In Training For a Heroine: The Great Northanger Abbey Re-read, Part IV

Posted by Alyssa Favreau

Covers from Jane Austen to Cover

And we’re back with our weekly Northanger Abbey recap! In these chapters our heroine Catherine experiences some highs and some lows, before relocating to a new and exciting locale: Northanger Abbey itself! 

Chapter 16

After her very satisfactory walk with the Tilneys, Catherine returns to their home for dinner. She comes home disappointed, however, and can’t exactly figure out why. Despite her earlier walk with Henry and Eleanor, the siblings seemed less open and friendly that evening. General Tilney, for his part, was nothing but kind and complimentary, but thinking back Catherine realizes she couldn’t relax in his presence.

Isabella, when informed, is quick to blame Eleanor and Henry. (“Of all things in the world inconstancy is my aversion.”) She also tries to compare John favorably to Henry which, I mean, good luck girl. The girls will be going to the Rooms that night (as will the Tilneys) and Isabella proclaims that she misses James too much and will not dance.

Henry and Eleanor are much more at east at the ball that night, and Henry dances with Catherine. Their elder brother, Captain Tilney, has just arrived, and is dismissive of his brother when Henry suggests he dance as well. However, as Catherine and Henry are enjoying themselves, Captain Tilney asks Isabella to dance, and to Catherine’s very great surprise, she accepts. Poor dear just can’t fathom how they both could say one thing and do another. She’s a babe in the woods, but at the very least Henry finds her goodness charming, and doesn’t seem in a great hurry to render her worldly and jaded.

Afterward, Isabella assures Catherine that she only agreed to dance because Captain Tilney wouldn’t stop begging, and when the two next meet, Isabella’s got a letter from James. He’s relayed how much money a year they’ll be getting from his parents. It’s clearly far less than Isabella was hoping for, and though she does her standard passive “oh it’s nothing to me, I’m just worried about James” nonsense, Catherine is decidedly uncomfortable.

Chapter 17

The Allens have decided to extend their stay in Bath, which delights Catherine, in no small part because she can continue seeing Henry. But all seems lost when Eleanor tells her that the Tilneys will be leaving town in a week. Thankfully, she invites Catherine along with them, for a stay at the eponymous Northanger Abbey, and Catherine is blissfully happy. She spends the next several pages in complete wonder, imagining what mysteries and gothic drama lay in wait for her in such an ancient and romantic-sounding building.

Chapter 18

Catherine coasts on this happiness for a few days, and eventually finds herself in the pump room again with Isabella. The other girl gets them to sit in her “favourite place … it is so out of the way,” where they have a view of everyone in the place. She seems agitated, but she won’t tell Catherine who she’s looking for (three guesses), instead telling her that she’s just gotten a letter from John and that he’s head over heels in love with Catherine. This is news to Catherine (and, to be frank, at least in terms of the depth of his feelings, to the reader as well), and Isabella chides her for feigning ignorance.

I’m honestly a little over Isabella and her Mean Girl mind games, so suffice it to say Catherine denies everything but does a poor job of convincing Isabella that she wasn’t teasing John and leading her on. Isabella, however, doesn’t seem to particularly care about her brother’s supposedly unrequited feelings. Just then, Captain Tilney arrives and launches into some flirtation that even this 21st century lady finds fairly forward. Catherine is shocked and angry on her brother’s behalf, and leaves.

Chapter 19

The next few days pass with Catherine becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the flirtations of Isabella and Captain Tilney. She sees her brother, who’s now back in town, hurting, and asks Henry to intervene. But at least to the reader it’s clear that Henry knows his brother isn’t much of a gentleman and feels powerless to stop him. Their conversation ends with Henry reassuring Catherine that nothing will come of it.

Chapter 20

And we’re now off to the Abbey! General Tilney continues to be strangely, unsettlingly solicitous of Catherine, and it makes her so horribly nervous that not even Henry and Eleanor’s kindness can calm her. In fact, he keeps pinging between extreme shows of kindness toward Catherine, and extreme anger toward everyone else, shutting down his children in a way that seems pretty typical of abusive people. They’re all tiptoeing around him, and Catherine is relieved when she gets to ride with Henry alone. It’s another opportunity to compare him to John, the only other man she’s ever ridden in an open carriage with, and Catherine does so, internally, with gusto.

Henry entertains her with spooky stories all about the secret chambers and blood-spotted rolls of parchment she will undoubtedly find at the Abbey, and Catherine is appropriately horrified. (“Oh! No, no – do not say so. Well, go on.”) Henry’s teasing serves to show how far Catherine’s experience is from gothic convention, to the point where, instead of getting a long, sinister look at the Abbey as she approaches, it starts raining and obscures her first glimpse of the building. She can’t see a thing, and the reader will have to do without a lengthy description.

Eventually, Catherine is shown around, with General Tilney again discomfiting her with his needless self-deprecation (everything is much grander than what Catherine is used to, but he acts as though he must be disappointing her and she doesn’t really know how to take that). He is very strict about meal times, and Catherine must go change for dinner.


What a roller coaster ride! Even though Catherine’s basically gotten her deepest heart’s desire, a visit to an old building full of history, plus more time with Henry and Eleanor to boot, Isabella, John and the two other Tilneys seem determined to dampen her spirits.

Henry’s reaction to his brother’s antics is a pretty clear indicator that we’re dealing with someone with few scruples. We’re just starting to figure out that Isabella may have met her match in terms of manipulation, and though it’s easy to resent Henry for his lack of involvement (I certainly did my first time reading), his hesitation maybe says more about the eldest brother.

It seems a little too punny, given Northanger Abbey’s overarching theme of novel-reading, to talk about Catherine’s ability to read between the lines, but let it not be said that I ever shied away from a good pun. Despite Catherine’s growing skepticism where the Thorpes are concerned, she hasn’t yet fully gotten to the point where she can realize that General Tilney, for all his compliments and niceties, is an overbearing presence who actively represses his children. She feels it, but doesn’t yet have the savoir faire to recognize it for what it is. Similarly, she still wants to believe that people will say what they mean. Those who, like Isabella and Captain Tilney, will say one thing and then act in direct opposition to it, still baffle her. Catherine comes from a place where people talk the talk and walk the walk and that’s all there is to it, and it’s an uphill battle for her to realize that rarely are people so forthright, particularly in this high society, urban environment.

It’s here that we also see how little Isabella thinks of Catherine. She isn’t trying very hard to stay on Catherine’s good side, and must be banking on her belief that sweet, naïve Catherine will forgive her just about anything. It’s sloppy of her to imply that Catherine’s father is deliberately withholding money from his son, when it’s clear to basically everyone else that the Morlands have no great fortune and many children to provide for. While Catherine will forgive any slight against herself, it’s when Isabella starts going after her family that she truly begins to realize how shady her friend can be.

We’ll have to put a pin on all the Bath intrigue however, since we’ve got a whole new place to explore! Stop back again next week as we spend more time in Northanger Abbey.