The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I was disappointed. I thought the romance was rather cobbled together, and Catherine Morland seemed the most dimwitted of all of Austen’s heroines.
It improved upon the second reading, though. I think my problem with my first read was that I was expecting it to focus too much on the romance. But upon reading it a second time, I realized that the strength of this book is its emphasis on friendship, especially in regard to avoiding bad ones.
Catherine Morland is seventeen, and visiting Bath for the first time. Society in Bath is exciting, and young, naïve Catherine is taking it all in with much excitement. She’s overjoyed when she’s befriended by Isabella Thorpe, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Bath. At Isabella’s urging, she begins calling her by her first name, spending all kinds of time with her, and even doing a few things that she might not have thought proper back home in Fullerton.
Isabella flatters her endlessly, but is also oddly inconsistent in her behavior. She declares that she won’t dance unless Catherine gets a partner, but soon abandons her to dance with Catherine’s brother, James. She declares that she doesn’t care at all for Frederic Tilney, but, somehow, always seems to be talking to him. But Catherine, loyal to the core, insists to herself that Isabella must have a good reason for her behavior, or must not know how her behavior is affecting others.
In the meantime, she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Catherine likes Henry almost instantly, and she’s glad to find that she likes Eleanor, too. Eleanor’s not as flattering or flashy as Isabella, but she’s steady and likeable.
Catherine’s also a great reader of gothic mysteries. She longs for the excitement and romance that she reads about in these books, and her desire for adventure gets her in a bit of a pickle down the line. Austen uses this to gently encourage the reader not to put too much stock in what you read in books — even as you read hers.
The resolution of the romantic entanglements still felt a little too neat to me, but the friendship angle is still a good lesson to learn today. It’s good to have an open temperament, and to be willing to get to know and like people. But it’s also good to exercise discernment because there are many who would prey upon the unwise and take advantage of their trusting natures. Don’t become jaded, but don’t be a fool, either.
It’s a nice, little morality play, and it teaches an important lesson: don’t be blinded by flattery in friendship. A true friend doesn’t flatter, but tells the truth, whether it’s complimentary or not.