Jane and Catherine Join Society: Northanger Abbey’s Plot and Publication

By Grace Hogsten ’25

Major: English; Minors: Gender Studies, Creative Writing, and Journalism, Editing, & Publishing

The following was written for ENG 394: Jane Austen

Photo by Samuel Wu00f6lfl on Pexels.com

Although Northanger Abbey was one of the last of Jane Austen’s works to be published, it is one of her earlier written works. Before writing Northanger Abbey, Austen had not been able to publish or sell her work. She had no experience with the world of publication, yet she continued to explore her personal writing style and wrote many novels before her first novel was published. Catherine Morland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey, is a 17-year-old girl entering society and the marriage market for the first time. She is inexperienced and often confused by the unsaid rules of social interactions. Furthermore, Catherine Morland adores gothic novels, a genre which influenced much of Austen’s early work, including Northanger Abbey itself. Catherine Morland’s character, interests, and journey in Northanger Abbey mirror Austen’s career, and specifically Austen’s process of writing and publishing Northanger Abbey; both young women explore new opportunities, experience difficulties along the way, and search for their places in society.

Jane Austen and Catherine Morland are both described as having great potential. In the brief biography included in the 1818 edition of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s brother wrote, “Being not only a profound scholar, but possessing a most exquisite taste in every species of literature . . . Jane [was] . . . at a very early age . . . sensible to the charms of style, and enthusiastic in the cultivation of her own language” (Austen, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion vi). She was an intelligent, skilled writer, before she had published, or even written, her now-famous novels. She explored her personal style of writing through stories penned for family and friends. She devoted time and effort to her writing, which would eventually result in her critically acclaimed books. Similarly, at the beginning of the book, Catherine is ready to enter society, and is only waiting for her opportunity. The novel says that “from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine” (Austen, Northanger Abbey 3). Catherine spent her early adolescence in her small town, surrounded mainly by her family, becoming a young woman ready to enter the marriage market and make friends in adult social circles. She had not been to balls or other formal social events, but she was prepared to come of age and form new relationships—or at least as prepared as she could be. Austen’s early potential, and that of her protagonist, provide a foundation for the similarities between Catherine’s search for a place in proper society and Austen’s journey to publish Northanger Abbey.

Another clear similarity between Jane Austen’s authorial pursuits and the adventures of her character Catherine Morland is the importance of gothic literature. Gothic, romantic literature was very popular during Austen’s time; she was familiar with the genre, and it influenced much of her early work, particularly her juvenilia. Author Cecil S. Emden described “the whimsical and often extravagantly phrased diction to be found in much of her juvenilia” (Emden 281). Austen’s juvenilia contains shorter stories that are dramatic, and heavily influenced by romanticism and gothic novels. One such story, Love and Freindship, feature many dramatic situations and extreme emotional reactions from characters, including copious fainting. According to Waldo S. Glock, “the parody of Gothic romance links Northanger Abbey to such juvenile work as Love and Freindship” (Glock 33). Northanger Abbey takes great inspiration from gothic literature; Catherine loves gothic literature, and starts to imagine that the world around her is as full of dramatic scandals are terrifying secrets as a gothic novel is. In Bath, Catherine reads The Mysteries of Udolpho, a gothic novelby Ann Radcliffe (Austen, Northanger Abbey 23). Not only does this scene introduce us to Catherine’s love of gothic novels, but it shows that Austen herself is familiar with popular gothic novels of the time, since she has chosen to reference the name of a real novel. Austen further displays her knowledge of gothic tropes through Catherine’s imagination. When Catherine stays at Northanger Abbey, she is distrustful of General Tilney, and “that [the late] Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of course food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed” (Austen, Northanger Abbey 150). Catherine feels ill at ease around the general, so she jumps to the conclusion that he must have kidnapped his late wife. She is imaginative, and her mind has been captivated by the drama of gothic novels. Her obsession with gothic literature references Austen’s early work in the romantic drama. Catherine approaches an unfamiliar, uncomfortable situation through the framework of gothic literature. Likewise, Austen wrote many stories, such as Love and Freindship, as parodies of the popular gothic genre while she cultivated her personal style.

Northanger Abbey, a novel in which a girl enters society for the first time, was the first of Austen’s books to be sold to a publisher. When Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, none of her books had been published. At her father’s request, she sent a copy of Pride and Prejudice to a publisher, who rejected it without even reading it. Nevertheless, she continued to write, and started the work that would become Northanger Abbey (Hughes-Hallett 17). Though she had written stories for her family, she had never sold or published her work. Despite previous rejections, she promoted Northanger Abbey, and did sell it to a publisher (Austen xxiii). When she was writing Northanger Abbey, Austen had already ventured out into the world of publishing, where she persevered despite experiencing some rejections. Similarly, the novel starts when Catherine goes to Bath with Mrs. Allen, a neighbor who is “aware that if adventures will not befall young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad” (Austen, Northanger Abbey 5). Catherine journeys to Bath so that she can join proper society and enter the marriage market. Catherine now socializes as a young woman, and not as a child; there are so many adventures awaiting her. However, Catherine, too, must face disappointment as she attempts her debut. At Catherine’s first ball, “she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room” (Austen, Northanger Abbey 8). She makes it to the ball, but can only watch the other young people dance and socialize; she doesn’t know anyone, so no one asks her to join them. Instead, Catherine spends her time with Mrs. Allen and waits for a better opportunity. For the time being, she is trapped by social conventions. When Austen was writing Northanger Abbey, she was in a similar position to Catherine’s: she was exploring new opportunities and experiencing both disappointment and success.

Furthermore, Austen and her character both experience a breach of trust that sets back their progress. While Austen was able to sell Northanger Abbey, her publisher held the rights and did not publish it. In the brief note accompanying the 1818 edition of the novel, Austen writes, “This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn” (Austen, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion xxiii). When Austen sold Northanger Abbey, she believed that she would finally be published. However, the would-be publisher had other plans—the novel’s publication was cancelled with no explanation. Over a decade later, after most of her novels had already been published, Austen struggled to regain the rights to Northanger Abbey; her intended publisher refused to give her the rights without payment. (Hughes-Hallett 62). Again, the bookseller disrespected Austen and her work—he did not value her work, but sought to charge her for it. When she originally sold the book, she had been an unknown, inexperienced female author. She returned with experience and connections, but still faced adversity. Similarly, Catherine is manipulated by her trusted friend Isabella, who takes advantage of her naivety regarding social situations. The narrator writes that Catherine is often blind to the emotions and relationships of others (Austen, Northanger Abbey 28). Catherine is accustomed to smaller-scale interactions within her home, so she cannot decipher social cues regarding situations such as the courtship between her brother and her friend Isabella. Thus, she relies on others’ explanations of these events. Catherine realizes that Isabella is only interested in marrying her brother for money, but when Isabella denies it, Catherine “endeavored to believe that the delay of the marriage was the only source of Isabella’s regret; and when she saw her at their next interview as cheerful and amiable as ever, endeavored to forget that she had for a minute thought otherwise” (Austen, Northanger Abbey 107). Catherine knows that she is inexperienced, so she trusts Isabella and feels guilty for doubting her motives. However, in this instance, Catherine is right. Isabella is upset that the Morlands are not as rich as she thought, but she uses her position as Catherine’s trusted friend to confuse her. Austen’s journey to publication and Catherine’s adult social life both experience twists and turns of broken promises and betrayal; the two have no status or experience, so they find themselves at the will of people who do not have their best interests at heart.

Nevertheless, both women eventually find success. As is illustrated by the 1818 publication of Northanger Abbey, Austen eventually regained the rights to her novel and published it. Accompanied by a short biography and a note from the author, it entered the world and became a well-known novel beloved by many. The process of publishing Northanger Abbey was long, and success was not guaranteed. The novel was not even published until after Austen had died. At Northanger Abbey’s end, Catherine, too has succeeded. She is married to Henry Tilney and has found a true friend in his sister, Eleanor (Austen, Northanger Abbey 205). Despite her mistakes and miscommunications, Catherine is able to find her place in society. She marries a man who can not only provide for her, but who she loves. She also forms a close friendship with Eleanor, who becomes a wise and caring confidant to her. Catherine experiences many awkward interactions, setbacks, and even betrayals throughout her introduction to society, but she eventually finds the right people and the right environment for her to thrive. In the end, Austen and Catherine achieve their goals despite adversity.

Catherine Morland’s experiences are similar in many ways to Jane Austen’s process of writing, selling, and eventually publishing Northanger Abbey. Although Austen could not have known how her novel would fare as she was writing it, the novel parallels her own journey well. As a female author with no experience in publishing, Austen wrote a story about a young girl’s coming of age. Catherine takes a trip to Bath and starts attending balls, just as Austen begins to send her novels to publishers. Northanger Abbey shows the protagonist exploring new possibilities; it illustrates the process of leaving the predictable comfort of the home, and becoming a part of wider society. As Austen wrote Catherine’s story and decided upon an ending, she didn’t know what her own ending would be. She had no guarantee that Northanger Abbey—or any of her work—would be published. However, she completed Catherine’s story, and, perhaps, expressed hope for her own. She kept writing, and created a story about a girl who learns and grows, achieving her goals despite the obstacles she encounters along the way. Austen knew that her path to publication would be difficult, but she knew that she would try; Northanger Abbey is a hopeful look at what could—and would—be.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, London, John Murray, 1818.

—. Northanger Abbey. New York, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Emden, Cecil S. “The Composition of Northanger Abbey.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 19, no. 75, 1968, pp. 279–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/513140. Accessed 2 December 2022

Glock, Waldo S. “Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of ‘Northanger Abbey.’” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 32, no. 1, 1978, pp. 33–46. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1347760. Accessed 12 Dec. 2022.

Hughes-Hallett, Penelope, editor. The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen. Clarkson Potter, 1990.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s