Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” – The Writing of the Novel

Today, a bit of background of the novel…

Title page from the original 1818 edition - Public Domain - Lilly Library, Indiana University

Title page from the original 1818 edition – Public Domain – Lilly Library, Indiana University

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 during 1816 and 1817. 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.

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Northanger Abbey is often referred to as Jane Austen’s Gothic parody. Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers give the story an uncanny air, but one with a decidedly satirical twist.

 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.

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Getty Images A print from an edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey ww.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/scene-from-jane-austens-northanger-abbey-a-print-from-an-news-photo/463992357#scene-from-jane-austens-northanger-abbey-a-print-from-an-edition-of-picture-id463992357

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 gave it; the title Northanger Abbey is presumed to have been the invention of Henry Austen, who arranged for the book’s publication.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” – The Writing of the Novel

  1. Paula says:

    Really interesting back story. I’ll ALWAYS wonder what was in those letters. What could possibly have been so bad that Cassandra burned them?

    • I think our “dear Jane” was too opinionated. We know that she was not happy to dedicate “Emma” to the Prince Regent.

      • Paula says:

        Aha, very true. Different times…people today would probably love her even more for her moxie. I also tend to think the gap between the first surviving letter and the next letter is because those letters were about Tom Lefroy. But we’ll never know.

  2. The author of this article states that “Jane Austen revised the novel during 1817 and 1818”. I ask: how is it possible for Jane Austen to have revised Northanger Abby in 1818 when she died in 1817?

  3. Regina, great overview of the history of the novel. I don’t think Jane was fully happy with NA. Had she lived, she might have revised it considerably. In March 1817, she wrote to her niece Fanny that “Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present; and I do not know that she will ever come out.” This was only a few months before Jane’s death. I’m sure she could see, as we do despite the book’s charm, the rookie mistakes, and would have wanted to bring it up to the quality of her later work. This would have required considerable reworking. Yet she also wrote an apologia to readers about parts of the work being “obsolete.” Likely, as her health collapsed, Henry convinced her to let him go ahead. We should be grateful that he saw to its publication.

    • As NA is more parody than novel, mayhap Miss Austen did not feel she did the “job” well. I am that way when it comes to writing comedic scenes. I recognize my inability to write them well. Then as you say, mayhap she was simply exhausted by the exercise of rewriting the necessary scenes. Her illness must of taken all of her energies. Personally, I love the process, but the writing is a very draining and a very solitary work.

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