I think this is probably my least favourite Jane Austen book, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a little pearl. I’m re-reading it for the Open University course that I’m about to start (and that you will no doubt be hearing much more of in the coming months), as it is quite a while since I last re-read it.

Whilst the novel was her first to be written it was her last to be published (eventually posthumously), which made many of the references seem strangely out of date to its first readers, but obviously this is not something that bother readers now. However, it is more than any of Austen’s other books a novel of its time. It ruthlessly parodies through imitation the gothic craze of the late 1700s, and holds up to comment and criticism some of the other well-known novels of the time.

And it makes clear what Austen thinks (and I must agree) the novel can do. When commenting on the common downplaying of the role of novels that was current then, “‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ replies the young lady….only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”.

And  Austen does all this through the eyes of Catherine Morland, a young and innocent woman, with none of the particular traits of a heroine. And yet she is heroic in her own way. Through her friendships in Bath she learns the worth of true friendship and a little judgement. In her experiences at Northanger Abbey she learns how to curb her romantic leanings and exercise restraint, and in her courageous response to the actions of General Tilney she shows that greater wealth may not show the better breeding.

Through this runs the normal Austen romance of a young women and her pedagogic older man; Henry. Yet this is not quite the normal romance, because Catherine is not as intelligent a character as Austen’s other heroines. For example, Lizzie, Emma and  Marianne all have more spirit than Catherine, they are not as ‘wet’ and I think it is easier for modern women readers to empathise with them and their follies, rather than the rather childish ones of Catherine. And at times her naivety with regard to Isabella appears beyond belief.

But these are minor criticisms. The novel is a delight, and sets the tone of the classic Austen wit, irony and understatement that we all love so well. I’m sure it will be a pleasure to study it in more detail.