Saturday, September 24, 2011

Northanger Abbey

Recently we visited the exhibition at the Jane Austen Center in Bath which provides information about Jane Austens's visits to Bath at the end of the 1790s and again in the early 1800s when she lived in the city for several years and also about the two books that she set in Bath, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Back in Australia I decided to reread Northanger Abbey, a book that I had studied at school in the mid 1960s. This was Jane Austen's first novel but although it was sold to a publisher in 1803 it was not published until after the author's death. It is the story of seventeen year old Catherine Morland who accompanies Mr and Mrs Allen, friends of her parents, to Bath in order that Mr Allen can receive treatment for gout. Bath was very different from the quiet village in which Catherine lived and she was soon introduced to the social life available in the city as well as making new acquaintances including the Thorpes and the Tilneys. During her time from home Catherine learns about friendship, real and imagined, as well as the importance of  accepting the realities of life rather than entertaining the romance and horrors as decribed in the gothic novels that she enjoyed so much such as Mrs Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho.

Jane Austen's books have been analysed in great detail and Northanger Abbey is no exception. Janine Barchas in Mapping Northanger Abbey, published in the Review of English Studies in 2008, discusses some of the historical elements the author included in the book. The article concentrates on the theme of mistaken identity when John Thorpe and General Tilney believe that Catherine will inherit the fortune of the Allen Estate. Ralph Allen was a wealthy Bath landowner in the 1700s but when the novel is set it is uncertain who the new owners of the estate are except that they are members of the Allen family living in the country. Barchas argues that the inhabitants of Bath would know the Allen story and appreciate the misunderstanding made by characters in the book.

Jane Austen's descriptions make it possible to trace the locations where some of the events in the novel take place and when in Bath we visited some of the sites frequented by the characters. As a major tourist location from the 1700s many maps of Bath as well as guidebooks were published and as copies were found among books owned by the Austen family the author was probably familiar with them. Barchas discusses how Jane Austen may have based the descriptions of Blaise Castle on a Bath garden folly called Sham Castle. She also refers to the possibility of the author choosing the surname of a well known mapmaker of Bath for the character who promised to show Catherine one site but takes her to another location. This idea is expanded further in another article by Janine Barchas, The real Bluebeard of Bath,  published in Persuasions in 2010. While Thorpe promised to take Catherine to Blaise Castle north of Bath there are ruins of a Gothic castle - Fairleigh Hungerford Castle  - nine miles south of Bath. Bacchus suggests that Jane Austen may have used the abbey near the castle as the basis for her descriptions of Northanger Abbey and stories of Fairleigh Hungerford Castle for Catherine's imaginings of what may have occurred there.

As a seventeen I enjoyed reading Northanger Abbey but I enjoyed the book more this time around, especially appreciating the humour throughout the book. I look forward to rereading the other works of Jane Austen.

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