Updated: Sep 12
Catherine Moreland’s life is landmarked with religious edifices, and yet she longs for something more. Northanger Abbey isn’t merely a young lady’s comic adventure tale; it is a story about loss of connection and culture resulting from worldly divisions.
Miss Moreland is the daughter of a clergyman with two churches and she is delighted to say prayers in the same chapel as a new friend when she travels to Bath. She is ecstatic when the Tilney family invites her to Northanger Abbey, enchanted by the fantasy that her room there will connect by means of a subterranean passage to the chapel of Saint Anthony, and she is destined to reside in the parsonage at Woodston with her future husband.
Yet, despite the clerical landscape which Jane Austen – another clergyman’s daughter - paints for her would-be heroine, Catherine’s thirst for the mystical is not quenched by the commonplace Anglican touchstones which bracket and fill her journey. She is a thrill-seeker, and only gets what she wishes for when she becomes the guest of the Tilney family.
“…Northanger turned up to be an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful mentions of an injured and ill-fated nun.”
Catherine is, thus, of the generations of religious orphans created by Henry VIII when, in 1534, he broke with the Catholic Church for secular, rather than spiritual, reasons. His destruction of the ancient monasteries and abbeys, like Northanger, which were subsequently left in rubble or granted as country houses to the new gentry, severed a large population from its own spiritual heritage. Austen gives us a character in Miss Moreland who is figuratively and literally wandering amid the ruins of Catholicism and finding mere practical Protestantism much less exciting than the imagined past.
The king’s quest for divorce from his unfortunate, unwanted wife also divorced his subjects from their historic Dark-and-Middle Ages awe of the Almighty which once made the island kingdom a remarkable center of ceremony, mysticism, education, and of legendary hospitality for travelers. Rather than share power with a pope or face the music of Catholicism’s edicts, Henry silenced a millennium of unbroken chant, but no subsequent English monarch has proved themselves capable of fully subduing its echoes.
Weirdness amid the ruins
By Austen’s day, with the monks and nuns suppressed and no longer able to be real people or useful teachers, Catherine Moreland is relegated to the position of a Georgian antiquarian inventing dragons out of an encounter with a dinosaur fossil. In her yearning for life to be filled with mystery, she imaginatively peoples Northanger Abbey with villains and sufferers, formed out of the instruction she is, instead, taking from gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho, with their supernatural elements set amid ruins.
“…but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid,” Catherine wishes to be assured of novels by her friend, Isabella Thorpe, who evidently keeps a list of such lurid tales genteelly in her pocket book.
These comic, yet oddly tragic, young ladies are not alone in literature in their fascination with eeriness. Tolstoy presents us with their Russian contemporaries in the fashionably melancholy courtship of Boris Drubetskoy and Julie Karagina in War and Peace. He draws images of dark trees and tombs for her, accompanied by gloomy verses, while she plays “most doleful nocturnes” on the harp. Like Austen’s characters, they are acting their parts in a peculiar passing fad, but it is only Catherine who lets weirdness run away with her in a series of early dissatisfactions and essential self-revelations.
Her disappointments begin when, after greatly enjoying much anticipatory foreboding, she actually arrives at the abbey, only to find it a comfortable and modern gentleman’s residence with a good driveway.
The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence…were yet less than what her fancy portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved – the form of them was Gothic – there might even be casements – but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, the heaviest stonework, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was distressing.
Not finding the mystery she hoped for at Northanger, she invents a truly horrid one of her own for her host, General Tilney, recasting him in fancy as a monster rather than a merely unpleasant man. She succeeds in frightening herself and shocking her suitor. Henry Tilney is compelled to rebuke her, saying,
“Remember that we are English, that we are Christians…Dearest Miss Moreland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
The ideas Miss Moreland has been admitting are, of course, the fault of her literary informants who developed a lurid genre in the centuries following Henry VIII’s rupture with the Catholic Church.
The Dark Ages are often stereotyped as an era of chaotic superstition, but they were also the period in which Catholic monks throughout Ireland and the British Isles kept the light of spirituality and scholarship burning in that troubled corner of the world after the fall of the Roman Empire, as is detailed in Thomas Cahill’s celebrated account, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Henry VIII’s break with this long tradition deprived his subjects of ownership of one of the brightest chapters in their own history.
In so doing, the king left novelists and novel readers, like Miss Moreland, to invoke and invent half-glimpsed figures in a once-familiar setting which then became strange. Perhaps Catherine’s self-deceiving and dreadful fictions about the Tilneys and about imagined ill-used nuns may emerge because she senses, rather than knows, that the anti-Catholic bigotry fomented by the Tudors led to violent ends for the humble religious in whose former home she has become a guest.
Scholars have suggested that conquering peoples invented the faëries of the British Isles in guilty memory of those groups which they supplanted, investing with magical qualities humans whom they did not wish to think of anymore as ill-used fellow beings.
As a young Anglican visitor to a Catholic ruin, Catherine Moreland does much the same as the fairy-makers and faërie-believers, creating fantasy in a familiar landscape. Jane Austen was a youngster at Steventon Rectory at the time of the Papists Act of 1778, which was intended to diminish discrimination against Catholics. Did she hear, two years later, of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in the capitol, in which as many as 700 people lost their lives?
Three-quarters of a century later, prejudice against “Popishness” will be scarily prevalent in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette which depicts Belgian Catholics as liars, thieves and conspirators in contrast to the high relief and plain decency of its Anglican heroine, Lucy Snow, while using the figure of a NUN as a source of horror:
“A sudden bell rang in the house—the prayer-bell. Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush—close, close past our faces—swept swiftly the very NUN herself! Never had I seen her so clearly. She looked tall of stature, and fierce of gesture. As she went, the wind rose sobbing; the rain poured wild and cold; the whole night seemed to feel her.”
It is as if Lucy, and Brontë, want us to believe that the English are so far removed from their own religious past, they hardly know what a nun is anymore and can rely on their readers to be terrified by this other-worldly apparition, literally shrouded in mystery. Curiously, Brontë allows her protagonist to be rescued from her own outrageously Gothic adventures by a papist before the narrative appears to depict his death in the last controversial pages of the novel.
Even in the early 20th century, this Protestant sense of Catholic weirdness could still be counted on for thrills, as seen in James’ Herriot’s hair-raising episode in his veterinary novels:
“By the window, where the moonlight flooded in, making a pool of silver in the gloom, a monk was standing. A monk in a brown habit, motionless, arms folded, head bowed. His face was turned from the light towards me but I could see nothing under the drooping cowl but a horrid abyss of darkness.” – All Things Bright and Beautiful
Catherine Moreland would be disappointed to discover that this spectral monk is none other than the hilarious scapegrace, Tristan Farnon, who has been spooking the locals by haunting the nearby, ubiquitous ruined abbey.
This conflicted world was the one inherited by the ultimate English outsider, J.R.R. Tolkien. He lived in a society in which to be a good Christian one could not be a good Catholic. The professor had to walk a narrow path amid the Oxford patriarchy as he eulogized, even beyond the raptures of a Fanny Price, on the vanishing divinity of the English countryside as it fell to the horrors of mechanization.
Catholic Tolkien was deeply rooted in the splendor and mysticism of a 2,000-year-old religious tradition. By contrast, Miss Moreland’s church is a mere 300 years old when she wanders away from its plain and socially acceptable common sense to commune with the rumored majesty of a bygone era.
Authentic Awe and Worldly Division
In the end, Catherine Moreland gets it all wrong. She envisions a former house of prayer as a stage for fictionalized evil, perhaps because she is merely young, or perhaps because the larger society she inhabits still bears a remnant disquietude over the sudden and violent loss of its religious history. Despite the fact that her father is a clergyman, Miss Moreland has not been given the spiritual food necessary to seek directly after God for all the awe-fullness any Christian could wish for. She substitutes silly thrills for deep contemplation of the divine, yet her longing for the mystical is one of her best and most relatable qualities.
The 16th century continental reformation, with its vital and widely-held concerns about the decayed state of Roman Catholicism had a legitimate spiritual basis; the Catholic Church has veered so far from the teachings of Jesus so many times across two millennia, it can be very difficult to find our way amid our own ruins back to Peter, humility, repentance and love of God and neighbor. The English break with the pope, founded on the very act of divorce for which Austen would one day notably banish Maria Bertram from Mansfield Park, is a separate case. The monarch’s motivations were personal and power-hungry rather than mystical, turning the Tudor “Defender of the Faith” into a champion of nothing more than his own quite Gothic legacy. And this is the problem and heartache of worldly division, both religious and political.
When leaders of churches and countries rile up their followers and subjects in quest of power rather than in service of God, hatred is the horrid specter which emerges to the detriment of all. The litany of religious wars is the ultimate rejection of the love most religions teach. Time and again, common folk like ourselves have either been compelled by or fooled by elected or appointed leaders who divide us for their own ends, moving us further away from our deepest need for peace instead of closer to it.
Dividers can be quite persuasive. Henry VIII caused a drastic response in his subjects and convinced them to turn their backs on their own abbeys and sacred places and deal them out to the exceedingly wealthy rising class to which the Tilneys belong. The king required a country to reject itself and hate what it had been. The psychological impacts must have been profound, and must underlie the bewildering inconsistency of a people who could, on the one hand, make a proud and gradually-Catholicized hero out of Celtic King Arthur, while with the other hand brutally subjugating his Celtic Catholic cousins in Ireland.
Catherine Moreland is left hating herself as she takes her own vows to no longer seek ancient wonder in fallen edifices, nor confusion in bad novels, in order to become a proper English parson’s wife.
“The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears – could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express…Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works…it was not in them that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for.”
We see Austen’s heroine supposing that strange things are still happening in the Alps and Pyrenees (regions with a high proportion of Catholics) but, going forward, the original and curious girl must become a woman content with the Church of England and its more manageable Georgian problems of good livings, pluralism and poor chaplains who “were not worth looking at.”
Austen does not leave us with much hope that there will be room for profound spiritual awe in Catherine's future, and that may be a great loss if the young heroine's energetic yearning for something wonderful to happen to her was actually her meandering but meaningful search for God.
What if Catherine befriended a Catholic?
Austen would go on to write her spiritual masterpiece, Mansfield Park, which delves deeply and deftly into the state of the Anglican Church of her day. Some fifteen years after the author first envisioned Miss Moreland questing for an abbey, Edmund Bertram will find himself beset by Mary Crawford’s unflattering depiction of his church which, true to form, is undergoing new demands for reformation and a proliferation of new divisions. Even Fanny Price is saddened by the neglect of family prayer at Sotherton Court and views its private chapel with a most Catherine-like disappointment at not finding it still in keeping with the religious glories of the past.
What I could wish for the continuing education of Catherine Moreland Tilney, which is a central theme of Northanger Abbey, is that one afternoon, and in the spirit of ecumenism, a Regency-era English Catholic might have been forced by some interesting and adventurous circumstance to stop at Woodston Parsonage. There, over tea, this guest might reveal to the hostess that the spiritually curious Miss Morelands of the past were apt to have become nuns, themselves! For what it's worth, I'd like the Brontë girls to be at that party, too.
Revelations like these, in the form of neighborly communication amongst intelligent women, could undo the trick of worldly divisions and make us see eye-to-eye. If your own aunties in others eras were nuns, it's unlikely you will be horrified by them or be fooled by power-seekers into hating anyone, including yourself.
I'd like a discussion of the pre-Tudor abbess Hildegarde of Bingen to arise over the bread and butter at Mrs. Tilney's tea party.
Hildegarde spent her youth living inside the wall of a church in Germany, but then emerged to found abbeys, compose musical morality plays, write the largest body of existing letters we have from the Middle Ages, pen medical and theological volumes, preach sermons and become fluent in (Tolkien would have loved this) an invented language called lingua ignota. When detractors criticized Hildegarde and her order of nuns for traveling about the countryside dressed like princesses with beautiful silk veils and jewels, she told them to mind their own business, and she continued to seek her own way, having and sharing mystical visions all her life that continue to intrigue the world. Hildegarde is regarded as a saint in both the Anglican and Catholic churches.
Wonderful things can, indeed, happen to young ladies and women of all ages throughout the ages when the task before them is to understand one's self in relationship to God. If we are given a time of peace for contemplation, how readily the divisions that men have caused throughout history fall away, and how we may find ourselves longing for kinship with all around us so that love and knowledge can be shared equally by all, without thought given to power. We shouldn't let the mistakes of the past or the politics of today deceive us into orphaning ourselves from one another.
We are all on a faulty, fraught, and often funny journey of discovery like Miss Moreland, every day of our lives, and so is everyone else we encounter on the road. There is plenty of time for humility and sharing but no time at all for hatred when you are hoping to find God.