read . . . nobody could make me miserable,’” Catherine says (41). She compares Beechen Cliff above Bath with the vistas of Udolpho’s France (106) and makes reference to three countries being as “fruitful in horrors” as Udolpho (200). These are all views she has read about in gothic novels, not seen. Eight other “horrid” novels are mentioned, including The Monk (40, 48).1
Catherine becomes enamored with the exploration of gothic piles hither and yon. First there’s Blaize Castle, at which she anticipates “the happiness of being stopped in their way along narrow, winding vaults, by a low, grated door; or even of having their lamp, their only lamp, extinguished by a sudden gust of wind, and of being left in total darkness” (88). Blaize, of course, is a double joke. The first is the running gag about Catherine’s enamorment with all things gothic. The second is that the castle is not an ancient ruin at all but a modern facsimile, a “folly.” Then there’s the Tilney family home of Northanger Abbey: “Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach [and she might find] some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun” (141). Her joy is not solely sourced to the gothic, of course. She goes “with Henry at her heart, and Northanger Abbey on her lips” (140); “[h]er passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney” (141). Henry plays into her desires for the gothic by weaving a three-page spell of detailed but imagined clichés awaiting her at the abbey. These include a broken lute, a ponderous chest, a mysterious portrait, a violent storm, a hidden opening, a dagger, drops of blood, the remains of a torture instrument, and an enticing, old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold (157–60).
Despite her hopes, Catherine Morland never encounters such phantasmagoria at the Tilney home. Arriving without seeing so much as an “antique chimney,” Catherine is forced to reexamine her expected “massy walls of gray stone” against the sight of “lodges of a modern appearance.” Rather than being dark and damp, Northanger is instead, Catherine discovers, a clean, well-lighted place. Every windowpane “was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing” (161–62). The abbey even includes the latest energy-efficient Rumford fireplace, which would be the 1800 equivalent of solar panels.
Shortly, Catherine follows the very story line that Henry has mapped out. Her search of the “high, old-fashioned black cabinet” follows all the romantic conventions in great gothic detail. The specificity of the imagined gothic horror is mirrored by the succeeding contrasting detail of Catherine’s actual experience. The result is the destruction of Catherine’s fantasies. She grabs the papers she found in her search, which she hopes will be the “awful” memoirs of some “ill-fated woman.” Her “greedy eye” quickly scans the small disjointed sheets before her.
Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false?—An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! . . . [S]he held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, cravats and waistcoats faced her in each. Two others . . . marked an expenditure . . . in letters, hair-powder, shoe-string, and breeches-ball. And the larger sheet, which had enclosed the rest, . . .— a farrier’s bill! . . . She felt humbled to the dust. Could not the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom? A corner of it, catching her eye as she lay, seemed to rise up in judgment against her. (172–73)
This scene, much richer in detail than most other scenes in the novel, contrasts with the feverish gothic-inspired initial search (another scene with uncharacteristic details). Like evidence building in a court case, this brick-by-brick laying in of specificity destroys her gothic fantasy and brings her back to reality. The last line in particular is magic. Catherine’s fancy is so chastened that it brings to life an inanimate object to condemn her foolishness.
The effect of the gothic tradition
Austen plays with gothic conventions in Northanger Abbey to contrast the effects of Catherine’s overly active imagination against cold reality. As adroitly as Austen handles the parody, however, the gothic elements do not necessarily serve the developing love story between Catherine and Henry. Nor do they necessarily serve Austen’s development as a young writer. The gothic template used in Northanger practically begs for the narrator to wring her hands over the fate of her protagonist. Consequently, Austen the author breaks into the story repeatedly. She uses the word “heroine” twenty-four times. “Heroine” means more than the female protagonist; here it means the sensitive, beset-upon, fainting-inclined young lady of gothic lore. Austen often self-references—five “my” heroines and three “our” heroines. She even takes to “professing myself” that the General’s delay in agreeing to their marriage enables Catherine and Henry to get to know each other better (252). Austen refers to herself in the third person at one point as “her biographer,” meaning Catherine’s (233). Such distracting references, which take the reader out of the story, decline when Austen explores the relationships between Catherine and the Tilney siblings.
Most of the youthful humor in Northanger comes early as Austen uses “instead of” clauses to set extreme gothic conventions against ordinary human behavior or reactions. “Instead of dying in bringing [Catherine] into the world, as any body might expect,” Mrs. Morland “still lived on” to have six children more (13). “[I]nstead of turning of a deathlike paleness and falling in a fit on Mrs. Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses, and with cheeks only a little redder than usual” (53). But this first novel begins to show subtlety, where silliness morphs into irony and nonsense evolves into wit and wisdom. As the story develops, the “instead of” clauses normalize. Catherine’s reactions could be that of a proud gothic heroine or just any proud girl. “Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured, . . . instead of proudly resolving . . . to shew her resentment . . . she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause” (93).
The gothic framing device, however, has an archeological interest. It does not encompass all of the novel, or even most of it. After setting the book in motion, it largely disappears into the background. It’s like the foundation of an ancient church discovered to be supporting the walls of the modern church built over it. From the remaining outlines of the original, one can trace the shape of the earlier and humbler edifice. A comparison would be to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. One can see not only the underground foundations of the preceding church, built by Constantine; one can go a step lower to discover what the Vatican says is the original burial tomb of St. Peter himself. In the reverse, starting with the origins, we begin with a small but respectable local necropolis; over this structure is built a much larger, more impressive building; over that one comes the final magnificent basilica of today. So it is with Northanger Abbey. A literary excavation reveals the presence of possibly three different periods of construction of the novel.
Simply put, there’s a very good chance that Northanger Abbey began as one of the longer, later pieces of Austen’s outrageous juvenilia. Over the next seven or eight years—and possibly longer—she developed the final novel in major, separate stages. The original juvenilia would have been similar to Love and Freindship, Lesley Castle, Evelyn, and The Bower.2 The first three feature gothic parody; the last, a tentative first step at a relationship story. That is, they collectively represent awkward, early versions of what appears in Northanger Abbey. Sensing its potential, Austen developed this juvenile production from the fragmentary beginning to a mid-length work with mature themes. Afterward, she kept updating and revising the text until it became her first completed novel. The nature of this development accounts for some of the unevenness of both the structure and the quality of the writing.
Austen’s niece, Caroline Austen, makes a telling reference to the late juvenilia when she writes to her brother, James Edward, who was putting together the first memoir of their aunt. Caroline thinks James Edward should include the “nonsense” story Evelyn, an extreme gothic satire. She does not, however, want James Edward to include what she calls the “betweenities.” She explains this coinage as those stories “when the nonsense was passing away, and before her wonderful talent found [its] proper channel” (J. E. Austen-Leigh 186). By 1869, when Caroline writes, “nonsense literature” in the form of comedic exaggeration had become recognized. Well-known examples were Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense in 1846 and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in 1865. It’s not clear whether Caroline refers specifically to the literary type or to the more general meaning of the word “nonsense.”
Either way, she recognizes in these late stories that Austen is moving away from the “burlesque” and “comic exaggeration” of the juvenile stories toward her “finished and later writings” (186). She appears to be saying that Austen’s nonsense was different enough from her adult work that it would not affect her reputation. On the other hand, the “betweenities,” which probably included Lady Susan, mixed in enough mature material with the immature material that they might muddy Austen’s adult reputation. Thus, Caroline sets the context that young Austen wrote not only pure nonsense but also something else—more than nonsense and less than her adult fiction. That half-and-half combination might have defined the very earliest draft of Northanger Abbey.
The rest of this section lays out the framework by which this author believes Austen developed Northanger Abbey. The steps are summarized in the following chart, then described in depth in the text that follows.
Version 1. By following the “my heroine” tracers in Northanger Abbey, one can see the original “nonsense” story of an impressionable, gothic-besotted adolescent who has a series of adventures that contrast the sensibilities of the usual gothic gal with Catherine’s ordinary life situations. Austen parodies gothic conventions in Love and Freindship, Lesley Castle, and Evelyn, so another story in this portfolio would not be unreasonable. As an example of the gothic parody, in Love and Freindship, Laura and Sophia coincidentally come upon their lost husbands, whose phaeton has just wrecked. The reunion occurs as the two men tragically expire. “Sophia shreiked and fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran mad—. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, & on regaining them were deprived of them again—” (Minor Works 99). It would take just a few thoughtful rewrites to move from this hyperbole to the more restrained but still overstated Northanger Abbey, which sends up other gothic conventions. In addition to the parodic descriptions of the Morland parents, the narrator also tells us that the hero is not a foundling and that neither robbers nor tempests waylay Catherine on the road to Bath. Upon her arrival at the abbey, “The breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her” (161). She must convince herself that she has nothing to fear from “midnight assassins or drunken gallants” (167).
This first version of the novel includes the heroine who believes everything is just “‘like what one reads of’” (85) and who perceives gothic hauntings in almost everything around her: “Catherine had expected to have her feelings worked, and worked they were” by her imagination (193). This story, all nonsense but executed with adroitness, is the primitive buried tomb. It concludes with Catherine being “humbled to the dust” by expecting to discover a woeful note detailing the tragic history of a woman held prisoner in the abbey. Instead, she finds a laundry list and a farrier’s bill compiled by a gentleman’s servant. She gives thanks that no one else knows. “Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fancies. . . . Heaven forbid that Henry Tilney should ever know her folly!” (172–73).
Version 2. One of the curious features of Northanger Abbey is that Catherine has not one comeuppance, but two. The humorous self-recognition above is rapidly followed by a more serious public accounting. Henry surprises Catherine as she explores the bedroom of his mother, who died nine years earlier. Startled by Henry’s appearance, Catherine blurts out her suspicions that she had been murdered by Henry’s father, General Tilney, or put away somewhere in the house. Horrified, Henry gives her a severe dressing down. The humiliation brings her foolishness fully to mind: “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. . . . [I]t had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion . . . by a mind which . . . had been craving to be frightened” (199–200). The end of “romance” has two meanings: both the romance story she imagined and the romance she hoped to have with Henry.
Novelistically, Catherine needs only one moment in which she recognizes her self-created delusion. She achieves it in the earlier scene. Why would she then explore Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom in another uncontrolled gothic craving? Why the need to repeat her learning within a day or two? The answer brings us to the second stage of the novel’s construction, the deepening relationship with Henry. This development ties back to the late juvenilia. Austen’s longer pieces show a richer level of writing than the brief ones. Even in exaggerated form, there is more exposition, more character development, more believable action. Though it contains pockets of parody as opposed to satire, The Bower strikes a very serious tone. This “betweenity” is in no way comical in its initial exposition of the situation of the heroine or her friends. One girl is forced to travel to India to find a husband, as happened with Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia. The critique of the wealthy Stanley family is closer to adult satire than adolescent mockery. There is a well-done introduction scene between Kitty and Edward Stanley, who turns out to have all the positive qualities that his sister, Camilla, and their parents lack.
The story also has several parallels with Northanger Abbey, beginning with the name of the title character. Chapman’s standard Oxford reference has the name as Catharine, along with the nickname Kitty, which is used most of the time. Jane Austen: Teenage Writings by Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, however, analyzes the handwritten manuscript of The Bower to reveal that Austen actually used the name Catherine (-er rather than -ar) (237). This, of course, is the same spelling as the name of the heroine of Northanger Abbey. Catherine was altered later by Austen’s nephew James Edward.3 Like the lead characters in Northanger Abbey, Kitty and Camilla in The Bower discuss novels and history: “‘if a book is well written, I always find it too short’” (MW 199). Kitty’s conflicted relationship with Camilla resembles Catherine’s with Isabella. Kitty and Edward have exchanges that are as energetic as those of Catherine and Henry, though shorter. At one point Kitty says, “‘I am afraid your arguments divert me too much to convince me’” (219). Kitty and Edward have intellectual arguments that both engage and delight, as occurs more extensively in Northanger Abbey. Paula Byrne also finds political correspondences between the two books, specifically connections to the political unrest and turbulence in France (48–49).
This story develops mature reflections by Kitty, which are unfortunately marred by Austen’s parodic mood-killing representations of the behavior of both Camilla and Kitty’s aunt. When centered on Kitty, though, Austen creates what might be her first serious and sustained interior moments for a character. Kitty thinks of Edward that “she had not yet seen enough of him to be actually in love with him, yet . . . [t]here was a Novelty in his character which to her was extremely pleasing” (234–35). Her reflections carry forward over the next several pages to the work’s conclusion:
“And after all my doubts and Uncertainties, can Stanley really be averse to leaving England for my sake only? . . . Yet so soon to be in love with me!—But it is the effect perhaps only of a warmth of heart which to me is the highest recommendation in any one. A Heart disposed to love—. . . Oh! how much does it endear him to me!” (238)
No parody of the fainting or hysterical heroine; rather, a young woman thinking sincerely of love.
Most of Austen’s juvenilia have slap-dash endings. In The Bower, however, another Northanger issue, that of the domineering parent, arises. Edward’s “‘happiness is sacrificed to the vanity of his Father!’” Kitty thinks (238). Edward is genuinely torn when he is forced to return to France to tend to family business. He leaves without saying goodbye to Kitty for fear he would not be able to leave at all. Austen ties off the story here, with Kitty “in high spirits” on learning that he departs suddenly because he cannot trust himself to see her (239).
It may be that Austen thought the story was done when Kitty, alone again, is satisfied to know that Edward cares for her. Or the themes may have swelled beyond her ability. As an adolescent, she may not have known how, or lacked the confidence, to bring Edward back in some believable way. Or she may not have known how to develop a real relationship once they reunite. Yet the seeds were sown. She responds to the potential for more serious subjects built on real relationships.
Given the similarity of themes, The Bower might itself have been the progenitor of Northanger. Or perhaps Austen had in hand another story along similar lines that kept the hero about. This early version thus provided the opportunity for her to flesh out the relationship themes in the coming years. The Bower contains just a couple of scenes with the love interest present. On the other hand, the developing Northanger, which does not banish its hero (except briefly), has the potential for many more. The more serious liaison between Henry and Catherine expands into novella length. This work, then, becomes the intermediate structure and the main foundation for the final story. It culminates with the confrontation between the couple when she is exploring his mother’s room. The second humiliation scene is required because it provides the emotional intensity needed for them to realize how important they are to each other, leading to a final reconciliation. When they meet again at dinner a little later, Henry senses her need for comfort and “paid her rather more attention than usual.” Her spirits gradually rise as she hopes that her behavior might not have “cost her Henry’s entire regard” (199). Version 2 ends, that is, exactly where The Bower ends, at the point at which the two main characters recognize their affection for the other.
Version 3. Over time, the author realizes there is still more to do. Catherine’s awakening from her juvenile fantasies is just the beginning of adult consciousness. Henry must become more than a clever conversationalist. Likely, too, Austen had recognized the opportunity for, or sensed intuitively the potential for, a greater development of the female relationship—her one nonbiological but sisterly relationship, Catherine’s friendship with Eleanor Tilney. Thus, the last twenty percent of the content creates a superstructure that contains a mature love story, full and complete, plus very likely a much more fleshed-out relationship between the two young women. If Catherine’s work is to give up childish imaginings, Henry’s work must be to finally stand up to his father, whom Austen has developed into a complex and fierce opponent. The lovers must be (re)united against him. All the while, in returning to the text repeatedly, Austen has the time to flesh out existing scenes that in earlier iterations were, like much of her juvenilia, little more than dialogue or authorial exposition. The result is the finished novel.
One might raise a point of order, that this analysis alleges nothing more than that Austen wrote the novel in three major drafts, as most novelists do. The first draft framed the main issues but left much undone; the second draft expanded the storyline and deepened the characters; and the final draft finished any needed development and repaired or otherwise reconciled any remaining issues. At the very highest level, such an objection is true. In a typical literary novel written as a single, developing composition (often in roughly a year’s time), however, the final text would be relatively seamless. We would not end up with a novel built on two major separate conceits, one the gothic satire and the other a coming-of-age story (which might have light gothic touches). We would not have two scenes involving the same psychological self-recognition within twenty-five pages of each other. We would not have distinctly different levels of writing.
To return to the introduction of Catherine’s parents:
Her father was . . . a very respectable man, though his name was Richard— and he had never been handsome. . . . [H]e was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother, . . . instead of dying in bringing [Catherine] into the world, as any body might expect, . . . lived to have six children more. (11)
Here again is the scene in which Catherine’s senses “play her false” when she finds what she hopes is a manuscript describing a tragic tale. Instead:
An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! . . . [S]he held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, cravats and waistcoats faced her in each. Two others . . . marked an expenditure scarcely more interesting, in letters, hair-powder, shoe-string and breeches-ball. And the larger sheet, which had inclosed the rest, . . .—a farrier’s bill! . . . She felt humbled to the dust. (172–73)
Though both passages are humorous, the first is cramped and forced. It is not a scene but a series of general observations and negative exaggerations that lack real-world details. It’s a comedy routine similar in form and tone to one of Jane’s letters regaling her sister about a fat lady or adulteress at a ball. The second is smooth and expansive. It is full of marvelous specifics. In place of the author’s telling the reader about her characters, the reader experiences the character herself having an interior moment of mortifying recognition. The first “hand” is as distinctively immature, compared to the second, as any of the physical comparisons that Brian Southam has made in his own analysis of Austen’s handwriting. That later drafts of Northanger Abbey do not reconcile such artistic differences is a strong indicator that Austen returned to the work at substantially different times, building out and improving different parts, but not returning to rethink and redesign the novel holistically. She never stopped, poured a new foundation, and started fresh. As with a major construction project like a church, it was far easier to keep the original foundations, but such use also limited the size and shape of the new construction.
A love story that subsumes the rest
The two stories that matter in Northanger Abbey are the love story that grows between Catherine and Henry and the contrast between her false friendship with Isabella and her real one with Eleanor. Both stories are far more interesting—and meaningful—than the gothic schtick with which Austen begins. In the latter stages, when the story has left the gothic rightfully behind, Austen continues to inject a gothic reference here and there to try to keep a unified framing device. Fun as they are, these elements are like wooden supports that should have been removed after the concrete pillars set. They contradict the more serious elements that have grown up and through the earlier material.
Consider Catherine’s situation when she is abruptly shipped off by General Tilney. In the book’s most emotional scene, handled primarily through dialogue, Eleanor is forced to tearfully explain that Catherine is to leave early the next morning and that “‘no servant will be offered you’” for safe conduct home. Catherine will be “‘driven out of the house’” to undertake a journey of seventy miles, “‘at your age, alone, unattended!’” with no reason given, no apology that could “atone for the abruptness, the rudeness, nay, the insolence of it. . . . What could all this mean but an intentional affront?” (224–26). She keeps her composure until she sees the carriage pull up. Then: “Catherine’s colour rose at the sight of it; and the indignity with which she was treated striking at that instant on her mind with peculiar force, made her for a short time sensible only of resentment” (228).
When she finally reaches home:
Her [family] all assembled at the door, to welcome her with affectionate eagerness, was a sight to awaken the best feelings of Catherine’s heart; and in the embrace of each, as she stepped from the carriage, she found herself soothed beyond any thing that she had believed possible. So surrounded, so caressed, she was even happy!
Catherine’s heartbreak is palpable. She has been ripped from her dear friend Eleanor. She has been torn from the man she loves without being able even to say goodbye. She is exiled in a clear punishment but is baffled as to why. Austen’s objective rendering of Catherine’s travail provides authentic anguish. So what accounts for the following interjection as Catherine enters her home village of Fullerton?
A heroine returning, at the close of her career, to her native village, in all the triumph of recovered reputation, and all the dignity of a countess, with a long train of noble relations in their several phaetons, and three waiting-maids in a travelling chaise-and-four . . . is an event on which the pen of the contriver may well delight to dwell; it gives credit to every conclusion, and the author must share in the glory she so liberally bestows.—But my affair is widely different; I bring back my heroine to her home in solitude and disgrace; and no sweet elation of spirits can lead me into minuteness. A heroine in a hack post-chaise is such a blow upon sentiment, as no attempt at grandeur or pathos can withstand. (232)
The passage itself provides the answer: Austen wants to contrast her realistic heroine with an over-the-top romantic one. But she’s already provided the contrast in the plain telling of the situation. The artistic and moral discrepancy between the author’s commentary and her story is that Catherine’s mortification does not compare to the heroine of a hyperbolic romance. The antithesis to a conquering heroine returning in all her grandeur would be the selfish Isabella Thorpe, ruined by prideful behavior, bouncing home in a hay wagon. The contrast would not be to a caring young woman whose heart has been unfairly crushed.
Catherine’s mortification stands on its own, because her humiliation stands in contrast to any normal person returning home in any normal circumstance. Her situation is pathos. It needs no exaggerated romantic comparison to make it real. The irony fails because the story has surpassed the amusing but superficial conceit of the original burlesque. In this scene, Austen takes the camera off the suffering Catherine for an unnecessary selfie, thereby trivializing her heroine’s experience. The passage is an excellent example of the issue with authorial intrusion, when the writer steps from behind the curtain to speak as herself. In moments of high emotion, the author needs to remain silent, and let her characters act.
A bridge, and more than a bridge
According to Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister, Northanger Abbey (originally titled Susan) was written in 1798–1799. This timing would have been after Austen produced initial drafts of the novels that would become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Austen herself, however, said that the novel was “finished” in 1803, when she sold it to Crosby & Co. for £10.4 Crosby never published it. Further, just a few months before her death in 1817, Austen made remarks to her niece Fanny to indicate she had been recently working on the book.
Though Austen likely kept plugging away at the other two unfinished manuscripts after 1803, it’s unlikely that she did any more work on Northanger Abbey until at least 1809. After all, it had been sold. When she queried Crosby in April 1809 about why the book had languished, Richard Crosby’s response left her in limbo. He had no plans to publish, but he would sue her if she took the book anywhere else. There has never been a satisfactory answer for Crosby’s unwillingness to publish Susan except that it parodied gothic fiction. Crosby’s best-selling writers, including Ann Radcliffe, wrote gothic fiction. He may not have wanted to threaten his cash cows. It’s even possible that Crosby bought Susan specifically to bury it—a practice known in modern parlance as “catch and kill.” Margie Burns, in a 2017 article, proposes that Crosby pulled Susan because in it Austen unknowingly criticized two of Crosby’s publishing partners. Austen favorably contrasts the creative work required by novels with the noncreative work required to republish existing works (38–39). Crosby’s associates, F. W. Blagdon and Francis Prévost, Crosby’s business partners, were involved in just such compilations, specifically of The Spectator, which Susan called out (Burns 190–91).
It could be that by 1809 Austen had taken the other two novels as far as she could at that time and returned her attention to her first book. Another possibility: Most writers, settling into a location where they hope to finally be able to commit themselves to fiction, would begin by reviewing everything they had done to date. Austen may have used the move to Chawton Cottage for this purpose. She did ultimately revise all three early novels there.
It wasn’t until 1816 that Jane’s brother Henry repurchased the rights on her behalf for the original £10. After completing the purchase, according to family tradition, Henry had the pleasure of telling Crosby that the book he had ignored had been written by a now popular author. With the rights back in her possession, Austen evidently turned to her first work once more after completing Persuasion in August 1816. In a letter on 13 March 1817, she says that “Miss Catherine” (perhaps the new title) had been “put upon the Shelve for the present.” The phrasing suggests not only that Jane had been revising it but also that Fanny was already aware of her efforts. The two novels were published together nine months later, after Jane’s death. The book’s final name on publication was Northanger Abbey, a title evidently selected by her family.
Cassandra’s 1798–1799 chronology for the book’s creation would have meant that Austen embarked on, and completed, a third novel while wrestling with her two other major, unfinished manuscripts. At the same time, its burlesque humor, its faulty structure, and its “curious mixture of narrative tone,” to quote Honan in his biography (141), mark Northanger Abbey as less mature than its two supposed predecessors. These inconsistencies go away if we assume that its juvenile traits relate to a juvenile-era beginning. Indeed, Cecil Emden argues for a creation in 1794 (“Composition” 281). This date puts it close to The Bower and Lady Susan, “betweenities” that were promising but not quite ready for prime time. All of these would be of a quality that might be expected of a nineteen-year-old apprentice.
This betweenity, the small “hidden tomb” that contains the germ of the story, lies undeveloped for another four or five years. The 1798–1799 version, written by a more mature twenty-three-year-old, grows into the “medieval” structure, a novella that enrichens the relationship with Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Honan makes the sensible suggestion that Cassandra listed the 1798–1799 date because it marked when Jane completed the first “whole” draft (143). Since this novel was the first work sold, we can assume that from 1799 to 1803 Austen continued to focus most of her energies on it. This period is when she completed the work largely as we have it—the modern “basilica.” Honan wonders if the book’s problems are the result of too much editing between 1799 and 1803. The text shows the problem to be just the opposite: not enough editing to remove the juvenile traces.
In her “Advertisement” for Northanger Abbey, printed at the front of the novel, Austen apologized to readers in 1816–1817 for “those parts of the work” that were now “comparatively obsolete.” Austen adds “that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes” (12). Three things stand out in the statement. First, if Austen had started in 1798 and finished in 1803, it seems probable that she would have said that a “few more” years had passed since it was begun. Instead, she says “many more” years had passed, indicating a much earlier start. Second, her broad statement indicates that she had not made any major changes to address the many changes in society. Last, she may have also wanted to distance herself from gothic novels, which had fallen out of favor by 1816. A decision to avoid major rewrites would not have foreclosed her from making sentence-level revisions. A writer can do this kind of editing a little at a time, even if slowed or interrupted by failing health. Such was probably the nature of the 1816 work.
Whatever the final modifications, Austen kept the main edifice(s) intact. Southam makes note of her retaining the structural status quo. He says the novel remains:
close to its original form. Unlike the other [two] works it seems to have undergone no large-scale structural alteration, and the burlesque note . . . is prominent here. . . . In Northanger Abbey the patterns of burlesque are elaborate and ingenious, but they are not always related to the course of the heroine’s experiences and adventures. (61–62)
Without direct corroboration, conjecture about the novel’s development can never be formally proved. In an exploration of Austen’s development as a writer, however, the eye should always look for breaks, discontinuities, or uneven ground. Those present in Northanger Abbey signal hidden relics beneath the surface. The novel reflects a very youthful start. The satiric opportunities of the gothic format generate several exquisitely rendered moments of humor at Catherine’s expense. Most readers treasure these passages for the teenage girl’s runaway imagination and her hilarious chastisement. The gothic elements eventually become subsumed to the emerging love story between Catherine and Henry, creating the disconnect to the main plot cited by Southam and the “curious” shifts in tone mentioned by Honan. Emden also says that the later Catherine is much different than the early Catherine because Austen herself had changed so much between the writing of those episodes (“Composition” 284–85).
Originating as a spoof of the gothic, Northanger Abbey exceeded those bounds. Over the years of its creation, the young writer grew intellectually, psychologically, and professionally. Two literarily real events in the novel eventually supersede the gothic. The first is Catherine’s humiliation at the hands of the General, which opens her eyes to the seriousness of life and the dangers of the everyday rather than fantastic world. His uncontrolled anger is, itself, something Catherine has never experienced before. Also, though she reaches home safely, she faces seventy slow miles of exposure to the ordinary assailants of her own society rather than to febrile midnight assassins. The second comes in the meaningful relationships she establishes with Henry and Eleanor, which ultimately transcend the gothic satire. Northanger Abbey the book is remodeled and expanded like the abbey it describes, giving us the finished novel we have today. But its earlier architectural history remains visible, leaving a clear signature. And proof that Northanger Abbey is not only a bridge between Austen’s adult novels and her juvenilia. There is good reason to believe it began as one of her juvenilia.
3Sutherland and Johnston say that Austen’s nephew James Edward altered the name from Kitty Peterson to Catharine Percival in an effort to “gentrify” the language (xxii). Deirdre Le Faye evidently agrees, at least, about the name; in her Family Record, she spells the title “Catherine” without comment (73, 164). Sutherland and Johnston believe that Jane Austen allowed two teenage relatives, niece Anna and nephew James Edward, to revise and expand her own teenage writings as practice when they harbored thoughts of becoming writers. James Edward added three pages to the end of The Bower. His additions are included in most editions, as if the words were Austen’s. In the Chapman edition, as updated by Southam, the reader would not know of the difference without reading the notes at the end of the book.
4The amount Crosby paid, £10, was low for traditional novels. According to E. J. Clery, however, the amount was in line with the £10 to £20 paid by Minerva Press (94). Minerva was the first mass producer of popular fiction, including most of the gothic literature of the day. Minerva published six of the seven “horrid” novels in Northanger Abbey.