Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey (1817) is a novel written by the British author Jane Austen. The novel was originally written in 1803 but would not be published until after Austen's death. It is a comedic parody of Gothic literature and follows the story of the naive and sheltered Catherine Morland. 

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Table of contents

    Jane Austen was inspired to write Northanger Abbey after reading The Female Quixote (1752) by Charlotte Lennox. The Female Quixote is a parody of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605/ 1615). Austen used Lennox's novel as a model for Northanger Abbey.

    A Summary of Northanger Abbey

    Northanger Abbey is divided into two sections: Book I and Book II.

    Book I

    Northanger Abbey focuses on Catherine Morland, the naive 17-year-old daughter of the Morlands. The story begins with the Allens, a wealthy landowning family in Wiltshire, who wish to take Catherine Morland to the wealthy resort town of Bath. The Allens and the Morlands are family friends, and Catherine is the Allens' favorite Morland child. Catherine excitedly accepts the offer, especially as she has not traveled much and is quite sheltered. The Allens take Catherine to Bath where she is introduced to many new and exciting people. At the ball, the first person she meets is Henry Tilney, a clergyman. After spending an evening dancing with one another, Catherine falls in love with Henry due to his charm and wit.

    Northanger Abbey, Bath England Bridge, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Catherine Morland goes to Bath with the Allens.

    Next, Catherine meets Mrs. Thorpe, an old friend of Mrs. Allen, and her daughter, Isabella Thorpe. Isabella and Catherine become fast friends after Isabella introduces Catherine to the novel Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. Isabella loves to gossip and is superficial and introduces Catherine to Bath's social world, which is full of social displays such as balls, fashion styles, and of course, gossip. Mrs. Thorpe disapproves of Catherine's interest in Henry, as she schemes to set her up with her son, John. By marrying Catherine, the Thorpes would be marrying into a family far more wealthy than they are.

    Not long after, John Thorpe, Isabella's brother, arrives in Bath with Catherine's brother, James. Isabella is instantly interested in James and begins to flirt with him. They quickly fall in love, but Catherine is too naive to notice. John, who likes Catherine, decides to flirt with her, even though she is not entirely interested in him. Later, while they are all attending the ball, he tries to dance with her, but while at the ball, Catherine sees Henry. She hasn't seen Henry since the first ball she attended in Bath. Catherine decides she much prefers Henry to John, who comes off as arrogant and rude, so she spends the night dancing with Henry.

    Isabella spends the majority of her time with James rather than Catherine, so Catherine is forced to spend time with John. Finding this too unpleasant, Catherine becomes friends with Henry's sister, Eleanor Tilney. It doesn't take Eleanor much time to realize Catherine has feelings for Henry. The Thorpes begin to notice how close Catherine is getting to the Tilneys, and they begin to sabotage the situation to separate them. One day, Henry and Eleanor plan to take a walk with Catherine, but it rains, ruining their plan. Seeing this as an opportunity, Isabella pressures Catherine to go riding with James, John, and herself. However, on the way, she sees Henry and Eleanor going to Catherine's house for the walk they had planned. Because the rain had stopped, Eleanor and Henry assumed they would still go on their promenade. Catherine desperately asks John to stop, but he refuses, much to her dismay.

    Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor reschedule their walk. However, Isabella and John pressure Catherine to go out with them again. Catherine doesn't bend to the pressure and simply refuses to go. Then, Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor walk to Beechen Cliff, where they discuss novels, particularly Gothic novels, which are Catherine's favorite type. She is so delighted to have made friends, but her delight soon turns to surprise. When Catherine returns from Beechen Cliff, she discovers James and Isabella have gotten engaged. At the same time, Catherine learns that John is leaving Bath for many weeks. She is relieved, but doesn't know that John believes she is in love with him. This great misunderstanding will cause Catherine much suffering later in the novel.

    Book II

    Book II begins with Captain Frederick Tilney, Henry's older brother, arriving in Bath. Isabella, now engaged, begins to flirt with the captain. Mr. Morland approved James and Isabella's engagement and promised them 400 Pounds a year, but they must wait two and a half years to be married. Isabella is disappointed in James's modest income and turns her attention to the Captain. Catherine doesn't notice Isabella's behavior, but Henry does and is concerned. However, Henry is reassured that the Captain will soon leave Bath with his regiment and that a scandal will be avoided.

    Eleanor decides to invite Catherine to Northanger Abbey, the home of the Tilneys. Catherine accepts as she expects the abbey to be like the Gothic ruins in her favorite novels. Catherine is also excited to spend more time with Henry. However, right before her departure, Catherine learns John is planning to propose to her. Catherine is horrified and turns to Isabella for help. She asks Isabella to write to John, explaining that Catherine does not love him and that he was mistaken.

    Northanger Abbey, English Castle, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Catherine goes to Northanger Abbey in Book II.

    Catherine is soon on her way to Northanger Abbey and tells Henry how she envisions the Abbey as a Gothic ruin. Henry teases Catherine and tells her that the Abbey is full of mysteries and secrets. This fuels Catherine's overactive imagination. Upon arriving, Catherine sees that the Abbey is rather plain and Catherine is slightly disappointed. However, Catherine soon learns that nine years prior, Eleanor and Henry's mother, died. Catherine also notices that General Tilney, their father, does not seem upset by the death of their mother. Catherine's overactive imagination leads Catherine to believe the General must have imprisoned their mother in a secret chamber, or worse, he must have killed her.

    Catherine's fixation on all things Gothic and the late Mrs. Tilney leads Catherine to sneak into the dead mother's room. She finds nothing, but Henry catches her. Henry is annoyed by her behavior and explains to Catherine, who is now deeply embarrassed, that the General loved Mrs. Tilney with all his heart. Catherine promises she will be better behaved and let go of her Gothic obsessions. Henry decides to never bring up the topic again.

    Not long after, Catherine receives a letter from James. In the letter, James tells Catherine that his engagement to Isabella is off. Isabella has decided to instead become engaged to the Captain. This concerns both Henry and Catherine, as Henry is aware of his brother's behavior. Catherine is also deeply affected and realizes Isabella is not as good of a person as Catherine originally believed her to be. Later, they receive another letter from a distraught Isabella. The Captain had been merely flirting with her and never intended to marry her. Isabella wants Catherine's help to tell James she is sorry, but Catherine is too angry and wishes she had never met Isabella.

    One day, Catherine, Henry, and the General are all at Henry's house in Woodston, where the General hints at a marriage between Catherine and Henry. This delights Catherine, and when the General leaves for London on business, the Abbey takes on a light and happy mood. That is until the General returns and orders Eleanor to send Catherine away. Eleanor, who is ashamed, sends Catherine back to her home in Fullerton. Catherine doesn't understand what happened and waits at home sadly. One day, Henry shows up and explains to Catherine what happened. He is ashamed of how his family treated her.

    While the General was in London, he ran into John. John, who was upset over Catherine's refusal of his proposal, told the General that Catherine's family was destitute. John had previously told the General, that Catherine belonged to an incredibly wealthy family. The General feels betrayed and only wishes to marry his son to a woman from a wealthy family. Regardless, Henry loves Catherine and proposes to her. The two must wait several months before receiving consent to marry because the Morlands will only consent to marriage if the General does.

    A few months pass, and Eleanor marries a wealthy, influential man. Eleanor's engagement makes the General happy because he only wishes his children to make advantageous marriages. During this joyful time, the General also realizes the Morlands have moderate means and are not poor, as John had said. This changes the General's feelings towards Catherine, and he consents to Catherine and Henry's marriage. The novel ends happily with the marriage of Catherine and Henry

    Characters in Northanger Abbey

    Here are the key characters to know from Northanger Abbey. The three main families that appear in the novel are the Morlands, the Tilneys, and the Thorpes.

    Character Description
    Catherine MorlandCatherine is a naive and quiet seventeen-year-old who loves to read Gothic Novels. Due to her naivety, she is often frustrated and confused by the actions of the people around her.
    James MorlandJames is Catherine's brother and friend of John Thorpe. He is very caring and falls in love with Isabella.
    Henry TilneyHenry is a witty and intelligent man from Woodston who enjoys novels as much as Catherine. He is typically cynical and finds humor in human behavior. He falls in love with Catherine.
    Eleanor TilneyHenry's sister and Catherine's friend. Eleanor is shy and loves to read. She doesn't have many friends due to her quiet nature.
    General TilneyHenry and Eleanor's father, who is domineering and proud. He places importance on money and wealth and only wishes his children to marry into wealthy families. He can be rude at times, causing people like Catherine to dislike him.
    Isabella ThorpeIsabella becomes Catherine's friend in Book I but when she flirts with the captain while she is engaged to James, Catherine becomes angry. Isabella is superficial and loves to gossip.
    John ThorpeIsabella's brother, who believes Catherine is in love with him. He is arrogant, superficial, and proud.
    Captain Frederick Tilney Henry and Eleanor's older brother, who falls into mischief. He flirts with Isabella, who is engaged, and is quick to leave her when she breaks off her engagement.

    Genre of Northanger Abbey

    Northanger Abbey belongs to a subgenre of Comedy called Parody.

    Comedy (English Literature) is a genre in which the main purpose of the literary work is to be amusing and humorous to the reader. Comedy is often lighthearted and contains witty wordplay, puns, and juxtaposition.

    Parody is the imitation of both the style, manner, and techniques of a particular genre or school of writers.

    Northanger Abbey is a humorous parody of the genre of Gothic literature. Gothic literature was becoming increasingly popular when Northanger Abbey was written.

    Gothic literature is a literary movement that emerged in the late 18th century and includes elements of terror, death, the supernatural, horror, and an emphasis on emotion. The stories are typically set in dark, eerie settings that are picturesque.

    Northanger Abbey pokes fun at Gothic Literature, particularly in the second half of the novel, in which Catherine arrives at the Abbey. She expects a dark, spooky castle, but is confronted with a normal abbey. Rather than include the element of terror, Austen chose to make Gothic tropes humorous.

    In Chapter 21, Catherine is in her room at the Abbey, and she becomes fixated on a cabinet. Her imagination causes her to think the ordinary cabinet must have some supernatural and mysterious elements to it. Suspense builds as Catherine nears the cabinet to open it.

    "Catherine’s heart beat quick," (Chapter 21).

    However, after much suspense, Catherine finds the cabinet to be ordinary and empty.

    "With less alarm and greater eagerness she seized a second, a third, a fourth; each was equally empty. Not one was left unsearched, and in not one was anything found," (Chapter 21).

    In this example, Austen infused the scene with Gothic elements such as a mysterious and supernatural cabinet, an eerie mood, and the build-up of suspense and tension. However, in a humorous turn of events, the cabinet is ordinary. In this way, Northanger Abbey is a parody of Gothic literature.

    The Setting of Northanger Abbey

    There are two main settings in Northanger Abbey: Bath and Northanger Abbey. The story is set in England in the early nineteenth century. The early nineteenth century saw the increase in popularity of Gothic Literature. Austen was able to take elements of Gothic Literature, particularly the setting, and create a clever twist on the genre. Other settings in the novel include Fullerton and Woodston. Fullerton and Woodston are representative of middle-class villages and domestic life, different from the upper-class scenes of Bath and Northanger Abbey.

    The novel begins in Bath, an ordinary place where members of the upper-class resort. Bath has all the normal elements of an upper-class resort, such as balls, shows, shopping, and lots of gossip and flirting. Much of the novel takes place here, and Austen uses Bath to introduce characters and create foundations for the action in Book II.

    Northanger Abbey, Abbey Gothic Ruins, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Catherine imagines the Abbey to look like the ruins in Gothic novels.

    Book II sees a wholly different shift in setting to the castle of Northanger Abbey. It is here that Catherine's imagination blurs the lines between her favorite Gothic novels and the reality of the Abbey. The Abbey is a realistic depiction of the homes of the very wealthy in early nineteenth-century England. In Catherine's mind, she expects the Abbey to be the haunted ruins of her favorite novels and searches for Gothic elements throughout the novel. Catherine quickly realizes her imagination has taken her too far when she is caught sneaking into the room of Henry's dead mother.

    Themes in Northanger Abbey

    There are many themes in Northanger Abbey, but the two main ones are naivety and youth, and deceit.

    The theme is the main idea or meaning of a literary piece that is found throughout the entirety of the work. It is usually conveyed through literary elements such as the characters, the setting, or the plot.

    Let's take a closer look at each theme!

    Naivety and Youth

    Naivety and youth is a major theme in Northanger Abbey. When we are introduced to the character of Catherine, she is characterized by her sheltered life, naivety, and youth.

    Catherine did not know her own advantages -- did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward" (Chapter 14).

    In this quote, it is clear that Catherine is unaware and sees every situation as innocent and childlike. She is unaware when John is interested in her and when Isabella becomes close to James. Furthermore, She is unaware that Eleanor realizes Catherine's feelings for Henry. Catherine also naively and foolishly falls into the fairy tale that Northanger Abbey will be like the Gothic ruins in her novels. Her naivety gets Catherine into unexpected trouble, such as when Henry catches her snooping around his late mother's room. This is Catherine's folly or lack of good judgment and sense. By the end of the novel, Catherine is still young but less naive about her circumstances.


    Northanger Abbey is full of lies and people lying to each other. The novel's major plot points are based on someone lying to another, which is a clear message from Austen. The novel is focused on the Upper-Class Society of England. Catherine leaves her humble home of Fullerton and is thrown into a world of lies in Bath, which shows that even what is considered polite society is simply a mask. Behind the mask are people who scheme and lie to raise their social standing, become wealthier, or both.

    There are many clear examples in the novel. The most striking example is when John Thorpe lies twice to General Tilney for his gain and hurt pride. Originally, when John still believes Catherine loves him, he tells General Tilney she is from a wealthy family to make her more desirable according to society. However, when John learns Catherine does not love him, he lies once more. He tells the general she is, in fact, from a dirt-poor family, ruining her reputation and status.

    Because of John's lie, Catherine is made to leave Northanger Abbey and be separated from her love, Henry. When the truth is revealed, Catherine can marry Henry.

    Northanger Abbey - Key takeaways

    • Northanger Abbey is a novel written by the British author Jane Austen in 1803 (Published 1817).
    • It follows the story of Catherine Morland, a naive and sheltered girl, as she is confronted with the world of the upper-class and wealthy in Bath and at Northanger Abbey.
    • The novel belongs to a subgenre of Comedy known as Parody, and it is a parody of Gothic Literature, which was popular at the time of the novel's publication.
    • The novel has two key settings: Bath and Northanger Abbey.
    • The two main themes in the novel are folly and deceit.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Northanger Abbey

    What is Northanger Abbey about? 

    Northanger Abbey is about Catherine Morland's experience with the upper-class society of Bath and Northanger Abbey. 

    When did Jane Austen write Northanger Abbey

    Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in 1803, but it was published posthumously in 1817. 

    How many pages is Northanger Abbey? 

    Northanger Abbey is 288 pages. 

    When is Northanger Abbey set? 

    Northanger Abbey is set in the early nineteenth century. 

    Who wrote Northanger Abbey

    Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey

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