What Do We Know of Catherine Morland and the Tilneys in Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”, by Regina Jeffers

What Do We Know of Catherine Morland and the Tilneys in Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”, by Regina Jeffers

Much of the description of the Abbey and of the Tilneys comes to us from Austen’s heroine, Catherine Morland. Catherine comes to Bath with dreams of highwaymen and Gothic heroes. She is a 17-year-old girl who loves reading Gothic novels. Something of a tomboy in her childhood, her looks are described by the narrator as “pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty.” Catherine lacks experience and sees her life as if she were a heroine in a Gothic novel. She sees the best in people, and to begin with always seems ignorant of other people’s malign intentions. She is the devoted sister of James Morland, and she is good-natured and frank and often makes insightful comments on the inconsistencies and insincerities of people around her, usually to Henry Tilney, and thus is unintentionally sarcastic and funny. (He is delighted when she says, “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.”) She is also seen as a humble and modest character, becoming exceedingly happy when she receives the smallest compliment. Catherine’s character grows throughout the novel, as she gradually becomes a real heroine, learning from her mistakes when she is exposed to the outside world in Bath. She sometimes makes the error of applying Gothic novels to real life situations; for example, later in the novel she begins to suspect General Tilney of having murdered his deceased wife. Catherine soon learns that Gothic novels are really just fiction and do not always correspond with reality.

General Tilney boasts of owning as “considerable a landed property as any man in the country.”
The general is a commoner, not a member of the peerage. He is a man deeply concerned with politics and national affairs. Although Austen never tells us to what political the general belongs, we know he is a party man. The general studies political pamphlets late into the evenings. Austen never expresses her party alignment in her novels, but we can assume that General Tilney represents the Whigs. Austen, herself, was the daughter of an Anglican cleric and came from a Tory family. Many believe Catherine’s marrying of Henry Tilney is an example of moral reclamation.

General Tilney expects his children and household to conform to strict standards. He despises those who do not adhere to punctuality and pre-described standards. He is overly concerned with material wealth. Early on, he caters to Catherine when he thinks she is to inherit the Allens’ wealth and downright caustic when he discovers she is not wealthy. What is ironic is the general believes John Thorpe in both cases. What does this tell us about the general? The general behaves badly, but in a manner that the real world would recognize. He is not the Gothic villain Catherine assumes him to be (He did not murder his wife.), but he is a snob and a bore. He represents the social concerns of Austen’s time. Shmoop 

The scene where General Tilney and John Thorpe choose to keep company in the smoking room is characteristic of Austen’s plots. The general represents pride, avarice, vengeance, and gluttony. Henry Tilney is a prig who constantly corrects both his sister and Catherine. Thorpe is a vain scoundrel, who practices covetousness, rapacity, and materialism. How often in Austen do we see the heroine being wooed by the bounder and finding “happiness” with the prig? The Watsons, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility.

Eleanor Tilney is the perfect Gothic heroine: has the mother who passed away, possesses a strange and singular father, dwells within the abbey’s setting, and is a star-crossed lover. Yet, even so, Eleanor is a bit boring. Is this Austen making fun of the Gothic novel? Eleanor’s character is static; she does not change, where Catherine Morland is the dynamic one. Catherine learns from her hard lessons and improves. Eleanor is also the foil for the vivacious Isabella Thorpe. The more-mature Eleanor becomes the model that Catherine chooses to emulate for Eleanor is well-read, rational, and able to keep up with Henry’s wit (a skill Catherine must master if she and Henry are to know happiness). While Isabella is abandoned by Captain Tilney, Eleanor knows the reward of claiming her long-standing love, a viscount.

Captain Frederick Tilney is a seducer of women. (Ever notice how Austen has such a character in many of her novels?) Henry says of his brother (to Catherine?), Frederick “is a lively, and perhaps sometimes a thoughtless young man; he [Frederick] has had about a week’s acquaintance with your friend [Isabella], and he has known her engagement almost as long as he has known her” (19.26) Frederick destroys Isabella’s engagement to James Morland, while ruining her reputation. The captain represents Society’s dual standards for behavior for men and women. He also adds to the mystique of the Tilney family: Like father, Like son. Frederick’s actions make Henry and Eleanor more sympathetic characters and his ruining of Isabelle does the same for that character, who readers sometimes see as selfish and greedy and conniving.

Henry Tilney spends a great deal of time “educating” Catherine. He teases her about her ignorance and naiveté. He instructs her in the ways of Society. He speaks to Catherine of art and literature. We never know for certain whether Henry is a bit of a chauvinist or not. He really does not seem to hold women with much regard. Henry is seen treating his sister Eleanor in the same way as he does Catherine. Henry is the voice of the narrator of the piece, but he is also a character in the story whose actions/speech satirizes everything.

“Henry displays a lot of humorous arrogance and very ironic humor towards Eleanor and Catherine, and women in general. In fact, Henry frequently provides humorous commentary on some of the book’s major themes, such as language and gender. But while Henry comments on these thematic issues, the arrogance (possibly fake, possibly genuine) with which he delivers his commentary is itself a thematic statement. In other words, Henry’s personality makes important statements about themes alongside, and sometimes independently of, Henry’s dialogue. And Henry’s dialogue is often difficult to interpret. Take this address to Eleanor and Catherine:

He laughed, and added, “Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No – I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours.” (14.25) Shmoop 

We know nothing about the Tilneys from Austen’s description of the house or the family’s history. In “Perusasion” we are treated to a brief history of the Elliot family, and in “Mansfield Park” Austen provides us a history of the house, but that is the extent of Austen’s “background information.”

This is Catherine’s first impression of Northanger Abbey…
As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey — for some time suspended by his conversation on subjects very different — returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney.

She knew not that she had any right to be surprised, but there was a something in this mode of approach which she certainly had not expected. To pass between lodges of a modern appearance, to find herself with such ease in the very precincts of the abbey, and driven so rapidly along a smooth, level road of fine gravel, without obstacle, alarm, or solemnity of any kind, struck her as odd and inconsistent. She was not long at leisure, however, for such considerations. A sudden scud of rain, driving full in her face, made it impossible for her to observe anything further, and fixed all her thoughts on the welfare of her new straw bonnet; and she was actually under the abbey walls, was springing, with Henry’s assistance, from the carriage, was beneath the shelter of the old porch, and had even passed on to the hall, where her friend and the general were waiting to welcome her, without feeling one awful foreboding of future misery to herself, or one moment’s suspicion of any past scenes of horror being acted within the solemn edifice. The breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her; it had wafted nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain; and having given a good shake to her habit, she was ready to be shown into the common drawing–room, and capable of considering where she was.

An abbey! Yes, it was delightful to be really in an abbey! But she doubted, as she looked round the room, whether anything within her observation would have given her the consciousness. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fireplace, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the general talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved — the form of them was Gothic — they might be even casements — but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone–work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.

The general, perceiving how her eye was employed, began to talk of the smallness of the room and simplicity of the furniture, where everything, being for daily use, pretended only to comfort, etc.; flattering himself, however, that there were some apartments in the Abbey not unworthy her notice — and was proceeding to mention the costly gilding of one in particular, when, taking out his watch, he stopped short to pronounce it with surprise within twenty minutes of five! This seemed the word of separation, and Catherine found herself hurried away by Miss Tilney in such a manner as convinced her that the strictest punctuality to the family hours would be expected at Northanger.

Returning through the large and lofty hall, they ascended a broad staircase of shining oak, which, after many flights and many landing–places, brought them upon a long, wide gallery. On one side it had a range of doors, and it was lighted on the other by windows which Catherine had only time to discover looked into a quadrangle, before Miss Tilney led the way into a chamber, and scarcely staying to hope she would find it comfortable, left her with an anxious entreaty that she would make as little alteration as possible in her dress.

Many Austen fans are not aware that NORTHANGER ABBEY was the first novel Jane Austen wrote. It was true that Austen started what were later to be titled SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but according to Cassandra Austen’s Memorandum, Northanger Abbey was written circa 1798-99. Of course, at that time, the book was not called Northanger Abbey. It was entitled Susan.

Austen revised the book and sold it to Crosby & Co. (a London bookseller) for £10 in 1803. Unfortunately, Crosby & Co. did not choose to publish the book. In 1816, Jane’s brother Henry Austen negotiated with Cosby & Co. to resale the book to him for the same £10 that Crosby originally paid for it. Crosby & Co. had no idea at the time that the author of Susan was the same author as “the lady” who wrote the popular novels of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.

Jane Austen revised the novel a third time during 1817 and 1818. She wished to have the book published, going so far as to changing the main character’s name and the book’s title to Catherine.

The final result was a Gothic fiction parody, in which Austen mocks the conventions of the 18th Century novel genre. Catherine Morland, unlike Gothic heroines, is a plain girl from a middle class family. Catherine falls in love with the hero, Henry Tilney, before he has a serious thought of her, and exposing the heroine’s romantic fears and curiosities as groundless.

Claire Tomalin, Austen biographer, states that “Austen may have begun this book, which is more explicitly comic than her other works and contains many literary allusions that her parents and siblings would have enjoyed, as a family entertainment—a piece of lighthearted parody to be read aloud by the fireside.” (Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage, 1997, p. 165.)

Moreover, as Joan Aiken writes, “We can guess that Susan [the original title of Northanger Abbey], in its first outline, was written very much for family entertainment, addressed to a family audience, like all Jane Austen’s juvenile works, with their asides to the reader, and absurd dedications; some of the juvenilia, we know, were specifically addressed to her brothers Charles and Frank; all were designed to be circulated and read by a large network of relations.” (Aiken, Joan (1985). “How Might Jane Austen Have Revised Northanger Abbey?”. Persuasions, a publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America.)

Austen addresses the reader directly in parts, particularly at the end of Chapter 5, where she gives a lengthy opinion of the value of novels, and the contemporary social prejudice against them in favour of drier historical works and newspapers. In discussions featuring Isabella, the Thorpe sisters, Eleanor, and Henry, and by Catherine perusing the library of the General, and her mother’s books on instructions on behaviours, the reader gains further insights into Austen’s various perspectives on novels in contrast with other popular literature of the time (especially the Gothic novel). Eleanor even praises history books, and while Catherine points out the obvious fiction of the speeches given to important historical characters through, Eleanor enjoys them for what they are. (Wikipedia)

The directness with which Austen addresses the reader, especially at the end of the story, gives a unique insight into Austen’s thoughts at the time, which is particularly important due to her letters having been burned at her request by her sister upon her death.

Austen died in July 1817. Northanger Abbey (as the novel was now called) was brought out posthumously in late December 1817 (1818 given on the title page), as the first two volumes of a four-volume set that also featured another previously unpublished Austen novel, Persuasion. Neither novel was published under the title Jane Austen had given it; the title Northanger Abbey is presumed to have been the invention of Henry Austen, who had arranged for the book’s publication.(Wikipedia)

GIVEAWAY!!! As I am just biding my time until Pegasus Books releases my next Austen title, I thought I might offer up a quick giveaway. I have an eBook copy of Darcy’s Passions and one of Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion for those who leave a comment below. The giveaway ends at midnight on Friday, April 3.



Sharing is Caring!
Follow by Email
0 0 votes
SUBSCRIBE (optional)
Email alert of:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Smith
John Smith
January 28, 2018 3:26 AM

I don’t think I’ve seen this! In my next life, I’ll come back as J.J. Feild!

February 25, 2017 10:19 AM

Personally I think Northanger abbey is a story of coming of age. I think Catherine is the simple of youth and coming of age, we see her character being to learn about the world in away we all have. But also growing up and letting go of childhood fantasies. with the help of Henry and Eleanor. Eleanor is the good friend every girl had, the friend you like but were always envois of, as they were prettier, smarter and knew a lot more of the world, of such, they were always the one you turned to for advice and comfort. While Henry is the perfect man for Catherine, as she let go of the fantasy, and fell in love with reality, and I don’t think that could have happened with anyone else.
Personally I love Jane Austin’s work, not only does she show human faults and weaknesses, or how we perceive are self’s in are darkest hour. But these people who have faults (as we all do) and are loved for them. We see people become better and whole for them, we see these ‘faults’ be the very thing which drives people together. but more then that, all of her work (allow it has a ending) never ends with everything tied up in a bow. to some extent the reader can imagine what will happen next for certain character’s and situations. Personally, that is the thing I love the most about her work.

Daphne Sayed
Daphne Sayed
March 13, 2016 4:35 AM

Regina this is probably the best analysis I’ve read on Northanger. Thank you so much. Austen rarely set for uk exams today. Instead it’s modern writers who don’t survive several readings. Helas.

Lilyane Soltz
Lilyane Soltz
March 12, 2016 6:15 PM

If it’s Austen, it must be wonderful – and Northanger Abbey is no exception. I enjoyed reading this so much – thank you. And thank you, too, for the generous giveaway. Two readers will be very fortunate, indeed.

April 3, 2015 9:47 AM

Hi Regina. Wonderful post. Northanger Abbey is one I seldom thing about. That may be because I have only read it once. It may be time to put it back in the TBR pile.

Jenni James
Jenni James
April 1, 2015 5:03 PM

I LOVE Northanger Abbey. I love jane’s sense of humor too. And I truly believe this was completely written as a farce for all the silly books out there. I took all of that to heart when I wrote Northanger Alibi… and holy cow! Using Jane’s gently mocking formal I was able to create the funniest book I have ever written. It’s hilarity transports so perfectly into the modern setting with teens believing all they read. Just adorable!

thank you so much for this amazing post! So many facts I never knew. 🙂 Wonderful.

April 1, 2015 4:27 PM

I have yet to read Northanger Abbey but this certainly made me want to do it right away!

Mallory Reynolds
Mallory Reynolds
April 1, 2015 1:48 AM

Enjoyed the post, I learned a lot about Northanger Abbey I didn’t know. I’m going to have to read it again.

March 31, 2015 7:00 PM

I have always loved Northanger Abbey
and enjoyed your essay very much! I
can’t help but love Catherine and be
charmed by Henry…even more as I get
PS And thank you for the giveaway.

Helyn DreadPirate Roberts
March 31, 2015 5:17 PM

I enjoyed this article. We do need to remember that women of the day had as their “job” the need to marry, and marry well. When you view Isabella Thorpe and even Catherine Moorland by this, their reactions have a real pathos – as a previous reader comments, I was no more ready to marry in my teens than to.flu to.the moon,yet this was their career.

Sheila L. M.
Sheila L. M.
April 1, 2015 9:36 AM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

Yes, but now we we some many couples just living together. And then they don’t seem to have quite as much of a reason to try to work on differences. They just walk out. And that sets a pattern for the next relationship.

Rose Fairbanks
Rose Fairbanks
March 31, 2015 1:31 PM

I mentioned this in a guest post last week. But when I consider 17 year old me, I can totally sympathize with Catherine Morland jumping to conclusions with the General. She had an intuition that something was not right about him. I just think it’s ironic that she believed someone was out to use people ill and never suspected her best friend. It’s like a horror movie where the character is looking for an attacker and thinking they cleared the room just for them to be got from behind. Sometimes I think I love Henry Tilney almost as much as I love Darcy, though. But perhaps that’s something they have in common. Think of what we JAFF writers do with Darcy (and many other characters in P&P) and in the end Austen doesn’t really show us that much about him. Perhaps I’m like Jane Bennet, but I will take Darcy and Tilney both in the best light in those ambiguous statements.

March 31, 2015 3:58 PM
Reply to  Rose Fairbanks

I would hate to think at age 18 I was to be married and becoming the mistress of my husband’s house. Even at 18, when Henry proposes, Catherine is taking on great responsibilities. Her actions would reflect upon him.
If a person is good at listening to that inner voice, he knows when someone is just not what he appears to be. The problem with Catherine is she did not listen to her instincts when it came to the Thorpes, and she colors her apprehensions over the elder Tilney with her overactive imagination.
Henry is quite patient with Catherine.

Diana Oaks
March 31, 2015 1:14 PM

Northanger Abbey was my second Austen read, after P & P and I haven’t revisited it since – I think at the time I lacked the perspective and context that is needed to truly adore it. After reading your post today, I think I may have to add it back into my TBR pile. I suspect it would read very different for me now.

March 31, 2015 3:52 PM
Reply to  Diana Oaks

As I said somewhere else on this page, Diana, I avoided Mansfield Park for years. I’ve been rereading it and find so much more to admire. Having taught Gothic literature for years, it was only natural to like a parody of the genre.

March 31, 2015 10:41 AM

I remember I had a great time reading Northanger Abbey. I should reread it someday! I loved both Catherine and Henry because they were so spontaneous and fun, and I really enjoyed seeing them together. Also, I loved the 2007 adaptation! It was delightful and JJ Feild was perfect as Mr. Tilney!

March 31, 2015 12:43 PM
Reply to  Maria

Some of Austen’s best repartee is found between Catherine and Henry. Thanks for joining me today, Maria.

March 30, 2015 10:50 PM

Northanger Abbey ties in 2nd place for my favorite. I love CAtherine, and I think Isabella is hilarious in her pronouncements then doed exactly opposite. I guess it is probably time to read it again.

March 31, 2015 8:16 AM
Reply to  Karana

Isabella is a unique character in Austen. Do you not think Austen recognized and demonstrated the “cattiness” found in many women in her female villains?

March 30, 2015 10:36 PM

You have given me a lot to think about concerning Northanger Abbey. I will have to revisit it. I would love to win either book. Thanks for the giveaway.

March 31, 2015 8:17 AM
Reply to  schilds

I love to revisit some of Austen’s lesser known novels periodically. I am glad you found something “to chew on” in this piece.

Allison Sullivan
March 30, 2015 8:32 PM

I would love a chance to win either of those! I happen to be watching Northanger Abbey right now. Sweet, naive little Catherine…

March 31, 2015 8:19 AM

Felicity Jones has that impish countenance that makes one love her.

Joana Starnes
March 30, 2015 5:39 PM

Thanks for the great post, Regina. It’s amazing to think how thoroughly modern Northanger Abbey is, for all the Regency paraphernalia. The craze for the exotic, the thriller, the mystery and drama, making a very young woman act like a complete ninny before the man she fancies! What an amazing talent Jane Austen had, to put together stories that we can still relate to, hundreds of years on!

March 30, 2015 7:34 PM
Reply to  Joana Starnes

You are so perceptive, Joana. How many “tweens” have gone crazy for Twilight, Hunger Games, Insurgent, etc., in the past few years? I will not even think of the mature women who flocked to see “50 Shades.” That is what so great about Austen. Her stories easily transfer to modern situations. Austen was truly a woman before her time.

March 30, 2015 2:54 PM

It’s an in-depth analysis on Northanger Abbey, Regina. Your academic background really lend a new perspective to learning more about Jane Austen’s often neglected work. I mean not many people I know mention in the same breath that they prefer NA to her other five novels. From previous blog posts on Austenite blogs (I forgot where), I knew that NA was her first full-length novel.

Linda A.
Linda A.
March 30, 2015 1:59 PM

Your article definitely provides food for thought. I cringe on Catherine’s behalf when she jumps to erroneous conclusions and find myself wanting to skip that part of the book. Thank you for sharing this interesting information.

March 30, 2015 1:11 PM

I have sympathy for Catherine jumping to the conclusion that the general offed his wife. It’s like in horror or sci-fi movies where the skeptic gets killed for not believing in the zombie shark … and promptly gets eaten. Just kidding, of course, but I think in one of the Northanger adaptations, Henry says something about a kind of vampirism infecting the abbey. It’s easy to see how that remark fed Catherine’s suspicions.

March 30, 2015 12:59 PM

It took me a while to come around to NA in general and Catherine in particular, but I finally did and I really enjoy them. I love to despise Isabella Thorpe and her creepy brother

Brenda Webb
Brenda Webb
March 30, 2015 11:57 AM

Regina, I did not know that this was Jane’s first novel either. I have to say that your post makes me want to re-read it, for I missed a lot of your insightful tips when I read it last. Thank you. 🙂

March 30, 2015 11:06 AM

I love Northanger Abbey…I always think that the women like Austen, Shelley and Bronte, while able to write romantic novels for women readers, they wrote books with dark, mysterious and sometimes quite sinister plots. They allowed “proper” ladylike women to escape into a world of excitement and fantasy which would have been frowned upon by many and deemed inappropriate… Mostly by males of course and the Mary Bennets of their day! These writers were strong women to have been persistent in writing these books in their day. I am always in awe when I read their books… I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a young lady reading them … Did she read them in secret at times, did she enjoy discussing the books with her select friends? I think it would be so fun to write a story about how these women read these books and often had to buy and sell these books in secret… Mmmm

Sheila L. M.
Sheila L. M.
March 30, 2015 10:52 AM

Thank you, for this educational piece. I have read all of JA’s books and found this to, indeed, be a comment on reading material of the time among other things. Sarcastic?! I enjoy the movie version depicted above but have also watched another version.

Thanks again for your insights.

March 30, 2015 10:46 AM

Thanks for this, Regina. I just happened to start reading Northanger Abbey again this past week. It’s such a funny book. I haven’t read it as much as I have Austen’s other books, so it’s nice to have this insight into the characters.

Caroline Warfield
March 30, 2015 10:29 AM

Interesting. While I’ve seen a film version, Northanger Abby is one Austen I have not read.

March 30, 2015 10:11 AM

Regina, This was a wonderful analysis. I learned so much. I do have to say that for a book to be intriguing, there must always be a seducer of women. Not the actual seduction, but the actions of a predator are always of interest. 🙂 And cautionary. 🙂

March 30, 2015 10:17 AM
Reply to  barbsilkstone

I totally understand, Barbara. I am reading (should say rereading) a Georgette Heyer title for a feature the Beau Monde chapter of RWA is doing for the 80th Anniversary of the Regency romance genre. I am on chapter 16 of 22, and there is no “tension” between the hero and the heroine and no “cad” upon whom I can direct my scorn. It is a very polite mystery. There is a “Lady Catherine” type character, but I find I am accustomed to the heroine falling for the villain (at least, temporarily). I suppose Austen thought Catherine Morland too naive for a man of Captain Tilney’s nature. Of course, this book is a parody, and a parody does not follow strict guidelines.

March 30, 2015 10:07 AM

A most interesting and intriguing post. Thanks for this great feature.

March 30, 2015 10:12 AM
Reply to  ellie

I am pleased you liked it, Ellie. I do not think Northanger Abbey receives enough notice.

Jennifer Redlarczyk
March 30, 2015 9:51 AM

Hi Regina, I never knew that NA was Austen’s first novel. I love the inquisitive character of Catherine. Thanks for adding to my limited knowledge on this one. ~Jen Red~

March 30, 2015 10:10 AM

Hello, Jennifer. As Gothics were very popular among young ladies at the time, I could see a young Jane Austen as devouring them, much a mix of Catherine and Isabella.

charlene capodice
charlene capodice
March 30, 2015 7:59 AM

thanks for the chance to win!

March 30, 2015 10:11 AM

I wish you luck, Charlene.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x