This novel, though it is often considered quite lighthearted, touches some of the very important topics for its time. Mostly the readers see the average coming-of-age story of a young girl experiencing her first love. But the background is equally important to the main storyline: we see that feelings even of the young people are expected to be suppressed in favor of the “appropriate marriage”. Wealth and status are the defining factors for finding a match for the older generation. This makes some of the characters, who make the other choice, almost rebels in the eyes of the audience. To fully understand what hides beyond the romantic story, we should keep in mind that following one’s heart is absolutely not considered as something positive by the other characters.
The novel consists of the two books, the first of which is much more upbeat and tells about some romantic encounters and the tangled relationships in the company of teenagers. In the second book the will of adults comes into play. The teenagers are expected to grow up, behave properly and bring wealth to their families by marrying the right person. If the first part of the novel is much more childish, the second one is all about responsibility. The different settings and tone only emphasis it.
We start Book I from the meeting with Morlands – the family where a seventeen-years-old girl named Catherine lives. The Morlands aren’t wealthy, actually their income is more than moderate. They can’t afford to take Catherine for a holiday somewhere, so her life is mostly secluded. The girl enjoys walking, observing the nature and reading her favorite Gothic novels. No wonder that she grew up a naïve and romantic person, having no image of the harsh real world.
As we already said, Catherine had little chance to go somewhere, so when the friends of the family, the Allens, offered to take Catherine with them for holidays, she eagerly accepted the invitation. The Allens are going to Bath – the most glamorous resort for the upper crust of the British society. It is one chance of a million. In Bath Catherine meets Henry Tinley, a young man roughly of her age, and immediately falls for his intelligence, manners and personality. Henry is a clergyman and a son of the old General Tinley – a very strict, old-fashioned and respected man. Unfortunately for the Catherine, she can’t find him after their first meeting for a long time.
Socializing with the Allens, the girl meets an old friend of Mrs Allen – Mrs Thorpe, who came to Bath with her three young daughters. One of them, Isabella, is also around Catherine’s age. Soon, Catherine and Isabella start to spend more time together and quickly befriend each other. Unlike the innocent and romantic Catherine, Isabella is fond of gossips, balls and flirting. She is also very pragmatic, looking around for someone rich enough to be worthy of her attention. Nevertheless, she feels like home in the social world of Bath and introduces shy Catherine to everyone, teaching her fashion, dances, gossiping and all the other necessary skills for a girl on a fancy resort.
As they enjoy the social life, two young men arrive to Bath: James Morland, Catherine’s brother and John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. They both study in Oxford University and are good friends. Isabella immediately sees James as a new object for flirting, but soon it grows to something bigger. Now everyone, except poor naïve Catherine sees that the couple is in love. John, seeing this, also starts to court Catherine, but his arrogant and rude nature repels the tender girl. John asks her to be his partner on the next ball and Catherine almost agrees, but she sees Henry Tinley attending the same ball and, of course, becomes obsessed with him again.
Still, John is very persistent. Catherine is caught in a very unpleasant situation: Isabella spends all her free time with James and both her best friend and her brother urge her to be less picky and choose John. Catherine doesn’t like John at all, but her shyness doesn’t allow her to get away from him – this man just doesn’t understand any hints. In despair, Catherine estranges from all this company and befriends Eleanor Tinley, Henry’s sister. Eleanor, more skilled in intriguing, sees that Catherine is madly in love with Henry but pretends to understand nothing.
Catherine is invited for a walk with Henry and Eleanor, but the rain starts and interrupts the plan. James and Isabella pressure her to have a ride with John instead. She doesn’t know how to refuse, so Catherine agrees. While riding, she sees Henry and Eleanor who came to pick her up, rain or not. She asks John to stop, but he refuses and takes Catherine away to her sincere anger. Later, when Catherine returns home, she apologizes to the Tinleys and they plan another day to spend time together. But when this day comes, Isabella, John and James again try to make her stay home. But this time (finally!) Catherine, who grew a spine after their the previous scheme, refuses and goes where she wants to.
She goes to Beechen Cliff to have a walk with Eleanor and Henry. They have a lot of common topics to talk about: one of them is books. Unlike John, both siblings are also fond of Gothic novels and they all spend the rest of the day discussing the books they have read. When Catherine returns home, James and Isabella announce that they are now engaged. John comes to say goodbye to her before leaving Bath for several weeks. He is so self-obsessed (or Catherine didn’t manage to refuse clearly enough) that he still thinks that she is in love with him and hopes to become engaged with Catherine too when he returns. Catherine doesn’t realize it and just says goodbye to sigh with relief when he goes away. The Book I ends with this.
The second book presents us the new character – Captain Frederick Tinley, Henry’s older brother, a brave military man and a total womanizer. Isabella sees him on the ball and immediately decides that the heir of the wealthy family and such a charming man is much better perspective than a poor and modest student. She starts to flirt with Frederick, openly and shamelessly, much to Catherine’s dismay. Catherine herself seems to have an unexpected turn in her relationship too: Eleanor gives her an invitation to come to Tinley’s family estate, Northanger Abbey. The invitation is from Eleanor’s father, General Tinley, who is very interested in meeting the girl Henry is so serious about.
Catherine is very glad to accept such an invitation. She is fascinated with the possibility to see the real abbey, like the one from the novels she read, and of course to spend some extra time with Henry. Right before Catherine is ready to leave, Isabella comes to her and says that John is going to make a proposal to her. Catherine is shocked and asks Isabella to write him a letter with her apologies about his mistake.
Frederick continues to advance towards Isabella. Fed up with his behavior, Catherine comes to Henry, asking him to stop his brother. But Henry replies that it isn’t solely Frederick’s fault: Isabella is also involved and very active, so they both have no rights to interfere into other people’s feelings. He comforts Catherine with the idea that Frederick will soon be called back to his regiment and won’t communicate with Isabella anymore.
Catherine agrees to leave them alone and soon she departs with Henry and Eleanor to Northanger Abbey. She is very excited about it and tells Henry how she imagines it to be old and mysterious and haunted. Henry gladly accepts the game, telling her about treasure chests, hidden passages and mysterious signs that are seen only at night. But the real Northanger Abbey appears to be quite dull and ordinary estate, almost ruined once but repaired by General Tinley.
Still, Catherine imagines a lot of horror stories that could have happened here, but her suspects fail one by one. The old and mysterious cabinet in her own room contains some ordinary papers, the shady halls are just halls with not enough light etc. Finally, Catherine starts to investigate the story of the deceased wife of General Tinley and comes to the illogical conclusion that General himself could be involved in murder. It would be a perfect Gothic plot, but still, when Catherine sneaks into the chamber of Mrs. Tinley and examines the room, she discovers nothing. Moreover, she gets caught by angry Henry who scolds her for thinking so bad about his father and touching his mother’s belongings without permission. Ashamed, Catherine apologizes sincerely and promise not to do such things anymore.
After a while, Catherine’s good time with the Tinleys is interrupted with the letter from her brother. James wrote that his engagement with Isabella is broken because of her behavior towards Frederick. Enraged, Catherine rushes to Henry, telling him that his brother is guilty of ruining the couple’s happiness, but Henry convinces the girl that it wasn’t Frederick who was really guilty. Saddened, Catherine agrees that Isabella’s attitude to James was less than perfect.
Soon Catherine is invited to Henry’s house at Woodston where she spends more and more time with his father. The General clearly wants to know her better and even drops vague hints about Catherine entering his family as Henry’s wife.
Flattered, Catherine is again immersed in her dreams about happy family life, but another letter spoils her mood. Isabella writes to her best friend, complaining that Frederick had no intention to marry her and dropped her before returning to his service. She asks Catherine to talk to James and persuade him to renew their engagement. Now Catherine’s eyes are opened: she sees that Isabella was never interested in James for real, seeing him now as the “plan B”, while there are no better candidates around. Isabella also was never sincere with Catherine, manipulating her and their friendship to achieve her goals. In anger, Catherine wishes that she had never known Isabella and decides that their friendship is over.
General Tinley leaves in his business, sending Henry back to Woodston to entertain their guest. Everything goes perfect until the General, returning unexpectedly, orders Catherine to get out of their house immediately. Catherine is shocked, Eleanor and Henry are incredibly ashamed and embarrassed of their father’s behavior, but they have no option than to send Catherine back to her family in Fullerton. Catherine’s family is equally shocked with such a change of heart. Nevertheless, they are glad to see their daughter home again and do the best they can to comfort her.
But their attempts do little to return Catherine her former cheerful and romantic attitude. Her depression quickly progresses, she doesn’t understand what happened and if she deserved what she got. But one day Henry suddenly knocks at her door and proposes to her. He tells Catherine the full story he learned: John Thorpe was the man behind it. When John thought that Catherine loved him, he boasted to everyone that his future fiancée is of a very rich family and the only heiress. But when the General Tinley met him again during his trip, John, who has already received the letter with Catherine’s refusal, told the General that Morlands are almost beggars. The General was mortified. He expected Henry to marry a rich girl and to increase the overall wealth of Tinley family and Catherine, with all her sweetness and good nature, didn’t meet that expectation. So, the General, so polite and pleasant to her before, just threw her away and forbade Henry to even think about her.
Henry ran away as soon as he learned the story and now, after the proposal is accepted, the couple waits until the General changes his mind and gives his blessing to them. After a few months they receive a note that Eleanor found a perfect match: a wealthy aristocrat. So, now General Tinley can afford to marry off his second son to a woman without a big dowry. He agrees to talk to his son again and Henry, who saw the house of the Morlands with his very own eyes, tells his father the truth: Catherine’s family isn’t rich, but they are definitely not beggars and are decent people with good origins. This calms old General down and he gives his consent to marriage. The wedding of Catherine and Henry ends the story.