Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey was often published in the same volume as Persuasion, both being the final novels of Austen. It’s a self-referential Gothic novel starring a Gothic fiction obsessed Catherine Morland who goes to Bath for social engagements and ends up staying with some friends in the big gloomy estate Northanger Abbey. Catherine is convinced that Northanger Abbey, like her favourite book The Mysteries of Udolpho, contains some wickedly gothic elements, such as a wife murdered by her husband and unburied, and a mysterious room with secrets in it as well.
It’s all in her head. But considering Northanger Abbey was written in 1799 and published (posthumously) in 1817, it was ahead of its time by really spoofing the other Gothic novels of the same era.
Catherine is initially naive, with an over-active imagination, and she is completely ignorant of other’s malignant intentions. However, she is also sweet, insightful, and funny. Stylised as a heroine from the outset, she eventually grows into the role – not because she is trapped in a Gothic novel, as she would love to believe, but through a complication of errors and manners that lead her to grow into herself as she experiences the outside world. Even though the novel is so old, I really found it easy to identify with Catherine: she seemed very real to me, and very modern.
The novel surprised me because it was styling itself as a Gothic novel (through Catherine’s narrative, not though Austen herself) and it’s really a parody of other famous works, often mentioning them in the text. I really, really enjoyed this book – but it should only be read if other Gothic novels of the time have already been read, otherwise all the references and themes and allegorical wit won’t make this book very enjoyable. I suppose it was one of the first meta-narratives in literature. That’s just totally awesome.
Note – Northanger Abbey seems to have inspired Ian McEwan‘s famous novel and film adaptation, Atonement. Both novels have a protagonist with an over-active imagination, who causes havoc around her because of her belief and desire for real life to be like in fiction.