Friday, 11 November 2011

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and the Gothic Novel

This article was first published in Writing Magazine December 1998-January 1999.  It has been scanned in and lightly revised.   (Copyright: Carol Townend)
Northanger Abbey can be enjoyed without knowing the gothic genre but many of the author's ironic allusions would be missed.    Northanger Abbey was probably the first novel Jane Austen completed but it was not published until after her death. Its bumpy ride reveals that getting a book published in Georgian England was no easier that it is today!
Jane Austen sold Northanger Abbey to Crosby and Sons in 1803, but instead of publishing it, Crosby simply hung onto it. Later in Austen's life, after her father had died and money was tight, she tried to take it to another publisher. Crosby threatened to sue and said that she could buy back the copyright for the sum he had originally paid her (£10). It was financial hardship, work on her next novel, and ultimately the illness which killed her, that combined to leave Northanger Abbey unpublished until 1818.

The now famous novel takes as its heroine the young Catherine Morland, a girl whose favourite hobby is reading, particularly gothic novels. The gothic genre, featuring wild, improbable stories often set in haunted, ruined castles, became fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The plots would usually feature a young and innocent heroine, who was likely to be an orphan and friendless, and a dark and secretive hero with more than a touch of the demon lover about him. As the plot thickened, the heroine would generally find herself under threat from villains of every stripe...

Northanger Abbey itself tells the story of Catherine, who leaves her parents to visit Bath with Mr and Mrs Allen. In Bath Catherine soon makes friends with Isabella Thorpe who shares her enthusiasm for reading, and the two are soon swapping reading lists. From the opening paragraph of Northanger Abbey, it is clear that Jane Austen expects her audience to be at least as well-read as her characters are and to have certain expectations about heroes and heroines:
    No one who has ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. (Northanger Abbey: Ch 1)

This neatly sets up the whole of the novel, with Jane Austen telling us in one sentence that while she knows the rules that should govern any novel with romantic or gothic leanings, her tongue is firmly in her cheek.

Any doubts that the reader may harbour about this are firmly dispelled in the next chapter, when Catherine goes to her first ball. Since neither she nor Mrs Allen know many people in Bath, this proves to be a disappointment.   Many young men had seen Catherine but:
    Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran around the room, nor was she called a divinity by anybody.   (Northanger Abbey: Ch 2)

Shortly after this, Catherine meets Henry Tilney, and his confident, teasing manner makes him easy to like. She hopes to meet him again in the Pump Room, but Henry Tilney is nowhere to be seen, nor is his name to be found in the Pump Room book.
    He must be gone from Bath. Yet he had not mentioned that his stay would be so short! This sort of mysteriousness, which is always so becoming in a hero, threw afresh grace in Catherine's imag-
ination around his person and manners, and increased her anxiety to know of him.

It is of course possible to enjoy Northanger Abbey without any knowledge of the gothic genre, but many of these ironic allusions would be missed. Catherine and Isabella single out one gothic novel for particular mention: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs A Radcliffe (1794). The Mysteries of Udolpho feeds Catherine's overactive imagination and distorts many of her perceptions and responses. She is young and prone to misjudge people.

Here are Catherine's first stirrings of unease as she attempts to 'read' John Thorpe's character correctly. A feckless opportunist, John is in the habit of bending the truth to suit his ends. They are out driving and, for effect, Thorpe firsts alarms Catherine by saying that her brother's gig is so unsafe that he would not ride in it for two thousand pounds, and then in the next breath he says he'd be happy to drive to York and back in the same gig for five pounds.
     Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing...  (Northanger Abbey: Ch 9)

Thorpe drives on, boasting about various exploits and Jane Austen writes:
     Little as Catherine was in the habit of judging for herself, and unfixed as her general notions of what men ought to be, she could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether completely agreeable.  (Northanger Abbey: Ch 9)

Catherine's naive outlook gradually matures with experience, and much of the irony and humour in the novel
comes from Austen's revelation of that change through the eyes of a sophisticated omniscient narrator, whose understanding of the ways of the world is far greater than the innocent Catherine's.

As an older, and altogether more worldly character, Henry Tilney is a natural foil for Catherine. Henry is aware of Catherine's imaginative tendencies, and when Catherine is taken to Northanger Abbey, his family home, he gently teases her, knowing that she is visualising the Abbey as a crumbling medieval pile and not the modernised and comfortable home he knows it to be:
     'But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before.'   (Northanger Abbey: Ch 20)

Both thrilled and alarmed by his teasing, and not quite knowing what to believe, Catherine enters Northanger Abbey where she learns that, with her mind stuffed full of the gothic, she still tends to misread people. Before Catherine Morland can reach the happy ending that is her heart's desire, she will have to learn to be a better reader in more senses than one.

The house in Winchester in which Jane Austen spent her last days.

Novels by Jane Austen:
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1816)
Northanger Abbey (published posthumously in 1818)
Persuasion (published posthumously in 1818)

Additional Works:
The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, which includes Love and Freindship (sic)
Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon

There is a wealth of critical and biographical writing inspired by Jane Austen.  Writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Fay Weldon have examined her work, and an Austen fan might find these thought provoking:
Virginia Woolf s speculative essay in The Common Reader, First Series (The Hogarth Press, 1925). Woolf ponders on what Jane Austen would have written had she not 'died at the height of her powers'.
For those who enjoy intellectual analysis there is Nabokov's detailed criticism of Mansfield Park in his Lectures on Literature (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980).

And for those who like their commentary wrapped up in fiction, there is Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen. This is a marvellously witty and very readable explanation of the relevance of Austen's writing in today's society. Not only should it be required reading for any 'A'Level literature student reluctant to read Jane Austen but. for writers, the big bonus is that it also overflows with writerly wisdom from one of Britain's most popular contemporary novelists.

Finally two biographies:
Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin
Jane Austen: A Life by David Noakes

Copyright Carol Townend, 1998/9


Annie Burrows said...

Hi, Carol, just leaving a comment to tell you my book group recently read Northanger Abbey, and really enjoyed revisiting it,

Carol Townend said...

Hi Annie,
It's interesting reading and re-reading books at various times, isn't it? At each reading you see something else!