This is probably one of Jane Austen’s lesser known books. This is a rather mild satire on gothic horror novels. Specifically, it pokes fun at Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Catherine Morland’s family is most like Jane Austen’s in that she is a daughter of a clergyman who has approximately 10 children. She is the oldest daughter. Unfortunately, because her family is large, she is somewhat neglected in her education. Like many young women she becomes overly enamoured with gothic horror novels (which would probably correspond to teenager girls obsession with romance novels be they teen, Christian, or harlequin). Anyway, the Morland’s family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, take Catherine with them on a visit to Bath (popular social local during winter). Throughout these introductory chapters Austen is constantly drawing a distinction between Catherine and the typical heroine of a gothic novel.
At first their time in Bath is a little bit boring. The Allen’s do not have any acquaintances to provide variation to Catherine’s amusement. The first person Catherine meets is Henry Tilney, who is introduced to her by the master of ceremony at a ball.
Back in that time, people didn’t just walk up and introduce themselves the way they do now. I believe the thought behind this was that you never wanted to impose your acquaintance upon someone. There were ways of obtaining introduction, usually by the gentleman of the house leaving his calling card with another gentleman. Anyway, it is complicated. I just wanted to give you background to understand why Catherine and the Allens were isolated in their visit.
Anyway, Henry is quite an engaging young man, who gently yet mercilessly teases Catherine. He leaves for a few days, leaving Catherine quite desolate. However, new acquaintances arrive in the form of the Thorpes. Mrs. Thorpe was a school chum of Mrs. Allen. John Thorpe, the eldest son, turns out to be the friend of Catherine’s older brother James. Isabella Thorpe soon become Catherine’s bosom buddy.
Now Mr. and Mrs. Allen although kind in inviting Catherine to spend time with them are not the best guardians. Mr. Allen does not figure much into the story. Mrs. Allen can be best described as a vain, vapid, twit! The only thing she cares about is her clothing. She really did not consider the character of the Thopre’s and whether they were appropriate friends for Catherine
The Thorpes are a mercenary family. It seems as though the father was dead by this point. As a result, John and Isabella must make their fortunes by marriage. For some strange reason, John and Isabella think that the Morland family is well off. So Isabella goes after James and tries to encourage a relationship between John and Catherine. Isabelle does become engaged to James; however it is readily apparent to the reader that Isabelle quickly falls out of “love” with James when she discovers his yearly income.
While James is away, Isabelle meets Henry Tilney’s elder brother Captain Tilney and begins a flirtation with him in hopes of marriage. Isabelle keeps this up even once James returns. By this point Catherine has also met Henry’s sister Eleanor as well as their father. John Thorpe, braggart that he is, boasts of the Morland’s supposed wealth to the father. (He imagines that Catherine is the heiress to Mr. and Mrs. Allen). Henry is not deceived as to Isabelle’s actions. He fears for her because he knows how his father is about money.
Anyway, the Tilney’s invite Catherine to their ancestral home. Catherine expects the Abbey to be like Udolpho and is quite disappointed to find that it is merely a good house. Anyway, there is a section in the house that no one goes into- Mrs. Tilney’s old rooms. Catherine imagines that the father has done away with his wife. Her imagination gets the best of her, and she is gently set right by Henry.
Meanwhile the engagement between James and Isabelle is over. James tells Catherine by letter to be careful with entrusting her heart. Isabelle also writes Catherine asking for information about James. General Tilney heads off to London, and Henry, Eleanor, and Catherine enjoy themselves without the General’s dour presence. He comes back abruptly and sends Catherine away immediately.
Catherine goes home quite unhappy. It isn’t till Henry visits a few days later that she finds out what happened. When John Thorpe became disappointed with Catherine, he slandered her and told the General that she was destitute. Henry is still in love with Catherine; but the General will not give his blessing. Finally when Eleanor marries a titled man, the General assents due to good humor.
I think it is so funny how things go awry because of Catherine’s over active imagination. This story was what finally made me try to find The Mysteries of Udolpho. Having read this book, I see how Austen took many of Radcliffe’s plot elements to satirize in this story. Catherine was a little naive for my taste but I think that was Austen’s way of emphasizing how “unlikely” a heroine she was.