For many years Northanger Abbey was the only Jane Austen novel (of those published) that I neglected. It was my least favourite. And I don’t know why when I look back. It was probably the impression I gained from reading it as a school boy. When I eventually became inspired enough to pick it up, prompted by one of its television productions, I was surprised to find how modern it was in its depiction of the relations between young men and women.
Few males would not know what a flirt is like and the manipulative tricks she can get up to. Such a flirt was no different in Jane Austen’s day, it seems. In Isabella Thorpe she has depicted the type exactly – and satirised her mercilessly.
Northanger Abbey also has (in my view) the most developed male character of her novels – Henry Tilney. It is a demonstration of her genius that she was able to create a male of such cheerful irony and entertaining wit. There are hardly any more sparkling female-male exchanges in her novels than those between Catherine Moreland and Henry Tilney – even in Pride and Prejudice. No doubt her experience as an (alleged) flirt in her younger days gave her material.
Finally, Northanger Abbey is distinguished by Jane Austen’s rare entry into her novels to defend the novel against its critics. Few defences of the novel have been so true, vigorous and unpretentious.
If a rainy morning deprived [Catherine and Isabella] of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.