Inheritance and Northanger Abbey

For the last part of my series on inheritance in the Regency Era, I will discuss Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.  NA is, of course, quite different in tone than Austen’s previously discussed works as it is a parody of the gothic romances that were so popular in her time.  These novels, written by popular writers such as Ann Radcliffe, were moody, atmospheric and highly romantic, wallowing in exotic places and unnameable crimes and disparaged in public by most people and read avidly by many women of the time.

Catherine Morland, the heroine of NA, is a very ordinary girl without outstanding looks or intellect.  She is delighted when she is invited to travel to Bath with a kindly neighboring couple.  The first person she meets is Henry Tilney at one of the public dances and she likes him very much, but he immediately disappears.  In the meantime, she meets Isabella Thorpe, the daughter of a school friend of her hostess.  Isabella is very theatrical and immediately attaches the naive Catherine, introducing her to all her favorite gothic novels.  Mr. Tilney returns after a few days with his sister and soon Catherine’s brother and his friend, Isabella’s brother John, making for a lively social life.

Most of the drama of this book comes from the lies told by John Thorpe to make his friends (and therefore himself) seem more important and wealthy.  His mischief causes Catherine endless trouble as he has misrepresented Catherine’s brother to Isabella, lies to Henry Tilney to make Catherine do what he wants, and then lies even more to Henry Tilney’s father, General Tilney, turning Catherine into a wealthy heiress instead of the modest vicar’s daughter that she is.  Isabella lures James Morland into an engagement, which she is happy with until she finds out how low his income will be.  The odious general is even more class conscious than John Thorpe and decides that Catherine would make a suitable wife for Henry, who is his younger son and a minister.  To promote this match, he invites Catherine to his estate, Northanger Abbey, for a visit.  Catherine makes a fool of herself over the expected Gothic character of an Abbey and eventually the general finds out that she is not an heiress and sends her home without the slightest care for her comfort or safety.

Inheritance is only of importance in Northanger Abbey in that misrepresentation of the wealth of the Morlands by John Thorpe causes a great deal of mischief for both Catherine and James.  General Tilney’s estate is entailed on his elder son, but the most important consideration for him is marrying off his daughter and younger son is to find them rich and important matches, no matter what their feelings are in the matter.  He believes John Thorpe’s lies about Catherine being an heiress, and says that she will also inherit the fortune of the Allens (the friends who brought her to Bath) because they are childless.

John Thorpe and General Tilney are two sides of the same coin- both are obsessed with wealth, but John chooses to give his friends importance by vastly inflating their wealth and the General promotes his family’s importance by throwing Catherine out when he find that she is not important enough.  In the end he finds out that Catherine is not as poor as he assumed when he discovered she was not an heiress, which is just as well since Henry likes her and feels obligated to find out if she returned home safely and then asks her to marry him.

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