On Re-Reading “Northanger Abbey”

A little bit of my history with Northanger Abbey:  I did not read it until about 15 years ago, it was the one Austen book I had sought to avoid (bad PR!)…when I first read it I was sorely disappointed and thought it silly, and Henry a boor; I read it exactly one year later for a seminar, and found it quite funny, almost laugh-out-loud funny, and Henry quite charming.  I read it again several years later and just enjoyed it thoroughly, finding more humor and more depth in every sentence; and now I have just read it again for another book gathering, a very close reading, underlining (I NEVER do this!), and re-reading sentences, looking up all references, etc….  and I have to say that I LOVE this book, there is so much in it, so very funny, so very serious in its lessons, and Henry is quite to die for!  So many people I talked to about this book have said that they either have not read it, or didn’t like it when they did…. and then there are the few that have read it and re-read it and find that this novel, really Austen’s tribute to the novel and reading [it is interesting to note that in addition to the 9 “horrid” novels discussed by Isabella and Catherine, there are a total of twenty-two references to books:  novels, histories, landscape sources, philosophy, Shakespeare, etc….!], is quite an amazing literary jewel! 

Why Northanger Abbey in our meeting on “Beginnings”?   We called this gathering “Beginnings” – the beginning of JASNA and the beginning of Jane Austen the novelist.  While Northanger Abbey is often dismissed as the first novel of an “immature” Jane, i.e. one step above her Juvenilia, NA was actually the THIRD novel she wrote, after  Pride & Prejudice, initially called “First Impressions” (written in 1796-7 and published in 1813) and Sense & Sensibility (written in 1797, published  in 1811),  but NA was the first to be taken by a publisher and thus Austen’s first COMPLETED work….there has always been some confusion about this because S&S was actually her first published work. 

At a future meeting, I will be presenting a more detailed look at book publishing in the late 18th / early 19th century Britain, and the options for authors, especially women authors.  But I wanted today to give just a very brief summary of the publishing journey of NA, a fascinating story in itself, and only pieced together by scholars from Austen’s letters, extant publisher records, and some speculation. 

We know from Cassandra Austen’s note on the composition of the novels, that NA (and spelled North-Hanger Abbey, proof of how to pronounce the title, NOT Northanger with a soft “g”) was written about the years 1798-99.  (See Chapman’s edition of the Minor Works for a facsimile of this note, following p. 242.) In her “advertisement” to NA written in 1816, Austen states “this little work was finished in 1803 and intended for immediate publication” – she apologizes for the book being perhaps outdated and rebukes the publisher quite tellingly:

Advertisement by the Authoress to Northanger Abbey

This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication.  It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no further, the author has never been able to learn.  That any bookseller should think it worth while to purchase what he did not intend to publish seems extraordinary.  But with this, neither the author nor the public have any other concern than as some observation is necessary upon those parts made comparatively obsolete.  The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.

So what happened in 1803 and why wasn’t it published?  What is known is that the manuscript of “Susan” (as it was first titled) was sold anonymously by an employee of Henry Austen to the publisher Richard Crosby & Co. for ₤10.  Though advertised, Crosby never published it, and speculation as to why has been the subject of much scholarly debate:   what is because Crosby published Ann Radcliffe’s widely popular gothic mysteries and perhaps did not want to undermine them by publishing this “parody”?  or perhaps Margaret Kirkham’s theory that the publisher shied away from Austen’s unpopular feminist views and her defense of the novel in NA….? 

No one knows for sure, but Austen did nothing about it until 1809 when she sent a letter to Crosby under the name of “Mrs. Ashton Dennis” demanding an explanation, inferring she had a second manuscript and would take it elsewhere if they did not publish it  [she signed the latter “M.A.D.”, always the humorist!]  Crosby responded that the manuscript could be bought back for the same ₤10,  or he would take legal action if “Susan” should appear in print under another imprint.  Austen could not afford this (to put this in perspective, she was living on an allowance of ₤20 / year)…instead she went on to rework S&S and P&P after her move to Chawton.

In 1815, after the success of Emma enabled Austen to finally buy back the manuscript for the ₤10…[Henry took great pleasure in telling Crosby that the author had since successfully published THREE novels!]…  she changed the title to “Catherine” (as another novel called “Susan” had been published in 1809) and wrote her “advertisement.” 

Most Austen scholars assume that Austen during those intervening years did little to revise the second manuscript she had [no manuscript survives of NA, so all is speculation and secondary source material such as the letters]…this is used to explain some of the discrepancies in the novel, such as the stark difference between the Bath and Abbey parts of the book, but there is only one reference added after the initial composition dates of 1798-9, and that is to Maria Edgeworth’s “Belinda”, published in 1801;  all the references in the Bath scenes are the late 1790’s; and all of the “horrid” novels cited are pre-1798. [AN ASIDE HERE:  for many years, later readers of NA believed that Isabella’s list of “horrid” novels was a product of Austen’s imagination; it was not until 1901 when it was noted that they were all actual romances, and not until 1927 when Michael Sadleir showed that Austen’s selection of these novels was VERY deliberate-see the newest “Persuasions” no. 29 for an article linking NA with Regina Maria Roche’s “Clermont” in plot and character.  ( The reason was that these novels were largely unavailable to the reading public…interesting to note this and realize that it was and is NA that has survived the test of time!)] 

So Austen presumably did little or no reworking of NA after 1803, other than the 1816 “advertisement” ; the last step that Austen took in this history is a March 1817 letter to Fanny Knight that ” ‘Miss Catherine’ is put upon the shelve for the present and I do not know that she shall ever come out.”…so NA is thus considered the “earliest representation of her mature art” [and hence the topic of our discussion today!] 

We all know that NA was published by John Murray in December 1817 with Persuasion [ though the title page states 1818 ] by her brother Henry…and it is assumed that Henry gave it the title “Northanger Abbey.”  Henry included his “Biographical Notice” where she is identified for the first time (though still not on the title page!)…it is this notice along with James Austen-Leigh’s “Memoir” of 1870  that cemented the image of the sweet-tempered, God-fearing, spinsterish “Jane”.  

The book itself:

  •  4 volumes
  •  12mo or about 7″ tall  
  •  Blue-grey paper-covered boards and off-white or grey-brown backs / and or white printed labels 
  •  cost: 24 shillings (all 4 volumes or 6s / volume):  this was a lot of money at the time; many sold to circulating libraries rather than to individuals.
  • 1750 copies printed, sold quickly, 321 copies left at end of 1818
  •  cost to print:  ₤238  / paper; ₤188 / printing
  •  copyright retained by Austen family; published at Author’s expense, with 10% commission to publisher.
  •  total profit to family after expenses:  ₤515,  more than she made in her lifetime.
  •  first published in America in 1833; translated and published in France in 1824. 
  • To compare:  Austen’s lifetime earnings: about ₤1600  (various accounts of this; some say only ₤700….)

But her contemporaries received much greater fame and fortune: [Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Amelia Opie]…an example of their earnings:

  • Burney:  ₤4200
  • Edgeworth ₤11,000 

Current Value: 

  • 1st edition (i.e the Murray edition):  guide to values for 2002, $10,000 [ I did not check recent auction records, so this figure is low]
  • Currently there are 6 copies available online from $12,500 – $19,310  (varies due to condition, bindings, presence of half-title pages…)   

* Note:  Illustrations by Charles E. Brock.  

References: [see our Northanger Abbey page for more information, copied below:]

The Novel:
          *1818 edition vol. I (inc: biographical note); vol. II (vol. 2: complete)
          *1913 edition, NA&P (Hugh Thomson illustrated) (Internet Archive)
          *The Novels & Letters of JA (1906; Brock illustrated) vol. IX
          *R.W. Chapman’s 1923 edition, NA&P vol. V

          *Brock’s illustrations (solitary-elegance.com)
more Brock illustrations
Miscellaneous illustrations

 Principal Characters in Northanger Abbey:

  • from Pemberley, their Janes-names list
  • index of all characters, from Chapman’s 1923 edition (pp. 291-2)

Northanger Abbey Links:

From Persuasions and Persuasions Online:  (Note that Persuasionsno. 7 [1985] and no. 20 [1998] are focused on Northanger Abbey and have many excellent articles) 

**See also Ms. Place’s post at Jane Austen’s World on the The Long Publishing Journey of Northanger Abbey.

A Select Bibliography:

  1. Aiken, Joan. “How Might Jane Austen have Revised Northanger Abbey?” Persuasions, No. 7, 1985, pp.42-54.
  2. Ehrenpreis, Anne Henry.  “Introduction to Northanger Abbey” [ Penguin, 1972 ].  An excellent intro to the novel, with notes on all the books cited by Austen, and a nice discussion of the “horrid” novels.
  3. Fergus, Jan.  “The Professional Woman Writer,” in CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO JANE AUSTEN, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster [Cambridge 1997]
  4. Gilson, David.  A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF JANE AUSTEN. [Oak Knoll, 1997 (reprint with new introduction)]
  5. Grogan, Claire.  “Introduction to Northanger Abbey,” [ Broadview Literary Texts, 1996 ]
  6. Johnson, R. Brimley.  “Introduction to NorTHanger Abbey” [ London: Dent, 1950.]
  7. Le Faye, Deirdre.  JANE AUSTEN: THE WORLD OF HER NOVELS [ Abrams, 2002 ]
  8. Litz, A. Walton.  “Chonology of Composition,”  JANE AUSTEN COMPANION, pp.47-52.
  9.  Modert, Jo. “Chronology of the Novels” JANE AUSTEN COMPANION, PP. 53-59.
  10. Southam, Brian, ed.  NORTHANGER ABBEY & PERSUASION (CASEBOOK SERIES).  1976.  A compilation of reviews from early contemporary critics to the present.
  11. Tanner, Tony.  “Anger in the Abbey” in his JANE AUSTEN [ Harvard, 1986 ]  I love this collection of essays on each of the novels…every one is insightful and interesting.

10 thoughts on “On Re-Reading “Northanger Abbey”

  1. I enjoyed reading this well-written, detailed piece on the background of Northanger Abbey, Deb, and Brock’s color illustrations are always a treat.

    I recently learned something interesting about the pronunciation of “Northanger.” The word “hanger” also means “woodlands.” See this link to The National Trust’s Selborne Hill.

    According to a poster at “The Republic of Permberley”, “Northanger Abbey” (pronounced north-HANger abbey) means “North Wood Abbey.”


  2. Pingback: Still Re-Reading Austen at 94! a Conversation with Mildred Darrow « Jane Austen in Vermont

  3. What a useful link, Dave. Thank you. I’ve had a look, but not yet a listen. Wish there had been such resources when I was learning German! Give us a few days and we’ll post it to our Northanger Abbey page. Will also have to see what other etexts Adam Smith Academy offers.


  4. Janeite,
    I believe sometimes the link to the audio file is busy, due to traffic. I just now tried it again, and it was slow sledding. But, you may also need shockwave on your computer.


  5. Pingback: Jane Austen’s ‘Own Darling Child’ « Jane Austen in Vermont

  6. Pingback: Jane Austen AGM ~ Day 2 Recap: Auden, Castles, Henry the Hero, Dancers &amp Gothic Art « Jane Austen in Vermont

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