As the novel begins, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.” She’s not an impoverished orphan in need of saving nor a particularly handsome teenager. At 17, with the awkward early teen years finally over, her improved appearance still doesn’t inspire “rapturous wonder” in those who behold her. She’s pretty enough, and maybe even the prettiest girl in the room, but that depends on who else is there.
However, even a late 18th or early 19th Century heroine like Catherine will marry her hero, if she follows at least these two rules:
(1) Play Dumb:
“Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” [Chapter 14]*
(2) Conceal Your Feelings from the Object of Your Affection:
“It must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.” [Chapter 3]
Oh, and it also helps to be in Bath (or another social hot spot closer to home) and to have a healthy inheritance to your name.
These “rules” are the conventional wisdom of Jane Austen’s day, as perpetuated by other novelists (whom Austen refers to as a “sister author” and a “celebrated writer”). Austen’s heroine, though, finds her hero largely because she subconsciously breaks these rules, particularly #2. Her hero wouldn’t have noticed her had she not displayed an interest in him first. Of course the heroine would like him: he’s wealthy, has a “pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, [is] very near it.” He also likes to read the sorts of novels primarily read by the women of the day as much as his heroine does. He says, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Far too many people have dismissed Northanger Abbey and Austen’s other works as books for silly girls who “just want a boyfriend.” This novel may appear at first glance to be nothing more than a simple “girl meets boy” love story, but it’s really a parody of the gothic novels of the time, and it is full of insightful and witty commentary about late 18th and early 19th Century gender roles, marriage constraints, and social behavior.
I won’t go so far as to say that modern readers who don’t find pleasure in Jane Austen’s novels are “intolerably stupid,” but those who dismiss her body of work as silly must be.
Be sure to check out Katie’s Fellowship of the Worms (a read-along of Northanger Abbey), which encouraged me to revisit this novel (thanks, Katie!).
*In case you were wondering where the name of my blog comes from, here it is.