I approached this book somewhat warily, knowing that Northanger Abbey was to some degree a satirical take on the immense popularity of Gothic romances such as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, a book I dearly love. Happily, Austen's means of poking fun at Gothic horror literature are far from mean-spirited and, as a matter of fact, can be delightfully humorous indeed. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is by no means the type of heroine to be found in the giant tomes of Radcliffe and her indulgent imitators, as Austen tells her reading audience directly from the very start. "Almost attractive" on a good day, this unintellectual tomboy has reached her fifteenth year without inspiring a young man's fancy, nor would she be able to delight him with musical skill or even draw his profile in her secret notebooks if she had. Having encountered no strangers who would prove to be a lord or prince in disguise, her heroic ambitions seem stymied at best until fate steps in and grants her a stay of several weeks in the delightful town of Bath. Making her transition from naïve girl to equally naïve young lady, Catherine almost immediately falls quite in love with young Henry Tilney, while at the same time she becomes intimate friends with an older young lady named Isabella, whose inconstancy as both friend and intended beloved of Catherine's own brother eventually brings her much pain. To her intense delight, however, Catherine is invited by General Tilney, Henry's father, to spend some few weeks in his home, Northanger Abbey. Her joy at spending such private time in the company of her beloved and new best friend Eleanor Tilney is immense, but equally exciting to her is the chance to spend time in a mysterious former abbey of the sort she has read so much about. Such Gothic romances as Udolpho have been the source of her recent heroic training, and she is wildly desirous and fully expectant of discovering hidden passages, dark secrets, frightening circumstances, and possibly even incalcitrant perfidy in the halls of her beloved's family home. Her overactive imagination runs wild in Northanger Abbey, bringing her a fair share of embarrassment, but the very sweet and tender sensibilities that fuel her fire for Gothic mystery make her all the more endearing to me. Catherine is remarkably innocent, and as such she is absolutely delightful in my eyes.
Much of the story does fit in with your typical Gothic novel, but the frightening and dismaying things Catherine eventually discovers are of a far from supernatural sort. Ever so gradually, a true monster slowly coalesces from the pages of this remarkable novel. I, like young Catherine, was somewhat overenthusiastic concerning the Gothic qualities of this adventure I feel I shared with her, and the truly despicable thoughts and actions of the book's villain did not immediately strike me as forcefully as they should have; the afterword by Elizabeth Hardwick included in my Signet Classic copy of the book, however, served to make me fully comprehend its import. Greed, selfishness, pride-these are the horrors of Northanger Abbey, and it does deeply hurt a reader of romantic sensitivity to stand idly by, unable to aid and assist a sweet young lady such as Catherine in her time of despair and emotional suffering.
Lovers of Gothic horror or literature in general will surely find nothing but delight in the pages of Northanger Abbey. Austen's critique of Gothic literature is quite subdued, and I actually find immense pleasure in the overindulgence the author sometimes employs in her attempts to satirize it. Written by Austen at a tender age (though not published until the year following her death), Northanger Abbey features incredibly human, complex characters full of wit and charm. The hidden motives of seemingly delightful friends is brought to light, teaching young Catherine as well as the reader a painful lesson in real life, yet romance stands at the ready to right the wrongs of self-interest, deception, and greed. I absolutely adore this novel and everything about it.