The Annotated Northanger Abbey | Jane Austen & David M. Shapard #CCspin

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.

I was thrilled when Adam announced that he was planning to reinstate his Austen in August reading event. I have reread all my Austen’s multiple times, of course, but I have more than one edition of most of them, plus numerous bio’s or books about the books to keep me going. Rereading JA is such a pleasure and such a treat, that I really shouldn’t wait for a blog event to jump in, but that’s how it is.

So, which one to reread this August?

Luckily for me, a CC Spin popped up in July, so I stacked the list with all my unread annotated editions and left it to chance. It spun me Northanger Abbey.

I last read NA four years ago on a holiday in Bali. It was one of my special little flipback editions, perfect for travelling.

In the past five years or so, I been acquiring all the David M. Shapard annotated editions of Austen (and thanks to Melanie @Grab the Lapels I have discovered another annotated editor of Austen’s – Patricia Meyer Spack. These editions appear to be lovely glossy hardcover colour illustrated ones. Tempting, very tempting…).

Annotated editions are far less suitable for holiday reading. They require more attention, and the book is much heavier to carry. They are, however, perfect for lockdown reading. They are stimulating and comforting at the same time.

The thing with annotated editions though is working out the best way to read them.

Shapard has Austen’s story on the left hand page, and his annotations on the facing right hand page. Pages with fewer or brief annotations usually also feature a black and white illustration or painting.

As I began NA, I thought I would read the annotations as I went. But it didn’t work. It stopped the flow of the story too much. So I decided to read a whole chapter straight through instead, then I doubled back and read the relevant notes. Much better. It allowed me to enjoy the story and enjoy the annotated notes. But by about half way, I realised I had changed the way I was reading the book. I found myself checking the notes as they popped up. By this point, I was well into the flow of the story and found stopping to read the notes less disruptive. I had also become selective about which notes I read.

Shapard obviously wrote his notes with an American audience in mind, as well as a first time reader of Austen. I found I did not need to read the definitions of words or the explanations of English usage. I had reread Austen so often that these words or phrases no longer puzzled me.

For example, Austen says, “He is full of spirits“. Shapard’s note explains that spirits mean “ardor, vigor“. That is not something I need to have defined, therefore if I saw at a quick glance that the numeral took me to a definition like this, I would barely stop to take note, and kept on with the story instead.

However, occasionally, some of these defining notes did provide a little fresh snippet. When Thorpe refers to a man he knew driving down the road with a “smart looking girl“, he says, “he seemed to have got some very pretty cattle too.” By now we’re all aware that Thorpe is a pretty gross character who not only overuses slang, but uses it in inappropriate social situations. Shapard revels that ‘cattle’ is a colloquial word from that era that refers to animals, or people. In this instance, Austen has deliberately crafted Thorpe’s comment in a way to leave it open for us to wonder if he is talking about the horse or the girl. Shapard’s next note highlights just how offensive this word could be though, as ‘sad cattle’ was a slang word used by men to describe whores.

Naturally, we have no real way of knowing if Austen knew this slang term or if that’s what she intended with this sentence. But it does make you wonder. And it makes Thorpe even more repulsive.

The notes of most interest for me, were the biographical ones and those that fleshed out the story. There were also a few that articulated something I knew, kind of, in the back of my mind, but had never really thought about clearly.

The very first note comes from Austen’s use of the word ‘heroine’ to describe Catherine Morland. Shapard provides a lengthy comment about ‘typical’ novels of the day and that NA is a literary parody of these, especially the Gothic novel. Yes, yes, yes, I’m thinking, I know all this…but then he finishes with.

The principle characters in these novels are frequently heroines, for one important development of the late eighteenth century, in contrast to earlier years, was that many of the leading novelists were female – as were many of their readers.

Somewhere, deep in my subconscious, I knew this, but having it brought out into the light and placed in this context, with Jane Austen and her use of heroines in all her novels, it provided one of those little ah-ha moments.

As did this snippet about the Abbey’s history, revealing that is had been “a richly-endowed convent at the time of the Reformation, of its having fallen into hands of an ancestor of the Tilney’s on its dissolution“. My recent reread of The Wolf Hall trilogy and the many episodes with Cromwell selling off convents and abbeys and churches, brought this particular point home in a way that previous reads had not.

I learnt that Jane disliked the name Richard and that Bath had its own version of Facebook called the “Pump-room book” – a book where new arrivals wrote their names and address for other visitors to check. We tend to think our life is hard right now because we haven’t been able to travel abroad for 18 months. As JA was finishing NA in 1803, it had been “virtually impossible” for British folk to travel to Europe for a decade thanks to the war with France. Eighteen months doesn’t seem so bad seen in that context!

Shapard’s annotated edition of Northanger Abbey contains 1,200 annotations, including four on the front cover (see the numerals on the image above) and 225 illustrations. I particularly loved the illustrations and paintings of old Bath.

It’s not really possible to add anything else to my previous thoughts on NA, except to say that this time around I was very aware of Northanger Abbey as a kind of bridging book for Jane Austen, between her Juvenilia and her more mature novels.

In Northanger Abbey it is possible to see an emerging writer at work. Someone still playing with her voice, tone and style. Someone still fascinated by the novels of her youth, but someone also on the verge of greatness. NA is playful; a homage to and parody of the Gothic novels that Austen so enjoyed reading. Her characters are fully formed, but can also be seen as prototypes for some of her future books.

The ghastly, though comic, Thorpe is an early Mr Collins. Mrs Allen is Mrs Bennett and Mrs Jennings. Tilney is a younger version of Mr Knightley. Isabelle is Lydia, Mary Crawford and Lucy Croft. Robert Tilney is Wickham, Willoughby and Henry Crawford.

It is also hard to believe that Jane did not like Bath (as so many biographers suggest). In Northanger Abbey she delights in the social aspects of living in a busy city like Bath. So many new people to meet, the variety, the shopping, the stimulation. She is not unaware of the pitfalls of this lifestyle, but generally, it’s obvious to me, that through Catherine, we see the pleasures that Jane also found in Bath. Perhaps she did not write or publish during the time she lived in Bath, because she was so busy and so distracted by her own social life? I will need to pull out my book containing her letters to test this theory.

Northanger Abbey is a delight from start to finish. Catherine’s youth and innocence and Tilney’s gentle teasing make this romance an easy one to enjoy. Their path to happiness and understanding is fairly straight-forward and gentle.

And as I discussed in my earlier post, if you have not yet watched the 1986 BBC TV film starring Robert Hardy, Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth, then this is your final reminder! It’s a real treat and one of the best Austen adaptations ever, in my opinion.

Favourite Quotes:

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

And I love Catherine’s comment about history books, that reflects what Anne Eliot will say about literature, in general years later,

The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome.


  • CC Spin
  • Book 20 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

My Previous Jane Austen Posts:

Title: The Annotated Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen & David M. Shapard
ISBN: 9780307390806
Imprint: Knopf US
Published: 2 December 2013 (originally published 1818)
Format: Paperback
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

19 thoughts on “The Annotated Northanger Abbey | Jane Austen & David M. Shapard #CCspin

  1. Bron, it’s too late at night to be looking stuff up. But. Between 1799 and 1803 England and France were not at war, though they weren’t friends either! I looked this up years ago to find out why Wickham was in a County Regiment. England was mobilising but not fighting. If there was war in Europe then it was between France and the countries to its east.

    As for no tourism, war was a tourist attraction and large numbers of (well, some) English ventured to Brussels and then out into the country to watch Waterloo.

    I like your comment about NA bridging the gap from her juvenilia. It certainly reads that way to me, even though there some claim that it was substantially revised after its first publisher failed to bring it out.


    1. Curiously I did have cause to look this up recently thanks to my post for Post Captain.

      Book 2 of Master & Commander covers the 14 months of peace between England & France courtesy of the Treaty of Amiens (March 1802 – May 1803). Before that was the War of the Second Coalition (1798 – 1802). The army may not have been active during the dates you mentioned, but the navy certainly was.

      As for tourism, I guess I was thinking more of the extended family tours of Europe to ‘do’ the cultural things rather than the disaster sticky-beaks! I remember reading about that now when I was researching Les Mis, but, of course the Battle of Waterloo was in 1815. Maybe some were so desperate to travel abroad by then, that even a battle field would do!!

      I believe that some of the edits in NA were to do with the geography of Bath. After living there for a number of years, JA’s knowledge of it was more intimate than when she first wrote NA, so she tidied up some of the walks and drives her characters did, the shops they visited etc. But that was as deep as I dug this time.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m in mourning. I didn’t realize that Adam reinstate Austen in August and so I didn’t start a project. I wonder if I can still squeeze one in? This was a really lovely review. I’ve only read annotated versions of a few books and I did find them pretty distracting. Next time I encounter one I will use your technique of reading the book then doubling back to read the annotations. Thanks.


    1. Adam has been rereading Persuasion, but I’m sure he would love any post on anything related to JA that you felt like writing 🙂

      It’s certainly the best way to get started, I think Anne, with an annotated version. Once you’re in the flow, you can mix and match as you like then.

      I have an annotated edition of Ulysses waiting for me one day….!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m the same, Anne. I have a Annotated Alice, and I discovered very quickly that I’d much rather have some notes at the back of the book that I can either read or ignore.


          1. I hadn’t thought to read the notes before reading the chapter…that could work if it was a reread, but I’m not sure I would like that for a new-to-me book. Getting info about the story before reading it? No, not sure I could do that….


  3. Having the notes alongside the page makes much more sense than placing them in a section right at the end of the book. I try not to look at too many notes while i’m reading because, as you indicate, there is a risk that it disrupts the flow of the narrative. But if I had them alongside the page I think it would feel less intrusive


    1. When I read Les Mis, notes were included at the end, but it was awkward and really broke the flow of the story flipping back and forth. And so often the note was just a definition that I did not feel was necessary. But the historical and biographical notes are great and I do love seeing maps and pictures from the time as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I do love NA, and annotated versions are fun. I like your idea of reading a chapter and then going back for the notes; when I took a peek at the annotated S&S I found it very choppy going because I couldn’t NOT look at the footnotes right away, and then I was irritated when the note inevitably sometimes told me something I already knew. Maybe I’ll try again…


    1. It is VERY hard to not sneak a peak at the notes when they are off to one side, which is why once I got into the flow of the story, it became the more natural way to read the story and notes together. It is certainly easier having them alongside (or at the bottom of the page as I have seen in some books) than at the back of the book. Flipping back and forth IS too distracting!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What an interesting & insightful post. I love the details of the annotations that you have shared & now I am curious to read JA’s works again with them. I always held a belief that annotations distract from the main plot & therefore have stayed away. But they also may add richness to the reading is something I appreciate from your post! I will look up some good annotated editions asap 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. And I think, once you know the plot, you are less likely to be bothered by interruptions because you know what is happening? I haven’t read any annotated Austen’s, but I like the idea of the pages side by side, so I can look if I want to or not. I really enjoyed your discussion of how you “read” this.

        I would add my theory about NA which is that as much as being a parody of Gothic novels, it is also equally, if not more, a satire of readers of Gothic novels.

        I love your favourite quote about people who love or don’t love novels. My other favourite one is her defence of the novel itself and what it offers: From Chapter 5:

        “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; …


  6. So there are now two sets of annotated editions! Wow. This one does sound a bit basic for someone who’s read and studied the novels, and/or is British but then there are always surprises and new things to learn, as you point out. This was long my favourite JA and it might be still.


    1. I thoroughly enjoy my time with Catherine and Henry, but prefer most of the other books simply because their characters undergo a bigger or more dramatic personal growth to get a happy ending (esp, Elizabeth & Darcy and Anne & Frederick and Elinor & Edward). MP has moved up much higher in my estimation purely because the happy ending for Fanny & Edmund is a little less certain and little more circumspect.

      Liked by 1 person

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