Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey Summary and Analysis of Volume I, Chapters XIII-XV

Summary of Vol. I, Chapter XIII

Isabella, James, and John revive their plans to drive down to Clifton on Sunday and try to convince Catherine to come along. Since Catherine already has plans to go on a walk with the Tilneys, she refuses to be persuaded by her friends. Isabella first appeals to Catherine by flattery, then berates her for “having more affection” for Miss Tilney. Catherine thinks that Isabella appears “ungenerous and selfish,” and she stops linking arms with Isabella.

John sees the Tilneys walking on the street. Without asking Catherine for her permission, he stops them and says that Catherine will be unable to join them for a walk until Tuesday. Catherine is angry and distraught when John announces that he has already made excuses for her. Despite everyone’s protests, she rushes over to the Tilneys’ house and explains that she can still go on their scheduled walk. The Tilneys accept her explanation warmly and introduce her to General Tilney. After a pleasant visit, Catherine goes home to the Allens, where she learns that it is generally considered an act of impropriety for a young lady to drive in an open carriage with a gentleman. She is glad that she refused to go to Clifton with John, Isabella, and James: “for what would the Tilneys have thought of her, if she had broken her promise to them in order to do what was wrong in itself?”

Summary of Vol. I, Chapter XIV

The Tilneys call for Catherine the next morning, and they walk over to Beechen Cliff, a hill in the countryside. Catherine asks Henry if he ever reads novels, and he reveals that he is also a fan of Anne Radcliffe. Catherine is surprised to hear this because she thought that young men “despised novels.” Henry asserts that this is not true, and that he has already read “hundreds and hundreds” of novels. Catherine and the Tilneys turn to a discussion of history books. While Catherine finds them dull, Miss Tilney is fond of reading them.

As their walk continues, Henry gives Catherine a short lesson on the principles of landscape painting before their talk turns to politics. Catherine has nothing to say on this matter, so she returns the discussion to literature and announces that “something very shocking”—ie, a new novel—“will soon come out in London.” Miss Tilney misunderstands Catherine’s phrase to mean that a political disturbance will soon occur. Henry jokingly mocks his sister for her poor understanding. Miss Tilney assures that Catherine that her brother has the highest opinion of women, and Catherine is intrigued by the complexities of Henry’s character.

On the way back to the Allens, Catherine runs into one of Isabella’s younger sisters Anne, who reveals that her other siblings drove down to Clifton that morning along with James. Catherine is pleased that the party decided to go on the outing without her.

Summary of Vol. I, Chapter XV

The day after she drives down to Clifton with James, Isabella sends Catherine a note “speaking peace and tenderness” and asking her to come visit the Thorpe house. As soon as she arrives, Isabella reveals that she has become engaged to James. Catherine is surprised but pretends that she has already guessed the reason she was summoned to Isabella’s side.

The two girls share delightful thoughts of their future as sisters-in-law, and Isabella even says that Catherine will be “infinitely dearer” to her than her own sisters. Isabella recounts the night that she met James: she was wearing a yellow gown and immediately found him to be handsome, but she was worried that he was attracted to another young lady named Miss Andrews. Needless to say, Isabella is overjoyed to discover James’ affection matches her own despite her lack of a substantial fortune. Isabella tells Catherine that she would be content to live off a small income.

Meanwhile, James rushes home to the Morelands’ house in Wiltshire to ask for his parents’ approval regarding his marriage. On their end, the Thorpes are excited that their daughter has made a seemingly advantageous match. John approaches Catherine in the drawing room and suggests he would like to court her. Catherine rebuffs him, but he does not get the hint. Instead, he takes her distant behavior as a form of encouragement.


The contrast between Catherine and Isabella’s characters sharpens in Chapter XIII. Whereas Austen portrays Catherine as steadfast in her desire to honor her promise to the Tilneys, Isabella’s character transforms from affectionate and supplicating to accusatory and almost cruel when Catherine refuses to go on the carriage ride. This change in tone is not lost on Catherine, and she wonders at the rapid change in her friend’s behavior.

Catherine’s disillusionment with Isabella takes the form of an unspoken realization that Isabella disregards “everything but her own gratification,” though the reader has already gleaned this trait of her from her previous speech patterns. Isabella’s diction is prone to hyperbole—for example, she calls Catherine her “dearest” and “sweetest” girl in order to persuade her to do what she wants. She also proclaims herself to be one of Catherine’s “oldest” friends, though we know that the girls have only known each other for a few weeks. Through her cloying words, Isabella emerges as the foil to Catherine: Austen sets Isabella’s ability to dissemble—ie, to put on false appearances—against Catherine’s intrinsic honesty.

Catherine’s noble determination to remain a loyal friend to the Tilneys pays off in Chapter XIV when she finally gets to go on their long-awaited walk. The debate between Catherine and the Tilneys over the value of reading novels is the most significant episode in this chapter. Though far from an ideal reader, Catherine’s passionate enthusiasm for novels (over and against history books) places her in the position of Austen’s assumed readership, one that overlaps with Anne Radcliffe’s: the same men and women who enjoyed the bestselling Gothic titles of the day may also have perused Northanger Abbey. Austen strives to be a populist author, and this impulse may be inferred by the discussion she injects about reading history books. Catherine and Miss Tilney differ in their opinions of history books. While Miss Tilney defends them, Catherine thinks that they are primarily designed to “torment” schoolchildren and would rather read a novel. Austen is weighing the relative value of each genre, but she clearly sides with the novelists (rather than the historians). Catherine only reads history now and then as a “duty,” while she derives much more participatory pleasure from reading novels like Radcliffe’s.

Isabella’s engagement to James forms the pivotal event of Chapter XV. Austen has been leading us to expect this event since James and Isabella first danced at the ball, so we do not share Catherine’s surprise at the news that her brother and friend are now engaged. The question of inheritance forms the central concern of the pending marriage between Isabella and James. Though Isabella tells Catherine that she does not care about how much income they will receive from James’ parents, her preoccupation with their financial situation is apparent through her worry that the Morelands will look down on her own small fortune. Given what we know about Isabella’s character, her assertion that she would be happy to live modestly rings false.

In this light, Mrs. Thorpe’s happiness for her favorite daughter is dependent upon the assumption that James is much wealthier than Isabella and will provide her with a handsome income. Similarly, Isabella’s fantasies of married life center around the economic security her fiancée will provide her once they are married. Austen dwells on the minutiae of Isabella’s imagined possessions—a “carriage at her command, a new name on her tickets, and a brilliant exhibition of hoop rings on her finger”—in order to emphasize her vanity. This catalogue demonstrates that Isabella is primarily invested in images of material wealth despite her assertions of spiritual loftiness.