In Northanger Abbey (probably the best revised novel of Jane Austen), the author studies a simple and naive heroine. The emphasis on Catherine Morland is comparatively slight, as the main objective has been to ridicule the romances of the time. She is not only the youngest but also the most immature Jane Austen heroine. Her “situation is well-prepared in the opening pages of exposition.1” She is introduced with negatives.


            “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.2


            At the age of ten she is only a simple, plain type of girl. She is not only unheroic but also unwomanly. She is fond of manly sports. Jane Austen’s heroines are usually thoughtful and quick-witted, but Catherine is almost the reverse. The purpose of this paper is to examine, in brief, Catherine Morland and to account for her inadequacies as a character in fiction.


            Catherine’s development is in two major directions. She is stuffed with romantic fancies and fads because of her readings and associations. Henry Tilney’s accounts of ancient Abbeys strengthen her illusions. She irresistibly remembers Henry’s words when she spends her first frightful night in the Abbey. The repeated use of “Henry’s words” at the time of the storm in her mind and outside is revealing (pp. 167-170). The storm inside herself corresponds to the violent storm outside: “The storm too abroad so dreadful” (pp. 170). However, in the course of the novel, the illusions slowly fade and she quite forgets them. The clear weather after the storm may be symbolic of the removal of her false fears and illusions. The novelist says: “And she opened her eyes... ...her fire was already burning, and a bright morning had succeeded the tempest of the night.” She finds that her fears were false or imaginary:


            Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page.

            She started at its import. Could it be

            possible or did not her senses play her false? (p. 172)


She emerges a wiser, a plainer and a more loving Catherine. There is also a second scale along which her character grows ‘up. In the beginning, her outlook is marked by her simplicity. But as she grows, she develops better perception–so characteristic of a Jane Austen heroine. First, she befriends Miss Isabella Thorpe and thinks her to be a sweet or suitable companion. For the guileless and unsophisticated girl, who has come to Bath for the first time, it is natural and desirable. However, she soon comes to realise the true nature of her companion–her empty-headedness, lack of propriety and principle frequently evidence it. She cannot reconcile the contradictory accounts of things given by John Thorpe. She starts thinking independently and concludes that he is a disagreeable man. She will like to see the countryside and the castles to appease her romantic illusions. She cannot go out, as the Tilneys are expected on that day. The after-thought is important, as it points to her growing attachment towards the Tilneys. “Then I shall like to see it, but I cannot–I cannot go” (p. 85). The block is removed by John Thorpe. He informs her that he met them on his way going to some other place. Her desire to see old castles becomes so predominant that she entrusts herself to John Thorpe. But they come across the Tilneys walking towards her home. Despite her vehement insistence, John Thorpe does not stop the carriage to meet them. So her feelings towards him are unpleasant, she is both angry and vexed. Now Catherine is not the same simpleton. She forms her own opinion about others.


            From now on the Thorpes go down and the Tihleys consciously rise in her esteem. She is no longer ready to go on an outside excursion with the Thorpes because she has little faith in them. She insists on going to the Tilneys whatever the obstacles.


            “Then I will go after them,” said Catherine;

            “Wherever they are, I will go after them. It does not signify talking. If I could not be persuaded into doing what I thought wrong, I never will be tricked into it.”

(p. 101)


Miss Isabella Thorpe remarks: “These Tilneys seem to swallow up everything.” Catherine Morland is still an obedient girl, not prepared to stay with the Tilneys without the prior permission of the Allens. The Allens act as guardians for her while at Bath. She cannot do things on her own:


            “Catherine was greatly obliged, but it was quite out of her power. Mr. and Mrs. Allen would expect her back every moment. (p. 103)


            She thankfully declines the invitation, although her disapproval of the invitation extended by the Thorpes was brief and dry. Her engaging conversation with the Timneys is in clear contrast to the one with John Thorpe. She is certainly not spirited like Marianne Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennet.


            In comparison with Jane Austen’s heroines, Catherine is somewhat poorly drawn. For example, in Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen uses her favourite technique of contrast in character and situation to deepen the complexity of her heroines. In Pride and Prejudice the novelist presents a psychological study of the working of Elizabeth’s mind–the formation of her prejudice, its gradual growth and final removal. In Emma Woodhouse the progress from a “vain spirit” to a “serious spirit” is plausible and interesting. But Catherine Morland does not emerge as a living character.


            Wherein precisely lies the flaw in respect of Catherine? Professor Mudrick finds it in over-simplification in her character:


            She is too simple and too slight, too narrowly a symbol of the author’s rejection of romantic non-sense, to assert the claim of personal feeling and value beyond mere function.3


            Howells says “ spite of her romantic folly she has so much good heart that it serves her in place of good sense.4” According to Andrew Wright, these critics have not probed deep enough into her inadequacies as a heroine. He remarks, “It seems to me that both these critics rather miss the point about Catherine.” He suggests that


            “Jane Austen tries to do too much with her both as a goose-like parody of the sentimental-Gothic-Heroine, and to advance claims for her as a human-being who would learn good sense, and learn even to go beyond it.5


            The fact is that the difficulty is inherent in the very task Jane Austen proposes to perform here. The inadequacy becomes distinct as in the earlier part there is progress in only one direction, i. e., in her being a parody of a Gothic heroine. No solid inclination towards the common-sense mode of life is visible. And in the later part, as the first trend is abruptly dispensed with, there is no integrated change-over or development. The task to reconcile the two in one heroine is quite formidable, since in the first case common-sense is to be shut out, and in the second allowed in. One wonders what improvement Jane Autsten would have brought forth had she revised the novel to her satisfaction.


            Still Catherine’s simplicity and artlessness are charming. Only those who want to see in her what she is not will find her foolish or colourless. She remains an ingenuous, innocent girl, all agreeableness and loveliness. She “invites and keeps our sympathy, and she makes us feel that what happens to her matters to us”.6 Her fancy is indeed captivating:


            There is a very clever essay in one of the books upstairs upon such subject, about young girls that have been spoilt for home by great acquaintance–the Mirror, I think. I will look it out for you some day or other, because I am sure it will do you good. (P. 241)




1 Mary Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford Clarendon Press), p. 177.

2 Northanger Abbey, p. 241. All citations from the novel are from the edition of R. W. Chapman (Oxford University Press).

3 Jane Austen: Irony as Defence and Discovery (Princeton) p. 53.

4 W. D. Howells, Heroines of Fiction (London), p. 58.

5 Andrew H. Wright, Jane Austen’s Novels: A Study in Structure. (London), pp. 107-108.

6 Butler, p. 178.