"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."
Northanger Abbey is a lively parody of the gothic novel and the story of a young and naïve heroine’s path to self-knowledge and a better understanding of others.
Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey "about the years 98 & 99," according to a note left by her sister, Cassandra. Austen was 23-24 years old, and it seems likely that her first visit to Bath in 1797 inspired her to set part of the novel in that city. The manuscript was originally titled Susan but was renamed Northanger Abbey when it was published posthumously.
After completing Susan, Jane Austen set it aside until the spring of 1803, when Henry Austen’s lawyer, William Seymour, sold the manuscript on her behalf to publisher Benjamin Crosby & Co. for £10, with the understanding that it would be published soon. When six years passed with no activity, Austen decided to communicate with the publisher herself. In April 1809, a few months before moving to Chawton, she wrote to Crosby using the pseudonym “Mrs Ashton Dennis.” Reiterating the original agreement, she tactfully offered to send another copy of the manuscript if it had been lost, but she closed the letter with a warning that if she received no reply, she would feel “at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere.” And she signed the letter with a witty jab:
I am Gentlemen &c &c
In reply, Richard Crosby denied that the firm had agreed to early publication and threatened to take steps to “stop the sale” if Susan were published elsewhere. He also offered to sell the manuscript back for the original £10, but Austen did not take him up on the offer—presumably because she didn’t have the money to do so. Finally, in the spring of 1816, when she was in a position to reclaim the rights to Susan, her brother Henry bought the manuscript back from Crosby for £10 on her behalf.
In 1816 Austen was already writing her final full-length novel, Persuasion. It is believed that she made few revisions to Susan after the manuscript was reacquired. Austen changed the name of the heroine and the working title to “Catherine” because another novel called Susan had been published in 1809. She also added a preface to the novel, explaining to readers that it had been finished thirteen years earlier, in 1803:
The public are entreated to bear in mind 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.
Jane Austen mentioned the novel in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight on March 13, 1817: “Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out; but I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence. It is short, about the length of Catherine.” That “something” was Persuasion.
Jane Austen died four months later, on July 18, 1817. In her will, she left her unpublished novels and the copyrights to Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma to her sister. Henry and Cassandra Austen negotiated with John Murray to publish the remaining manuscripts as a four-volume set on commission, with “Catherine” renamed Northanger Abbey and Austen’s untitled, final work named Persuasion. Advertisements in the Morning Chronicle and other newspapers show that the books were published on December 20, 1817, although the title page is dated 1818. Volume 1 included a “Biographical Notice of the Author” written by Henry Austen, which revealed for the first time in print that Jane Austen was the author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.
A review in the March 1818 edition of the British Critic praised the realism of Jane Austen’s works overall, commenting that they “display a degree of excellence that has not often been surpassed.” The reviewer continued, “she makes her dramatis personae talk; and the sentiments which she places in their mouths, the little phrases which she makes them use, strike so familiarly upon our memory . . . that we instantly recognize among some of our acquaintance, the sort of persons she intends to signify, as accurately as if we had heard their voices.” The review also praised Northanger Abbey as “one of the very best of Miss Austen’s productions” but judged some of the incidents to be “rather improbable.”
A May 1818 review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine also praised the realism of Austen’s novels: “The singular merit of her writings is, that we could conceive, without the slightest strain of imagination, any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England.” Her works in general were lauded: “We have always regarded [Austen’s] works as possessing a higher claim to public estimation than perhaps they have yet attained. They have fallen, indeed, upon an age whose taste can only be gratified with the highest seasoned food.” The anonymous reviewer went on to say that Austen “has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing” and “will be one of the most popular of English novelists.”
The latter critic was indeed prophetic. Modern readers continue to enjoy Austen’s novels 200 years after they were first published, admiring especially her realistic characters, witty dialog, and universal themes.
Explore the resources below for more in-depth information about Northanger Abbey, a discussion guide for your reading group, and more.
• Title page of first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (Wikimedia Commons)
• Illustration by H. M. Brock, 1898