Northanger Abbey Ch. 1: Catherine as a heroine

1 Jan

Jane wrote Northanger Abbey in 1798-1799, which puts her at 23 when she started the novel. That makes it particularly relevant to me because I’m 23 (turning 24 on Jan. 6), and it’s quite intriguing to see what she wrote around this age. Of course, times are different and her maturity and sense about the world are not similar to today’s 23-year-old, but the themes heavily cross time: a female bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), society, relationships, weddings.

My roommate got engaged a week before Christmas, and the wedding is in July, so we’re now in the middle of frenzied wedding planning. Two of my other closest girl friends got married in November 2010 and September 2011, so although I’m far from being a spinster, I’m sensing that ticking timeline. It’s amazing how that still operates. This is all just to say that the topics are particularly relevant to me right now.

As for Chapter 1, I mostly want to focus on Catherine as the novel’s heroine and how Jane plays with this idea of what a typical literary heroine was during her time. From the start, you can note her sense of humor.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

I adore first lines. I believe that first lines can tell you everything. This is probably the journalist in me who craves to craft a perfect first sentence that will draw the reader in. From this first line, Jane tells us that this won’t be your stereotypical heroine story. Catherine has flaws, and for all purposes, she’s pretty plain and normal. Jane wants to give us a relateable character.

I tend to read with questions in mind, so pick what you will. Take them as rhetorical, or help me out by expounding below. I welcome it!

The questions to start: If you were a new reader to Jane’s works, can you tell that this is her first written work? Did Jane think about this first sentence as much as she (obviously) did for Pride and Prejudice? Does it match the caliber in terms of capturing interest, inserting humor and telling us about the story? Why does she decide to focus on Catherine in the very first sentence? What about the first words – “no one”?

The questions about Catherine: What defines a “heroine” — in Catherine’s case, her situation in life, her parents’ characters, and her disposition? What defines a heroine now, and how can we choose to be the heroines of our own stories? Sometimes I think we live as though we’re not directing our own stories. This is the story of a normal girl with a story. We all have a story, and we all have twists and turns. This is important to remember.

The questions about Gothic and romance novels: What is Jane trying to say about these novels during her time? Is she paying them an homage by noting that Catherine’s mom didn’t die during childbirth and the family is large and healthy? Unfortunate circumstances were common in other novels at the time, so is she putting them down or merely drawing a contrast? We’ll dig into this more later.

The questions about Jane as a writer: Why did she choose to feature a plain heroine – to be different or to relate to the readers? Is this why the book was unsuccessful originally? What can this mean for writers now, in terms of writing against the trend or not giving up when your first novel doesn’t sell? Imagine if Jane stopped writing after Northanger Abbey. The English canon would be drastically different. I think it also points to the importance of quality writing, character, clever dialogue and observation. Momentary success can’t match the respect and critical thought you’ll garner if you focus on your story and take pride in it.

Other thoughts: Jane also pokes fun at Catherine’s talents and accomplishments, which I take as commentary on the status of women during her time. However, I don’t think we’ve progressed as much as we think we have. This generation, especially the high achievers, have their own version of this by trying to achieve top grades, be a star athlete, play an instrument, lead a club or organization, and do community service. I work in a scholarship office at the University of Georgia, and each year, it’s amazing what I see on resumes at earlier and earlier ages. It’s impressive, but I also wonder what we’re doing to our students. Do they even have the time to figure out what truly makes them happy?

I also appreciate Jane’s commentary on Catherine’s schooling, the meaningless quotations taken out of context, and the mind during ages 15-17. Female readers (and probably even male readers) can relate to this flighty time after puberty. Jane also lines up a view of Catherine’s inexperience with boys and not having a hero “thrown in her way.” That will come in handy later.

By the end of the first chapter, Jane sends Catherine on her adventure. Chapter 1 sets us up with Catherine as the heroine, and Jane quickly sends us on our way, avoiding many of the side stories and wandering prose associated with novels of her time.

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5 Responses to “Northanger Abbey Ch. 1: Catherine as a heroine”

  1. Kirk January 5, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

    Happy bday tomorrow! Tom Lefroy 1/8!!!!!!!!! Cassandra Austen 1/9!

    Lol, I certainly couldn’t tell it was a first written full novel. It was probably the last full Austen I read(ahem, many yrs ago). I probably would have guessed Mansfield Park as the first(it needs alittle ‘loping and chopping’) . The most literate(PhD candidate in English Lit) member of Austen in Boston loves Northanger, perhaps her favorite.

  2. Austenite78 January 6, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Taking into account that Northanger Abbey is considered to be a parody of those Gothic novels that were so fashionable at the time, it is normal that she uses the heroine, or in this case an anti-heroine, to that purpose. I mean, by using a naive and gullible heroine, the author can make fun of those people who were obsessed with Gothic novels. Catherine Morland is a reflection of what Jane Austen thought a reader of Gothic novel would be, always seeing strange, spooky, mysterious things around them. I have read somewhere that Catherine Morland is presented as a silly and almost stupid girl; not at all, I believe that she is just presented as being childish, naive and a bit too much imaginative. Maybe Jane Austen wanted to warn us against being too carried away by our imagination or against being too naive in a world where things are much simpler than what we think they are. By introducing her as a plain, normal young woman, we know that she is not going to achieve great deeds or do amazing things. By her introduction we know we are facing a normal story about a normal girl who extremely enjoys reading Gothic novels.

    I write and write and write, but right now I don’t know if what I just wrote makes any sense đŸ˜€

    • Carolyn Crist January 6, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      It makes complete sense, and I’m so excited that you’re doing this with me! I love hearing what others think about Catherine. My roommate really doesn’t like her and she hates Northanger, but I think there’s a lot more to Catherine than my roomie gives credit.

      • Austenite78 January 6, 2012 at 10:51 am #

        Yes, it is interesting to see how her character develops along the story. Henry Tilney can be considered kind of a mentor in that sense, showing her the real world, and rescuing her from her imaginary world.

  3. Irene January 7, 2012 at 4:43 am #

    Wow, girl! Do you always read with all these questions on mind?!? Answer to every will require volumes! I don’t know where to start…maybe the first line…
    I don’t think Jane Austen thought about this first sentence as much as she thought about P&P incipit, however the effect is amazing. Through these few words we immediately figure Catherine out. Surely, Jane develops this notion through the entire chapter but she gave us immediately a precise idea about the main character.
    Why does she choose to write about a girl who’s not an heroin? I imagine the 23-year-old Jane Austen, sitting at home reading hundreds of pages about tragic heroines and getting more and more bored with them. I imagine her picking up her pen to write a new story, the story she would have liked to read but that didn’t exist yet.
    I don’t know if she intended to parody Gothic Novels or if it is a side effect. I believe Jane Austen dealt with this story using her irony and sarcasm. Maybe we notice a much more marked sarcasm just because we already know her other works, where her making fun is more subtle.
    Everyone has an interesting story, the problem is that often we don’t have a Jane Austen to tell it.

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