Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen's first novel and was written between 1798 and 1803. The novel is a coming of age tale, focusing on the comedic adventures of a sheltered seventeen-year-old girl who learns to navigate the polite society of Bath (a popular English resort town) and Northanger Abbey (the fancy home of one of the book's wealthiest families). Her travels are full of mishaps with new friends and love interests.
Though this was Austen's first novel, it actually wasn't published until 1818, after her death. Oddly enough, it was published along with her last novel Persuasion, a much more mature work than the often screwball Northanger Abbey. What was the hold up with Northanger Abbey? Well, publishing was pretty different back in the day. No one had contracts or anything like that. And publishing was also very expensive. So Austen's publisher bought Northanger Abbey in 1803 and then sat on it for ten years since he didn't think he could make any money from it. Austen bought the book back in 1813 with something along the lines of a 'thanks a lot, jerk' to her reluctant publisher. OK, so Jane Austen was more polite about it. We bet she was thinking that, though.
What's ironic about this publishing delay is that, out of all of Austen's novels, Northanger Abbey has one of the most specific historical contexts and agendas. The agenda here was satire and the targets were the Gothic novels that were hugely popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What on earth is a Gothic novel? Well, this type of novel is a romantic adventure riddled with soap-opera plot twists, dramatic emotions, over-the-top narratives, and supernatural elements. A good example of a Gothic novel would be Frankenstein. However, Austen was mocking somewhat more low-brow Gothic novels, the kind that aren't taught in English classes today. Basically, Northanger Abbey is the equivalent of a novel that decided to spoof a popular book like Twilight today.
Austen also mocks the conservative social commentary surrounding Gothic novels. These commentators railed about the damaging effects novels had on impressionable young (and female) minds. Out of all of Austen's novels, Northanger Abbey is the most outrageously comedic.
Northanger Abbey is also firmly rooted in a specific historical context. It was totally possible to read and enjoy this book when it was actually published in 1818 (just like it's very easy to read and like this book today). But a lot of the book's "contemporary" references to other authors and novels were a bit dated by 1818, which is something Austen actually brings up in her preface. Nearly all of the novels that are name-dropped here were published in the 1790s. Aside from its historically specific references, the novel overall is pretty universal. It looks at things like love, friendship, and growing up. Like Austen's later novels, Northanger Abbey humorously focuses on human behavior. This timeless element is a reason why Austen's novels are all still so widely read today.
Why Should I Care?
At first glance, Northanger Abbey appears like typical Jane Austen fare – nicely dressed teenagers and twenty-somethings with too much time on their hands go to balls, visit nice houses, write letters, and are generally married off by the last chapter.
But the teenage star of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, isn't just concerned with getting married. She's also away from her family for the first time in a strange place, trying to make new friends and to fend for herself out in the real world. Sounds like an experience lots of people have, whether it's going off to college or starting a new job or moving to a new city.
Northanger Abbey tracks how hard it can be to make good, trustworthy friends in a new place. After all, Catherine spends the bulk of the book contending with gossip, rumors, liars, manipulators, and her own faulty assumptions. And who hasn't dealt with the snake pit known as society, or the school cafeteria, in their life? Furthermore, who hasn't caused more trouble for themselves by jumping to false conclusions about people, or by having unrealistic expectations? Sure, Catherine's expectations are colored by the literature she reads, but lots of people today have romanticized expectations about relationships, influenced by everything from Grey's Anatomy's "McDreamy" to saccharine Disney fare. Nearly everyone in Northanger Abbey falls prey to bad assumptions and questionable judgment at one point or another.
Northanger Abbey is essentially about pitfalls and perils of growing up, being in strange new places, and forging relationships with new people. Aside from the carriages and balls, the relationship issues that Northanger Abbey explores really haven't changed all that much.