I first attempted to read Jane Eyre when I was about twelve or thirteen, having seen a friend rehearsing a scene from a play of it, the part set at Lowood School. Being very much into school stories at the time, I revised my opinion of "Classics" which I had hitherto dismissed as dull and not for the likes of me. "Grown-up books." I started Jane Eyre three times during my teens, each time not getting much further than Jane leaving school and starting her life as a governess. (This is relevant, honest.) The fourth time, I determined to read to the end, and succeeded, but was unimpressed by the romance part, and the gothic atmosphere and the weirdness passed me by completely. I was glad to have got to the end, and decided that I wouldn't bother with this classic stuff.
That didn't last, of course. Perhaps it was seeing part of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility with my Mum on TV, and actually quite enjoying it. I still wasn't sure I wanted to read all the slushy stuff, however. I asked Mum for her recommendation of which Jane Austen I should start with, and she quite determinedly said that Northanger Abbey was the one for me. Not only do I share a first name with the heroine (though Miss Morland misspells hers) but Catherine seemed the most like me, as far as Mum was concerned. As she put it, "Catherine is always reading gothic novels and lets her imagination run away with her, thinking they're real." Why should that make her think of me, I don't know!
Northanger Abbey famously parodies the Gothic fiction genre, and in particular a novel called The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I read that last year, and not only did it help me to appreciate Northanger all the more. And, having read Northanger Abbey, I could read the somewhat melodramatic and waffly Udolpho with a smirk on my face, to see the original old, creaking buildings with their long passages, mysterious servants and secret papers hidden in secret nooks and crannies. Udolpho's heroine is a virtuous, constantly-swooning orphan, its villain a tyrannical, money-grabbing uncle who does indeed torment and lock up his wife.
Austen opens the novel with a description of the many ways in which Catherine would not be classed as a conventional heroine: she comes from a normal, happy family without any tyrants in it, as a child she is a plain, scrawny tomboy, and she has more interest in playing ball games and climbing than engaging in embroidery and other sedate, feminine pursuits - even nursing sick birdies back to health! Austen's narrator comes in every so often to comment on the way the story is progressing, and how Catherine or events defy the expectations of the gothic genre. Catherine is exposed as having let her imagination run away with her when it comes to thinking that General Tilney is capable of horrors.
Henry Tilney acts as Austen's mouthpiece when it comes to the other extreme of Catherine's naivity - that (apart from her imaginings about General Tilney) she will believe only the best of people. Her ignorance when watching the flirtation between her friend Isabella and Tilney's brother is frustrating but heartwarming. Catherine is so honest and open herself that she simply can't see how anyone can be anything else. This incident is described as through Catherine's eyes, without any interjections from Austen's narrator. The reader witnesses the same scene as Catherine, yet how glaringly obvious the affair is, without any comment from the omnipotent outsider!
Though Austen satirises the gothic novel, it seems to be an affectionate attack. It is evident that she is very familiar with the books she pokes fun at, referring to specific scenes from Udolpho and other novels in the genre. Her more scathing criticism through the book is for hypocrisy - the hypocrisy of certain people found in town, who don't care a button about marrying for money, just so long as the person they intend to marry for love happen to have lots of it. It also attacks hypocrisy in literature: those heroines of novels who wouldn't dream of reading the type of literature that they star in.
And in the end, Catherine is let off the hook to a certain extent. True, General Tilney is not a murderer, but there is enough in him that recalls to mind the evil Montoni of Udolpho. Austen allows Catherine to conclude in her own melodramatic way that "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character or magnified his cruelty." After all, Catherine's instincts were, if wrong in the details, correct in identifying somebody who was not what he seemed.