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Jane Austen Explains Why Real Life Is More Mysterious Than Fiction

jane austen

Throughout ‘Northanger Abbey,’ Jane Austen explains why an untempered imagination can be misleading, and why real life is more mysterious than fiction.


In the fifth lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online course on the young Jane Austen (which you can take along with me here), Lorraine Murphy, an English professor at the college, explains why an untempered imagination can be misleading.

In “Northanger Abbey,” the protagonist’s love interest, Henry Tilney, often represents Austen’s point of view on various aspects of life. His sensible approach to conflict and tensions are combined with a complex understanding of relationships. A well-rounded reader of both novels and history, his viewpoint is informed by a deep, well-tempered imagination.

The depth of Henry’s character contrasts starkly with Catherine’s, which is guided by her runway imagination and a lack of experience. Catherine learns that her habit of reading only shallow novels has ill-prepared her to handle the complexities of life. To our heroine, every shadow is a ghost, and every oddity is a great mystery. Rather than contemplate things as they are, she lets her imagination run wild with improbable explanations for things she cannot immediately understand.

The Setting Toys With Readers’ Expectations

When the Tilneys invite our Gothic-fiction-loving protagonist, Catherine, to their medieval-monastery-turned-vacation-home, Northanger Abbey, her imagination runs wild. During the night, she discovers a set of papers hidden in a cabinet in her bedroom and she grows afraid, hiding under the covers. In the morning light, she realizes the papers are a mere collection of receipts and accounting ledgers, and feels sheepish at her folly.

While taking a tour of the grounds the next day, Catherine begins to suspect General Tilney, the patriarch of the family, of having a role in his wife’s death because of his odd behavior during the tour. Austen plays with the reader’s expectations through Catherine’s repeated disappointments at the abbey. While the story does take place in a Gothic setting — a refurbished old abbey — it is fashioned into a typical home with modern furnishings. To Catherine’s dismay, it is not the old, decrepit, and musty enclave she had envisioned.

When she is left alone, she sneaks away to take a look at the late mother’s room in an effort to collect evidence of her suspicions that General Tilney killed Henry and Eleanor’s mother. When she enters the room, she finds it to be completely ordinary and feels ashamed about her suspicions. Her shame is worsened when Henry, Catherine’s love interest, discovers her exiting the room and demands to know why she was snooping about. When she reflects upon the confrontation later, she realizes that her imagination, fueled by reading Gothic novels, has led her astray.

During her visit, she learns that her old friend, Isabella, has broken off an engagement with her brother in order to accept on offer of marriage from Henry and Eleanor Tilney’s older brother. Although she is upset by her brother’s distress, she does not find herself in the throes of despair like she had imagined she might — or that the reader might expect the heroine of a typical Gothic novel. But Catherine is not a typical literary heroine, nor is Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” a typical work of Gothic fiction.

Real-Life Relationships Are Scarier Than Gothic Castles

The contrast of the dissolution of her friendship with Isabella and her growing friendship with Eleanor teach Catherine a lesson about relationships and love. Abandoning all conventions for a fast-growing friendship, like hers with Isabella, can leave one vulnerable to be taken advantage of. One must grow into a relationship and learn more about a new friend in order to truly grow close to  her.

When Henry and Eleanor discover the news about their older brother’s engagement to Isabella, a woman with little inherited wealthy and of insignificant social status, they grow concerned and express anxiety about their father’s reaction. Isabella learns that her initial impressions of General Tilney — that he may have a dark aspect of his character — will be confirmed later on in the book.

Austen uses this aspect of the general’s character to illustrate a larger point — that darkness in real life often does not come in the form of murder mysteries and haunted houses, but in relational complexities between individuals.