Summary of Vol. I, Chapter I
At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Catherine Morland, the daughter of a clergyman and his wife. Catherine has three older brothers and six younger siblings; her family lives comfortably without being well-off. At ten years old, Catherine is described as a “thin awkward figure” with a “sallow skin,” but we learn that once she reaches the age of fifteen she is viewed as “almost pretty,” a (questionable) compliment that she yet delights in hearing.
Austen gives us a brief account of Catherine’s education: her mother gives her lessons at home, but despite all parental efforts, Catherine’s accomplishments remain undeniably limited. She shows no talent for piano-playing or any of the other refinements young girls are supposed to perfect in order to attract an eligible suitor. As she gets older, however, Catherine begins to read classic literature, and Austen cites this habit as a measure of Catherine’s “improvement.” At the age of seventeen, Catherine is invited by her neighbors the Allens to go on a trip to Bath, thus setting the scene for the rest of the novel.
Summary of Vol. I, Chapter II
Chapter II opens as Catherine is preparing to depart to for Bath with the Allens. Although Catherine is young and inexperienced, her mother Mrs. Morland exhibits little anxiety about the trip, and her only admonition to her daughter is to stay warm. The journey to Bath is uneventful, but Catherine is full of “eager delight” at the prospects of spending six weeks in the “fine and striking environs” of the resort town.
Catherine’s host Mrs. Allen is described by Austen as an unremarkable and trifling woman whose sole passion consists of dressing up for formal balls. A few nights after arriving in Bath, Catherine and the Allens attend one of the public balls in the Upper Rooms, a popular social venue. Catherine and Mrs. Allen squeeze through the crowd and finally find themselves looking down at the dancers. Catherine wishes she could dance, but she doesn’t know any of the gentlemen present at the ball, and Mrs. Allen’s sympathetic recognition of her desire for a partner begin to annoy her. The rest of the night is similarly disappointing until Catherine leaves the ball and hears two young men remarking that she is a “pretty girl.” After overhearing the comment, Catherine thinks that she is “perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention.”
Summary of Vol. I, Chapter III
As Chapter III opens, Catherine and Mrs. Allen are settling into Bath and exploring its well-established social life. Catherine attends a second ball, this time in a venue known as the Lower Rooms, and she is introduced to Henry Tilney, a young man of “four or five and twenty” years and a clergyman’s son. Catherine is immediately struck by Henry’s pleasant and lively demeanor. They sit down to tea after dancing and strike up a conversation. Henry jokes with Catherine about the social code that governs the interactions between male and female dancing partners; his tone is one of mock-regret as he expresses the realization that he has yet to make any of the usual polite inquiries regarding her stay in Bath. In turn, Catherine playfully recites the weekly routine that she has just performed as a visitor: she has been to a ball on Monday, the theater on Tuesday, and to a concert on Wednesday. Henry wonders if he will figure in Catherine’s journal entry for the night after they part ways, and they banter over the debates of journal writing and letter writing.
Henry and Catherine’s conversation is interrupted by Mrs. Allen, who asks Catherine to take a pin out of her muslin gown. Henry reveals that he is skilled at gauging the price and quality of muslin, and Mrs. Allen is delighted at his attention to detail. When the dance closes, Henry takes his leave, and Austen leaves us to wonder if Catherine dreams about him that night.
Summary of Vol. I, Chapter IV
The day after they meet at the ball, Catherine seeks out Henry in the Pump Room, the gathering place for Bath’s socialites during the day. At first, she is crestfallen when she realizes that he is not there, but soon she is distracted by a new introduction. Mrs. Allen, who is sitting next to Catherine, is greeted by an old school friend named Mrs. Thorpe. The two older women have not seen each other for the past fifteen years, and they are both overeager to share details of their own lives (rather than listen to the other’s account). Mrs. Thorpe has three sons and three daughters, and Catherine is delighted to meet the eldest of the Thorpe girls, a dashing young woman named Isabella. Isabella reveals that her brother John has already Catherine’s brother James, and she uses this connection to establish a quick intimacy with Catherine. Catherine admires Isabella for her sophisticated knowledge of the rules of fashion and flirtation. The two young ladies walk back to the Allens and promise to see each other again the next day.
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland from her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” The opening line of Northanger Abbey establishes the novel’s self-conscious nature: rather than subscribing to the literary conventions of her day, Austen immediately juxtaposes Catherine against the beautiful and virtuous female protagonists commonly featured in sentimental novels. From her first description of Catherine’s plain appearance as a child to her insistence on Catherine’s lack of prodigal talent at the piano, Austen is careful not to idealize her heroine. As a result, Catherine’s development as a character emerges across the first chapter’s condensed time frame through Austen’s insistence on her protagonist’s differences. The young Catherine likes to play cricket rather than with dolls, and Austen repeatedly insists that she has “by nature nothing heroic about her.” Through this phrase, Austen indirectly addresses the reader by calling our attention to the fictional nature of her project: although Catherine may come across as a more realistic character than her literary predecessors, we are constantly made aware that she is also an author’s willful creation. This effect is only made possible by summoning the presence of other texts.
Significantly, Catherine is presented as an avid reader from the time she is fifteen, and she memorizes verse from famous poems by Thomas Gray and lines from Shakespeare. Austen calls this Catherine’s “training” to become a “heroine.” But Austen is quick to note that her protagonist does not write; Catherine’s literary pursuits remain purely of the receptive kind. Composed of the archetypal phrases she has gleaned from her reading, Catherine’s imagination receives its true education through the instruction she receives from the great authors who lived before her time. Thus, Austen’s rewriting of literary history is not simply a process of active negation, the author also seeks to borrow and mold the past as she sees fit.
In Chapter II, Austen’s tone remains light and ironic, and we may read her descriptions of Catherine’s departure for Bath as a series of parodic jests designed to undermine her readers’ expectations of the ways in which characters are supposed to behave in stock situations. Although we might assume Mrs. Morland’s “maternal anxiety” will be “severe” as her daughter’s departure draws closer, Mrs. Morland exhibits no symptoms of acute worry. Austen makes clear that she wants to depict the “common feelings of common life” rather than the overblown emotions that “the first separation of a heroine from her family ought always to excite,” and she succeeds by cataloguing the everyday material details of Catherine’s departure. Our introduction to the novel’s theme of consumer culture takes place when Mrs. Morland gives Catherine an account book to keep track of the money she will spend in Bath—though at the time of her departure, Catherine only has ten guineas in her possession. In contrast, Mrs. Allen’s lifestyle is more extravagant, and she seeks to induct Catherine into the world of luxurious refinement, as symbolized by their shopping trip in preparation for the ball. Yet despite their new purchases, Catherine and Mrs. Allen occupy the position of bystanders for most of the night. Catherine’s latent disappointment is only redeemed when she overhears the young men’s compliment at the end of the night—Austen cites her protagonist’s “humble vanity” as evidence that Catherine is far from the ideal heroine.
In Chapter III, Austen introduces us to the glittering social fabric of Bath, through the dialogue between Henry and Catherine at the ball. Henry’s irreverent recitation of the usual questions a young man should ask his dancing partner shows us that he is highly familiar with the code of conduct that governs the relation between the sexes in late 18th century England. Meanwhile, Catherine is also learning how to spar with words, and their flirtatious conversation prefigures the witty verbal duels that will form the core of Austen’s mature works (including Pride and Prejudice). Here, Austen is beginning to reveal character through speech rather than direct characterization. At the same time, she continues to foreground the importance of written forms of communication. An interesting conversational interlude occurs when Henry and Catherine debate the merits of journal and letter writing. Henry argues that women’s habit of making daily entries into their journals has equipped them to write letters well. According to Henry, “the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.” But Catherine is not content to identify letter writing as a solely female pursuit, and the two ultimately agree that the talent for writing manifests itself equally in both men and women. The debate between Henry and Catherine resonates with Virginia Woolf’s much later formulation of women’s writing in her famous book A Room of One’s Own. While Woolf advocates the belief that men and women have distinctive writing styles, as determined by their gender, Austen attempts to collapse this notion here by closing Henry and Catherine’s dialogue with the judicious statement that “excellence” can be found irrespective of gender.
Chapter III also contains an ironic allusion to a “celebrated writer” who maintains that “no young lady can be justified in falling in love before the gentleman’s love is declared.” Austen is invoking an essay by Samuel Richardson in the Rambler, a popular 18th century periodical. Richardson penned such moralistic novels such as Pamela and Clarissa, and Austen wants to distance Catherine from Richardson’s overtly pious creations. Thus, rather than merely paraphrasing Richardson, Austen is suggesting that she is skeptical of any injunctive that would emphasize female passivity at the expense of her (imperfect) heroine’s imaginative musings.
Catherine’s infatuation with Henry, a symptom of her active imagination, manifests itself in Chapter IV when she notices his absence. Immediately after she registers her disappointment, the perspective shifts to Mrs. Allen as she encounters her old friend Mrs. Thorpe, and we are treated to Mrs. Allen’s vindictive observation that the “lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own” (31). Austen is quick to use this subtle difference in the women’s material finery as the feature that distinguishes them from each other; she both calls our attention to Mrs. Allen’s pettiness and suggests that, in a world governed by gradations of ribbon and lace, such details are the occasion for the subtle articulation of class rank. In this light, it is no surprise Catherine’s admiration for Isabella is based on the older girl’s knowledge of the intricacies of finery: for the humble and somewhat naive Catherine, dressing up in the latest fashion doubles as an occasion to don the gown of maturity.