The first half of the book is pure Regency Bath, with Catherine Moreland agonizing over the minute details of walking the Pump Room and attending public dances. Her mentors, the Allens, were not sufficiently connected to introduce her into society right away, and so she needed to wait until the lucky moment when Mrs. Allen bumped into Mrs. Thorpe, and she could be provided with an instant "best friend", Isabella Thorpe, and her overbearing, pathological liar of a brother, John. Thus connected, and no longer doomed to sitting alone and socially awkward in the public rooms, our heroine commences making an attachment to Henry Tilney with the help of his sister, Eleanor. The scenes wherein the Thorpes are manipulating Catherine away from the Tilneys and into their own company, to further the attachment of Isabella to Catherine's brother James, and the attachment of John Thorpe to Catherine herself, provide a great deal of the drama in the early half of the book, and Henry Tilney distinguishes himself as the hero by taking none of it seriously, and being mostly above the painfully obvious social machinations of the Thorpes and their kind.
A digression: my travel to London and Leeds will be extremely busy. I may keep Bath in mind as a day-trip destination, but I'm not sure I'll be able to pry myself and my daughter away from the charms of London, so the visit to Bath may require another trip to England altogether. On that second trip, perhaps I'll also visit Lyme Regis (the setting of The French Lieutenant's Woman), the Lake District (geographic focus of the Lake Poets), and the British moorlands, which provided the setting for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I would very much like to walk the landscapes and cityscapes I have read about so closely.
The second half of Northanger Abbey takes place at the ancestral residence of Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Henry, it turns out, just like Catherine Moreland, is a fan of the Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe, including The Mysteries of Udolpho, to which Catherine is exposed during her stay in Bath. Knowing how much Catherine enjoys the Gothic, and indulging his tendency toward affectionate mockery of his love objects (starting with his sister, and continuing with Catherine), Henry regales her with rumors of the Abbey while driving her there on invitation of General Tilney, his father. General Tilney turns out later to be a pale, petty, watered-down version of the great anti-heroes Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff. His claim to fame is Catherine's suspicion that he wasn't always very nice to his wife, and therefore must have killed her or exiled her permanently to the spider-webby recesses of the Abbey. She decides this after spending a dark and stormy night freaking out about a "mysterious scroll" that turns out to be a stack of laundry bills stuck in an old cupboard, and being forbidden by the General to take a stroll through the dead woman's rooms.
Again and again, the Gothic elements are laid thickly on through the story, and then shrugged off, as if Austen has gotten as bored of the works of Radcliffe as she was of the monotony of Regency Bath. It's all very boring. It requires mockery. Henry has an interest in light literature, and clearly has an interest in naive and pretty young girls. By the end of the story, I began to suspect that Henry was not only the author's tool for mocking Catherine, but Catherine was her tool for mocking Henry, in turn. This guy thinks he's so much better and smarter than the rest of the people at Bath, and yet he goes all gloppy for this perfect girl, who is described as rightly and delightfully free of anything remarkable, such as natural intelligence or taste. She is a blank slate, susceptible to influence, impressionable, vulnerable, and has 3,000 pounds, which is not great, but not terrible, either. She is the perfect catch for a man who himself has a modest living, until the General reveals his real crappy nature, which manifests as gullibility and rabid class-consciousness.
You see, back in Bath, Catherine managed to get free of the manipulative and evil treasure-hunter, John Thorpe, who had inflated her pecuniary value because of his own pride and stupidity. He and his sister thought the Morelands were wealther than they were, and his pride caused him to gossip about the wealth of the Morelands while he worked all of his sly tricks to keep Catherine away from the Tilneys and pinned to his side. General Tilney heard that the Morelands were wealthy from Thorpe, who was self-deluded and posturing, and decided to spirit Catherine away to Northanger Abbey to seduce her into marrying his son, Henry, who had already evidenced an attachment to her. He parades her around his wealth, and practically has her picking out curtains, all the time slobbering over the idea of the 15,000 pounds Thorpe said she had. But before leaving Bath, Catherine has to blow Thorpe back from supposing she is the least bit interested in him, and the next time Thorpe corners the General, he tells a new story: the Morelands are not only destitute, but there's a million kids that need to be supported on the nothing that Catherine's parents have, and everyone in their neighborhood thinks they suck. The General gives immediate orders for his future-daughter-in-law to be hurled into a rented cab and sent home immediately.
What's a beautifully naive, not-too-shabbily financed girl of average intelligence and attractiveness to do? Because her "best friend" Isabella threw her brother over for Henry Tilney's older brother (who subsequently rejected her, leaving her engaged to no one!), that relationship is toast. Because Isabella's brother John Thorpe is a total self-absorbed jerk, Catherine's relationships with Henry and Eleanor are toast. There is nothing for it but for her to ride the rented coach back into the bosom of her mild-mannered family and lay around ignoring her needlework until Henry comes to ask her to marry him. Done, and done. The General is appeased by 3,000 pounds being ultimately way better than nothing, and wedding bells ring. The author suggest that none of this was harmful to Catherine and Henry; to the contrary, that the obstacles described in the story, including begging the General to allow them to marry after Thorpe's damage is cleared up, actually helped build their bond.
The note from the author is amusing, but also unsettling: "...I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience."
What this work does is make fun of Regency England and all the people involved, and to refuse to take advantage of Gothic elements as valid plot points in a "serious" novel. Maybe I'm wrong about that last part. Maybe I'm wrong about the book, and it's all in good fun. I love Austen, and think she's terribly clever, but I actually think she was too clever for her own good in this book, and missed an opportunity to have a lot more fun with the Gothic in Northanger Abbey than she allowed herself to do.