A Tale of Two Abbeys
Jane Austens Northanger Abbey epitomizes the idea that the little things in life really do matter. Throughout her revolutionary writing, which contrasts greatly with the Gothic style of writing popularized by Matthew Lewis The Monk, Austen brilliantly incorporates vivid, miniscule details, which often escape readers unnoticed, to bring richness and life to her story. Whereas The Monk thrives on extravagance, horror and exterior details, Northanger Abbey relishes in the simple reality in the surroundings and thoughts of a childish, nave heroine by the name of Catherine Morland who travels to what she believes will be the magnificent abbey, perhaps much like the one in The Monk. However, the abbey in Austens work is anything but magnificent, at least in appearance; and therein lays the beauty of it, and the entire novel.
Although it earned the title of Austens novel, the abbey at Northanger does not burst into the scene in the first chapter, or even the first half of the story. In fact, the abbey does not burst into the scene at all. After spending weeks in the altogether ordinary city of Bath, Catherine Morland anxiously awaits a thrilling entry into the illustrious grounds of Northanger Abbey. As Austen writes, every turn of the road was expected to:
afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows (Austen, 117).
However, when her party reaches the long-anticipated abbey, the scene appears as hardly one of splendour or beauty at all.
When Catherine arrives at her destination, Austen describes the highly anticipated scene by saying:
So low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney (Austen, 117).
This scene strolls, rather than bursts, into Austens novel, and it appears radically different than the scene in which Matthew Lewis introduces readers to his abbey. Lewis spares his readers the anticipation, preferring to delve right into the anything but subtle setting of The Monk.
Rather than waiting for the second half of the novel to intorduce the appearance of his abbey, Lewis introduces the structure to his readers in the very first chapter. In fact, he sets the stage on the very first page. The abbey-bell had already tolled for five minutes, and the area surrounding it, which happens to be in the magnificent city of Madrid, was filled with throngs of anxious, excited people. As Lewis writes, the Capuchin Church had never witnessed a more numerous assembly. Every corner was filled, every seat was occupied (Lewis, 8). This contrasts sharply from the scene into which Catherine Morland appeared when she came to Northanger Abbey, and Lewis has not even described the physical edifice of his abbey. Rather than copious amounts of people greeting her, she arrives only to find her friend and General Tilney greeting her. The discrepancies between the two scenes have only begun, though.
To further describe the scene of Northanger Abbey that greets Catherine, Austen states:
To pass between lodges of a modern appearance, to find herself with such ease in the very precincts of the abbey, and driven so rapidly along a smooth, level road of fine gravel, without obstacle, alarm or solemnity of any kind, struck her as odd and inconsistent (Austen, 117).
Here Austen vividly describes the scene around her heroine as one that might be a quiet country church in todays society. Catherine is able to move quickly through the grounds without being impeded or alarmed at all. Once again, Lewis scene is very different from this. The only way the first character in The Monk, Leonella, is able to gain passage through the church is by dint of perseverance and two brawny arms. The woman in this scene has to bustle herself into the very body of the Church (Lewis, 8). Everything in Lewis setting appears difficult and loud. Everything in that of Austen seems effortless, uneventful and peaceful. Lewis even continues to describe the busy scene of the Capuchin Church, whereas Austen quickly departs from her description of the abbey at Northanger altogether, only to return to it shortly after.
While Catherine is contemplating the abbey in her story, and how different it is from those she has come to expect, her thoughts are suddenly interrupted when Austen writes:
She was not long at leisure however for such considerations. A sudden scud of rain driving full in her face, made it impossible for her to observe any thing further, and fixed all her thoughts on the welfare of her new straw bonnet (Austen, 117).
The abbey itself is so unremarkable that a little rain causes Catherine to completely forget the scene. All she can think about is her bonnet. Some readers may ask, Why would Austen mention such a small detail? She does this because this is much more realistic. In reality, events such as rain ruining a bonnet often distract people. However, it is much more unexpected to find this in a novel. Whereas Lewis stays focused on the scene of his abbey, Austen lets herself drift along with the thoughts of her heroine. In this, we see that Lewis is focused on observations and the exterior appearance of his scene, whereas Austen focuses on minute details in order to give readers an insight of the interior of her characters.
The authors scenes continue to diverge even further after this brief insight into Catherines thoughts. While it took much effort for Leonella to reach her goal in the Capuchin Church, Catherine gains access to the abbey at Northanger very quickly and without impediment. Austen describes the events following the appearance of the rain shower by saying:
She was actually under the Abbey walls, was springing, with Henrys assistance, from the carriage, was beneath the shelter of the old porch, and had even passed on to the hall (Austen, 117).
Here Austen continues to show the ease with which Catherine is able to enter the abbey. In fact, she passes right through the outer portion and into the hall without effort. In addition to that, readers also continue to see the details of the abbey itself. Catherine was hardly expecting to find an old porch. This plain, rustic image that Austen paints leads us into the interior of the abbey, which is very similar to what we have seen thus far.
Once Catherine is inside drawing room, she begins looking around and decides that if she did not know better, she would not think she had come into an abbey at all. Austen writes, She doubted whether any thing within her observation would have given her the consciousness (Austen, 117). This not only shows how ordinary the scene itself is, but also shows Austens intentions of showing the interior aspect of her character rather than focusing simply on the exterior, which she continues to do shortly after.
In regards to the interior abbey itself, Austen vividly and clearly describes her scene, but even with her enriched language, the essence of the scene itself is still very plain. The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste (Austen, 118). The fact that Austen mentions furniture at all shows how simple the abbey is. Rather than appearing historic, the scene tried to be modern. In Lewis abbey, in place of furniture, he gives a paints a much loftier, albeit shorter, picture for his readers: