Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

Before Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility, her father had tried to get her book Susan (the original version of Northanger Abbey) published. He failed and then her brother Henry took over and through his business partner, William Seymour, who was also a lawyer, it was sold to a London publisher, Crosby & Company. Austen received 10 pounds for it and was thrilled because that was about half her annual allowance and a wonderful deal for an unpublished author. Crosby & Company advertised that Susan would be published in 1803 in a brochure called Flowers of Literature but it failed to appear. Exactly why the book languished on the publisher’s shelves is unknown, but an unhappy Austen finally wrote to them on Wednesday 5 April 1809:

“In the Spring of the year 1803 a MS. Novel in 2 vol. entitled Susan was sold to you by a Gentleman of the name of Seymour, & the purchase money £10. recd at the same time. Six years have since passed, & this work of which I avow myself the Authoress, has never to the best of my knowledge, appeared in print tho’ an early publication was stipulated for at the time of Sale. I can only account for such an extraordinary circumstance by supposing the MS by some carelessness to have been lost; & if that was the case, am willing to supply You with another copy if you are disposed to avail yourself to it & will engage for no farther delay when it comes into your hands. – It will not be in my power from particular circumstances to command this copy before the Month of August, but then, if you accept my proposal, you may depend on receiving it. Be so good as to send me a Line in answer … Should no notice be taken of this Address, I shall feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere.”[1]

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

James Andrews’ version of Jane Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She signed the letter with the acronym “MAD” and listed her return address under the pseudonym Mrs. Ashton Dennis, in care of the Post Office in Southampton. Richard Crosby responded three days later. He noted that there was no stipulation as to the date the novel needed to be published or that they even had to publish it. He also threatened legal action if she tried to publish it through another publisher. However, he did offer that he would relinquish all copyright claims if she bought it back for the original £10 she had received.

Austen could not afford to repurchase it at the time and did not attempt to do so until 1816. When it happened, Henry accomplished it for her, and she must have experienced a great deal of satisfaction when afterwards he told “the dilatory publisher that the book he had neglected was by the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.”[2]

After the novel was back in her hands, she revised it further between 1816 and 1817 and renamed the heroine Catherine, which she also used as the working title. Having prepared the novel for publication, however, she delayed its publication.

“She explains in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight (13 March 1817) that ‘Miss Catherine is put upon the shelve [sic] for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out.’”[3]

However, after Jane died on 18 July 1817, her brother Henry arranged for its publication and renamed it Northanger Abbey. It was published in December of 1817 (although the title page states 1818) and was published in conjunction with Persuasion, with later copies of the books being published separately. When the novel came out, Scots Magazine provided a review. Here is part of what they wrote:

“We are happy to receive two other novels from the pen of this amiable and agreeable authoress, though our satisfaction is much alloyed, from the feeling, that they must be the last. We have always regarded her 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. This, as we have already hinted, may be partly owing to the wonderful realities which it has been our lot to witness. We have been spoiled for the tranquil enjoyment of common interests, and nothing now will satisfy us in fiction, any more than in real life, but grand movements and striking characters. … we have no hesitation in saying, that the delightful writer of the works now before us, will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point out the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should little scruple in fixing upon her. She has confined herself no doubt, to a narrow walk. She never operates among deep interests, uncommon characters, or vehement passions. The singular merit of her writing 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, (for it is only English manners that she paints,) that we think we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, pourtrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner. She has much observation, – much fine sense, – much delicate humour, – many pathetic touches, and throughout all of her works, a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity that are almost unequalled.”[4]

Title Page from Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in 1818. Public domain.

According to Jane’s older sister, Cassandra, Jane wrote Northanger Abbey in 1798 and 1799, a time when Gothic novels were all the rage and her novel was satire on Gothic novels as well as a coming of age story about the young and naïve 17-year-old Catherine Morland, who undertakes a journey to discover the world and those around her. She is a voracious reader of Ann Radcliffe’s famous archetypal Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, which then causes her to have an overactive imagination and results in her suspecting murder and nefarious doings where none exist.

The novel also numerous scenes of social etiquette that are aptly demonstrated. For instance, bowing and curtseying were forms of etiquette at the time. They were used when a person was formally introduced or when a person acknowledged someone or something. So, Catherine’s love interest, Henry Tilney, employs bowing after a house is pointed out to him:

“After a couple of minutes’ unbroken silence, Henry, turning to Catherine for the first time since her mother’s entrance, asked her, with sudden alacrity, if Mr. and Mrs. Allen were now at Fullerton? and on developing, from amidst all her perplexity of words in reply, the meaning, which one short syllable would have given, immediately expressed his intention of paying his respects to them; and, with a rising colour, asked her if she would have the goodness to show him the way. ‘You may see the house from this widow, sir’, was information on Sarah’s side, which produced only a bow of acknowledgment from the gentleman, and a silencing nod from her mother; for Mrs. Morland thinking it probable, as a secondary consideration in his wish of waiting on their worthy neighbours, that he might have some explanation to give of his father’s behaviour, which it must be more pleasant for him to communicate only to Catherine, would not, on any account prevent her accompanying him.”[5]

Scene from “Northanger Abbey.” Author’s collection.

In the novel, Catherine visits Bath with some family friends, and, one of the sites that she visits while there is the remarkable Beechen Cliff, described as a “remarkable feature … swelling gently with grassy slope from the further side, with rolling woodland descending from its crest, it has been compared to a breaking sea-waves, and seen from many points the comparison is just and striking.”[6] It also a spot where Catherine and Henry have some of their most interesting conversations. Their walk to reach the top is well worth it because once there, Catherine and Henry discover a breathtaking view of the city. Here is Jane’s version:

“They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath. … He talked of fore-grounds, distances, and second distances; side-screens and perspectives; lights and shades; – and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar, that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath, as unworthy to make part of a landscape.”[7]

Another spot that Catherine visits in Bath is the Pump Room, a meeting spot for fashionable people that served refreshments, including mineral water obtained from the hot springs that is considered to be cure-all. It is in the Pump Room that Catherine is first introduced to Henry. Jane was familiar with it because of her uncle, her mother’s older brother, James Leigh Perrot. He was suffering from gout and went there as a cure, and Jane accompanied him, once noting, “I have never seen an old Woman at the Pump Room.”[8]

In the novel, Jane’s characters travel in popular carriages of the time. For instance, when Catherine travels to Northanger Abbey, three passengers are crowded together in a chaise, a two-seater that had extra seats that could be pulled out. Luggage could be strapped onto the back of it and when there was hand baggage, it was placed inside where the passengers sat. Here is Jane’s version of Catherine’s trip:

“The middle seat of the chaise was not drawn out, though there were three people to go in it, and his daughter’s maid had so crowded it with parcels, that Miss Morland would not have room to sit; and, so much was he influenced by this apprehension when he handed her in, that she had some difficulty in saving her own new writing-desk from being thrown out into the street. At last, however, the door was closed upon the three females, and they set off at the sober pace in which the handsome, highly-fed four horses of a gentleman usually perform a journey of thirty miles: such was the distance of Northanger from Bath, to be now divided into two equal stages. Catherine’s spirits revived as they drove … with the interest of a road entirely new to her, of an abbey before, and a curricle behind, she caught the last view of Bath without any regret … and her admiration of the style in which they travelled, of the fashionable chase and four, postilions handsomely liveried, rising so regularly in their stirrups and numerous out-riders properly mounted, sunk a little under this consequence inconvenience.”[9]

Jane also used carriages and driving traits to show a man’s character. For instance, there was the dapper John Thorpe, a rude, dimwitted, and arrogant man who drove a gig. It was a light two-wheeled sprung cart pulled by a single horse. He drove the gig fast and boasted about it, and when Catherine is invited to ride with him, after handing her into the carriage, he tells her she might be frightened by his spirited horse:

“Catherine, though she could not help wondering that, with such effect command of his horse, he should think it necessary to alarm her with a relation of its tricks, congratulated herself sincerely on being under the care of so excellent a coachman; and perceiving that the animal continued to go on in the same quiet manner, without showing the smallest propensity towards any unpleasant vivacity, and (considering its inevitable pace was ten miles an hour) by no means alarmingly fast, gave herself up to all the enjoyment of air and exercise of the most invigorating kind in a fine mild day of February, with the consciousness of safety.”[10]

In comparison to John, her love interest Henry drives a curricle. It is a more expensive version of John’s gig and is a light two-wheeled vehicle that is big enough for a driver and passenger. The curricle usually had a single axle and was driven by a matched pair of horses. However, they carriage was also notorious for their drivers suffering accidents, but, despite it possessing a bad reputation, Henry is cited as driving “quietly-without making any disturbance, without parading to her, or swearing at them; so different from the only gentleman-coachman whom it was in her power to compare him with!”[11]

Curricle. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the novel, Jane demonstrates view that were uncommon for women at the time. Through Catherine’s individuality, she shows her good judgement and how she does not conform. Jane also mocks the ideas that women should hide their intelligence and instead supports the idea that women should use their minds, which she accomplishes through her literary techniques of characterization and point of view.

After Northanger Abbey was published, Reverend Whately reviewed it in the Quarterly in 1821. He pointed out not only Jane’s writing abilities but the book’s instructive qualities about human nature and praised her stating:

“Among the authors of this school there is no one superior, if equal, to the lady whose last production is now before us, and whom we have much regret in finally taking leave of: her death (in the prime of life, considered as a writer) being announced in this the first publication which her name is prefixed. We regret the failure not only of a source of innocent amusement, but also of that supply of practical good sense and instructive example, which she would probably have continued to furnish better than any of her contemporaries. … On the whole, Miss Austin’s works may safely be recommended, not only as among the most unexceptionable of their class, but as combining, in an eminent degree, instruction with amusement, though without the direct effort at the former, of which we have complained, as sometimes defeating its object. For those who cannot, or will not, learn any thing from productions of this kind, she has provided entertainment which entitles her to thanks; for mere innocent amusement is in itself a good, when it interferes with no greater; especially as it may occupy the place of some other that may not be innocent. The Eastern monarch who proclaimed a reward to him who should discover a new pleasure, would have deserved well of mankind had he stipulated that it should be blameless. Those, again, who delight in the study of human nature, may improve in the knowledge of it, and in the profitable application of that knowledge, by the perusal of such fictions as those before us.”[12]


  • [1] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 174.
  • [2] J. A. Hodge, Only a novel: The double life of Jane Austen (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972), p. 175.
  • [3] J. Austen and C. Grogan, Northanger Abbey – Second Edition (Broadview Press, 2002), p. 9.
  • [4] Scots Magazine (1818), p. 453–54.
  • [5] J. Austen, Northanger abbey [followed by] Persuasion (London: R. Bentley, 1833), p. 203–4.
  • [6] J. W. Morris and British Association for the Advancement of Science, Handbook to Bath: Prepared on the Occasion of the Visit of the British Association, 1888 (Bath: I. Pitman and Sons, 1888), p. 259.
  • [7] J. Austen, p. 84, 89.
  • [8] Deirdre Le Faye, ed., p. 42.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 125–26.
  • [10] J. Austen, p. 46.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 127.
  • [12] The Quarterly Review v. 24 (London: John Murray, 1821), p. 357- 358 and 375-376.

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