The first chapter introduces the reader to the protagonist of the novel, Catherine Morland. Seventeen years old, Catherine has grown up in a family of modest wealth in the rural town Fullerton in Hampshire, England. As a young girl, we are told, Catherine had many interests, including piano-playing and drawing, but she was never interested enough to be accomplished at anything. She was a cheerful child with a good temper. But she was also something of a tomboy: "she was noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house." As she became a teenager, says the narrator, Catherine began to grow more beautiful, and eventually she turned from her athletic pursuits, such as cricket and horseback riding, to reading books. Catherine became a voracious reader. She has never had a love interest. At the end of the chapter, the Allens, a wealthy, childless couple who are friends of the Morlands, offer to take Catherine with them on a trip to the resort town of Bath. With her parents' permission, Catherine accepts.
The chapter begins with the narrator's expansion on Catherine's character: "her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind her person pleasing, and, when in looks, pretty - and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is."
Catherine prepares for her departure to Bath. Catherine's mother, defying convention, is not overly worried about her daughter's impending departure. Catherine's father gives Catherine a modest sum of money to take with her. As the party departs, the narrator describes Mrs. Allen, saying she has "neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner," but a quiet, good-tempered nature that helped her attract a "sensible, intelligent man" like Mr. Allen.
Once the three arrive in Bath, they attend a ball. Catherine remains close to Mrs. Allen, who constantly laments the lack of an acquaintance in Bath. Mrs. Allen takes pains to protect her gown, while Catherine hopes in vain to be asked to dance. Mr. Allen spends most of his time in the card-room. The ball ends without Catherine having been asked to dance, but she is pleased to hear two men say she is pretty before she leaves.
The novel's first sentence is significant: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine." It sets up two ideas: first, that Catherine Morland is, or is going to be, a heroine; second, that she is an unlikely one. The first chapter focuses on the Catherine's practicality, her intelligent but not brilliant mind, and her lack of experience in the world. Austen introduces Catherine as a realistic character, while contrasting that realism to her role as the heroine of a novel.
Catherine does not have the childhood of a refined, elegant woman. Instead, she is a tomboy until the age of fifteen. Catherine's childhood is marked by energy, vitality, and good temper. Eventually, she comes to love reading. Like Austen, Catherine is a young women fascinated by books, particularly novels. The theme of reading, and novels in general, is very important throughout Northanger Abbey. Catherine is a voracious reader, particularly of Gothic novels, and at times this colors her perception of the world. She has an overactive imagination that interferes with all her attempts to read people.
Chapter II introduces the satirical irony that the narrator will often employ. In describing the state of Catherine's mother prior to her daughter's departure, the narrator says, "when the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will naturally be supposed to be most severe cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart." With her sarcasm, the narrator suggests that Mrs. Morland defies expectations by not minding that her daughter is leaving. These sentences also play on the conventional plots of Gothic novels, as well mainstream works such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela, in which a young lady's virtue is tested by a lecherous nobleman. Austen creates a comic effect by contrasting her imagined reader's expectations with the pedestrian truth of the matter: Mrs. Morland, a relatively simple and practical woman, has no inclination to deluge her daughter with cautionary advice. Thus, there is no dark presentiment of danger, as there might be in a standard Gothic novel's plot.
The rest of the chapter introduces Mrs. Allen and gives the reader Catherine's first impressions of Bath. Mrs. Allen is greatly concerned with fashion, with gowns and dresses and what others are wearing in comparison to her own clothes. She is a passive character, making little or no effort to meet new people, but simply (and repeatedly) lamenting her lack of friends in Bath. Aside from a light conversation with a nameless gentleman, the women are left with no one to talk to until Mr. Allen returns from the card-room. The chapter ends happily when Catherine hears two young men admiring her. The narrator again draws our attention to the difference between sweet, innocent Catherine and the heroines of novels, saying "[Catherine] felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms."