lacock abbey

Northanger Abbey

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
English 350: Literary Study Tour: Jane Austen
Spring Interim, 1998
Prof. Julie Shaffer

 (see useful links at bottom of page)

Lacock Abbey

 Important Background Information
and journal questions

(answer too those questions
pertinent to all the novels)

michelle being gothic

 Composition and Publication History

The first novel that Austen sold as a full novel was "Susan," which, with Persuasion, was the last to appear and came out titled Northanger Abbey, a title given to it by Austen's brother Henry. To the best of our knowledge, it was the third that she wrote in draft form in the 1790s. First, in 1795, she wrote "Elinor and Marianne" (her first novel published, in 1811, as Sense and Sensibility). Then, in 1796-1797, she wrote "First Impressions," (the second novel she saw published; it was rejected from a publisher in 1797 and finally came out in 1813 as Pride and Prejudice). She wrote Susan in 1797-1798 and sold it in 1803 for 10 pounds to Crosby and Company, who, strangely, did not publish it. She wrote inquiring about it in 1809 and offered to send them another manuscript, if they'd misplaced the original and suggested that otherwise, she would like to pursue publishing it elsewhere; she wrote as "Mrs Ashton Dennis," which allowed her to sign her letter "M.A.D." They told her that, given that they had purchased rights to the work, she could not publish it elsewhere unless she bought back the manuscript from them at the price at which they'd originally purchased it. She apparently set the issue aside to work on writing Mansfield Park, revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and writing Emma.

She then bought it back in 1816, after the publication of Emma, and revised it then, to an extent not currently ascertainable, but certainly including the change of the female protagonist's name from Susan to Catherine. In March 1817, a few months before her death, she wrote to her favorite niece, Fanny Knight, that she was shelving the novel for the time but had another work (presumably Persuasion) ready for publication, which she assumes would come out the following year. Given the relatively quick time between selling and printing a novel (2 months for Pride and Prejudice), her citing a year as possible publication date for Persuasion suggests she still had revisions in mind. Revisions to either were cut short as her illness grew serious; she died on 18 July, 1817, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published together, posthumously, the first works on which Austen's name was affixed as author.

If Austen did not in fact revise Northanger Abbey much after repurchasing the manuscript of it in 1816, then the last volumes of her works that came out linked a very early novel, one written by 1803, with the last she wrote, Persuasion, written 1815-1816. Much is generally made of the difference in years and Austen's probable attitudes in writing these two works - 12 years at least, if she did not particularly revise Northanger Abbey. While it does not strike me that one can say Persuasion must reflect views greatly matured since her other novels - all others were published between 1811-1815, not such a great gap even between her earliest publication and March 1817, when she may have felt done with Persuasion, it might be helpful, as you read Northanger Abbey, to consider whether it "feels" like a much earlier novel than the others we've read and the extent to which it likewise addresses issues the others read, perhaps in similar ways.

The strange writing, selling, and publication history of this novel makes one of my questions for your writing journal hard to address, and that is, to examine the extent to which it feels like Austen sets new problems to be solved as a writer as she moves from writing one novel to the next. It is hard to know exactly when and if she revised this novel, and, hence, where it fits in the overall scheme of her writing the six novels we're reading for this course. You might then in part use your writing journal on this novel to address what differences there might be if we read this as the first novel Austen felt was ready for publication or if we read this as one she revised late in life, setting new problems and challenges for herself based on what she'd seen published before it came out.

Literary Background: Genres, Character Types, Themes, and Other Issues:

As its title would have suggested to Austen's contemporaries, Northanger Abbey draws on the Gothic novel and its conventions. Abbeys did not exist in the late 18th century in England; Henry VIII had religious houses (which were connected with Catholicism, which he left) destroyed. Abbeys represented a past time in England's history. They also were tied in with Catholicism, and in England, Catholicism, was linked with countries such as France and Italy and viewed as politically tyrannical. The Gothic novel in general, as you can probably infer from reading Northanger Abbey, draws on the horrific. It is usually set in the past and involves a young girl, trapped in a castle, abbey, or other old, usually partly ruined edifice, tormented by an older man, usually her father or guardian or political leader of the region in which she lives. The Gothic novel thus links the female protagonist's family life with politics, suggesting that tyranny over her is equivalent to tyranny over the region, both carried out by the man who torments her and by extension, is his region's dictator. In fact, Gothic novels concentrating on women's woes are just one type, and there are several ways of dividing different strains of the Gothic; there are also those in which male characters suffer as well; instead of being trapped within a castle which is also the main characters' home, male characters may be kept out of their rightful place in that edifice.

In addition to being dividable into that sort of male and female Gothic - the kind concerning male protagonists, on the one hand, and female protagonists, on the other - the Gothic can also be divided by how it uses the supernatural: strange sounds and sights greet the female and/or male protagonist, and frequently, s/he and the reader believe that the place in which s/he is trapped is also haunted. By the end of some Gothic types - the type popularized by Ann Radcliffe, especially - the apparent supernatural is explained away; ghostly sounds might be produced by people locked in subterranean vaults of the castle, for instance. In some Gothic novels - Walpole's and Matthew Lewis's, for instance - the supernatural is not explained away; characters might really be the devil incarnate in human form, and hauntings may be caused by real restless spirits.

Another way of dividing up the Gothic is in terms of who wrote them, and to a certain extent, this overlaps with the above-described two sorts. One can break down Gothic novels into categories of "horror" and "terror" Gothic. "Horror" Gothic works by showing us what is horrible - what shouldn't need to be faced, what humans can't really face. Such novels might be compared to really gruesome scary movies - slasher movies, with lots of gore. "Terror" Gothic, on the other hand, works via suspense. Rather than seeing someone get disemboweled, we're invited to share the main character's suspense as that character thinks, awaits, and tries to avoid whatever he or she imagines might occur. Frequently, "horror" Gothic is seen to be written most particularly by men; it frequently leaves the supernatural in place, and we see people behaving really badly, raping and killing family members and others, for instance. We then see them really "horribly" punished by a demon incarnate who has tempted them to do the "horrible" things they've done. If one thinks about the kind of strictures limiting women's writing in the era, one might realize why men, more than women, ostensibly wrote this kind of novel. Women might prove themselves unfeminine if capable of depicting anything beyond the humanly acceptable and would need to limit the fright on which they draw to suspense. But dividing works up as by male or female authors thus does not really work when one gets to Gothic works published in the eighteenth century or beyond. It is helpful, nonetheless, to know something about these categories.

The Gothic overlaps, in all its forms, with sensibility, in part because it concerns a suffering protagonist. To be involved at all with the work, one must be able to sympathize with that protagonist, and sympathizing with their sufferings puts us in the role of developing and drawing on our own sensibility. Frequently such novels make clear who good characters are by showing them sympathizing with the sufferings of others, and in this way, they clearly overlap with sentimental* novels (*remember, "sentimental" is the adjective for sensibility). Keeping this in mind, and reminding yourself of everything behind the movement of sensibility and what was considered its drawbacks will help you immensely in understanding Northanger Abbey; to that end, review the information sheets I have provided for you on Sense and Sensibility; think about ways sensibility gets mocked in that novel, and ways the same or similar mocking, parody, or harsher criticism occurs in Northanger Abbey. Keeping in mind the kinds of criticisms made about the effect of novel-reading on women will be especially useful as you work your way through this novel.

Understanding the complex way this novel draws on the Gothic is easiest if one has actually read a Gothic novel, which we do not have time to do during this course. The Broadview edition of Northanger Abbey, however, provides excerpts from two Ann Radcliffe novels to which Catherine and Isabella refer and to which Catherine reacts at the Abbey itself. Refer to the appendices for these passages; read them to make passages of the novel itself clear.

Another tool to help you understand the novel is the introduction. As usual, you'll do best to read it after you finish reading the novel; it will then help you understand various elements of the novel and, perhaps, various concerns you have about it. Nonetheless, it might help you at the outset to keep in mind one thing it points out: the novel was originally titled "Susan," and naming it after the central character gives a different idea about what holds the novel together than does naming it after the estate to which Catherine travels only late in the novel.

The other appendices are also quite useful and we will discuss what we learn there too; after reading the novel and answering questions that deal particularly with it (remember: answer not only the questions listed here but those pertaining to all the novels), read the appendices containing early reviews of Northanger Abbey and answer questions about them.


This novel is pretty evidently about Catherine's learning. What are her lessons? Who else has learning to do? Where do we see it happening? Who else reads reality via books?

How does this novel handle these issues in ways similar to ways they're handled in Sense and Sensibility? What are the differences? Do you think Austen comes to the same conclusions in each case? Or are there differences?


What's the difference between innocence and naivete here? Innocence and ignorance?


What is happening on pp135-136?


John Thorpe can be known to some extent through his rudeness to his sisters and mothers when he first encounters them in Bath. Look, then, at Henry Tilney's treatment of his sister when he, she, and Catherine go on a walk. Is he as rude as Thorpe? If so, why do we like him better? What fits him better to be the male protagonist, the man presented as goal and reward for the female protagonist, Catherine?


If novels give us ways of interpreting and misinterpreting "life," what's the role of the picturesque? What does the novel suggest about ways of interpreting others, ourselves, what happens to us that we import from elsewhere? If we don't take others' ways of interpreting ourselves and others, how are we to comprehend anything?

What mode of understanding things does Catherine have before she learns what she does by the end of the novel? Henry frequently remarks on how she makes decisions or interprets others; what's the source, do you think, of the model she already has? Is it adequate? To what extent is it better than the models she encounters and then perhaps learns?


Think about what I've already told you gets said about Gothic novels and novels of sensibility and look at that passage at the end of chapter 5, on novels. What's the main concern there? Does it respond to the period's concerns about novels? Or does it raise different issues? How does the novel as a whole pick up on and respond to the period's complaints about novels' effects?

Now read the reviews in Appendix D. Summarize them. Identify what each one considers makes a novel good, and what makes a novel bad. What gets valued in Northanger Abbey and Austen's novels in general? To what extent are these qualities the same ones we'd use to judge a book? To what extent are they the ones that Austen herself would employ for judging a book? Again, look at her arguments at the end of chapter 5, and try to draw conclusions as well by what Northanger Abbey as a whole values or critiques in reading.

While we will discuss these reviews and attitudes about women's publishing in general (think about Austen's own family's views on women's publishing), it might be useful to think up some questions on who wrote, what they wrote, who read, what they read, what was popular and why it might have been popular; we can address these questions when we're given a talk at the British Library; that talk will be provided with a specialist on circulating libraries who might not be able to address attitudes about publishing but who certainly can tell us what was published, what sold well, and what was borrowed from libraries - perhaps too who was borrowing these works.

Very Short List of Reading on the Gothic,
especially as pertains to Austen:
  • Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.

  • Looser, Devoney, ed. Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism. New York: St. Martins, 1995.

Various essays focus on Northanger Abbey and the Gothic.

  • Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1980. 2nd ed, vol. 1: 1996.

  • Any works listed in the bibliography to Northanger Abbey


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last updated 28 Jan, 1999