Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was written in 1798–9 but was only published in 1818, the year after her death. It was originally called Susan.
In 1802 Jane Austen did some minor updating to her story and then sold the manuscript and its copyright to a London publisher, Benjamin Crosby & Co. for ₤10. Although Crosby advertised it, he failed to publish it. In 1809 Jane Austen wrote to Crosby suggesting that she would like to publish it elsewhere. Crosby replied rudely, threatening legal action if she took the manuscript to another publisher, but offering to give it back to her if she repaid the money. Such a sum must have been beyond Jane Austen’s resources at the time. It was only about in 1815 or 1816, with four published novels, that she could take action. Her brother Henry contacted Crosby who returned her manuscript on receipt of the ₤10. After the transaction was completed, Crosby was informed by Henry that the work had been written by the author of Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen revised the book again and changed the name of her heroine to Catherine instead of Susan. She prepared an ‘Advertisement to a reader’ explaining the origins of the story, but then for some reason, she laid the book aside. After Jane Austen died in 1817, Henry Austen arranged for it to be published, along with Persuasion, by John Murray. He gave it the title by which the novel is known today.
Although the novel spans about ten years, the main action takes place when Catherine Morland is 17, in 1798. The novel begins in the village of Fullerton in Wiltshire, moves to Bath, then to Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, before ending back at Fullerton.
Northanger Abbey is a satire on the popular Gothic novels of the day. Catherine is addicted to reading these ‘horrid novels’ and thinks real life is similar to what she reads. The novel follows her progress from innocence and a mistaken imagination, to a more clear-sighted maturity. She is an attractive heroine and Henry Tilney, the man she marries, is a charming hero.
Northanger Abbey is famous for its defence of the novel as ‘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‘.
Illustration from Northanger Abbey by C E Brock, 1898