AS JANE Austen’s first completed novel – although it wasn’t published until after the author’s death – Northanger Abbey hints at the themes and styles she would go on to explore.

The Hampshire-born writer’s talent for satire is particularly prevalent. While her novels such as Emma and Pride and Prejudice send up the highest class of society – and the sexual discrimination within – Northanger turns inward and spoofs literature itself. The book’s protagonist, Catherine Morland, is unhealthily obsessed with gothic fiction and unable to see real life for what it is. At the age of 17, her family moves her to Bath where she falls in with the local community and into a romance with the charming but eccentric Henry Tilney.

Other characters have their own reasons to get close to Catherine, though – including her deceptive friend Isabella Thorpe and her boorish brother John. The action builds to a climax in brooding Northanger Abbey, where fact and fiction collide. Annabelle Terry, who plays Isabella, spoke to EDWIN GILSON about the play.

Does this production strike a balance between presenting and satirising the Victorian atmosphere of the play?

We’ve been encouraged not to get into that period drama feel, not to fall into that trap. Our director wanted to make it vibrant, so people who have never read Jane Austen before could get into it. Essentially what you’re seeing is a girl who is swept up by gothic imagery. You can relate that to children who get obsessed with cult films or even social media today. It’s the same thing.

Is Austen’s intention to warn us of the dangers of the imagination?

At the time young women were told what to say and do – by people around them but also by books. I think Austen was warning people not to get swept up by things that aren’t real, because it could lead to misunderstandings. I don’t necessarily think the message is that you should fear your imagination but I think she is saying don’t let it run away with you.

Do we see the early signs of Austen’s satirical approach in Northanger Abbey?

At the time she was writing this, the whole gothic thing was taking off. It could be thought of as one of her most comic books ever. At the time it was judged as family entertainment – you could laugh at it and think that Catherine is a very silly character. Maybe she was frustrated by the amount of girls falling for gothic fiction at the time. It’s kind of like Inception – Austen was a novelist writing about novels. It was rejected when it first came out, so it must have caused some kind of controversy. It certainly wasn’t respected.

How does your character Isabella come into all this?

She’s a pretty manipulative girl. She seems to be Catherine’s only friend but she’s not genuine. She wants to get to Catherine’s older brother and marry him. I play a bit of a snake in the grass in that sense. I have to convince her – and the audience – that I’m genuine, but I eventually unravel and the truth comes out. I’m sort of like the jealous friend.

Northanger Abbey, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Monday, February 20, to Wednesday, February 22, 7.45pm (2.30pm matinee on Wednesday), from £18.50, call 01323 412000 or visit