Northanger Abbey is one of Jane Austen's earliest works, composed in 1803 and sold shortly after completion to Crosby & Co., however the bookseller had a change of heart and it was eventually returned to Austen over a decade later; she revised it, and it would be finally published after her death in December 1817. Consequently there is by way of am advertisement a brief paragraph at the front of the book a note of concern that Northanger Abbey may be a little outdated:
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. That any bookseller should think it worth-while to purchase what he did not think it worth-while to publish seems extraordinary. But with this, neither the author nor the public have any other concern than as some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete. 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 somehow manages to appear fresh and modern in her novels (so much so that I never fail to be surprised that she was born in 1775, the same year the beginning of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is set) so Northanger Abbey, approaching its 200th anniversary, is not dated. It is a wonderful novel, one I've always loved even when I was struggling to like Austen's works.
The novel has several threads. Firstly, it is a playful satire of the Gothic novels (often delightfully referred to as "horrid novels") that were so popular in Austen's lifetime, like The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796; there's currently a read-along of The Monk hosted by Reading Rambo, by the way), and Ann Radcliffe's The Italian (1797) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the latter of which the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, is obsessed with (I would add that I have read The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho, and indeed The Monk, and I absolutely cannot stand Ann Radcliffe!). At the start of the novel she tells her friend Isabella, "... while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable", and later,
Catherine was then left to the luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho, lost from all worldly concerns of dressing and dinner, incapable of soothing Mrs. Allen's fears on the delay of an expected dressmaker, and having only one minute in sixty to bestow even on the reflection of her own felicity, in being already engaged for the evening.
Several times too throughout the novel she refers to it, asking others if they too have read it. So excited by Udolpho, Catherine begins seeing parallels of the Gothic with reality and when she comes to stay at Northanger Abbey with her friends the Tilneys her over-active imagination leads to a painfully mortifying and humiliating realisation that these works are novels and nothing more, and should not be taken to seriously.
But this isn't an attack, and another thread of Northanger Abbey is actually a defence of the novel which, during that period and even later, was seen as a frivolous hobby, and women writers could never hope to achieve the master-status of their male counterparts. In describing the early friendship of Catherine and Isabella, Austen writes her defence in this famous passage:
They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other's train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
The final thread of Northanger Abbey is the 'coming out' of Catherine Moorland. At the start of the novel she is young and inexperienced, 'not a born heroine' to paraphrase the first sentence. Austen goes on,
She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy's plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief—at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. Such were her propensities—her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.
Despite these faults she is one of the most loveable of Austen's heroines in my opinion. She is soon invited by her family's friends the Allens to go to Bath, Somerset - a very fashionable city in its time. Her circle extends as she meets a variety of people, making friends with the Thorpes and the Tilneys, and her experience grows and naïvety wanes. She soon begins to fall for Henry Tilney, and at the time her friendship with the superficial Isabella Thorpe grows, though at the time Catherine is unable to see how manipulative Isabella is. She comes to prefer the company of the Tilneys - Henry and his sister Eleanor, but the Thorpes - John and Isabella, and her brother James always get in the way of her arrangements, however when they invite her to Northanger Abbey and it is here the novel is gradually tied together.
In this sense Northanger Abbey is a bildungsroman in that we see Catherine's 'coming of age'. She changes somewhat from the beginning of the novel, the young girl whose inexperience and innocence leads her to some silliness and regrettable decisions, however she matures whilst still retaining her kindness and sweetness. As with many of Austen's novels one of the primary themes is wealth and social class, Catherine coming from a poor family and Henry, her love interest from a wealthy one, and we see much of the rich and fashionable. But Catherine finds her way, at times with mishaps, and so, on the whole, it is a happy and charming account of her young adulthood.
To finish, some illustrations. These are by C. E. Brock from the 1922 edition published by J. M. Dent & sons: