Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Blast from the Past: When Jane Austen Went Bump in the Night


I am fond of the topic of this post, because I've always thought the Gothic novel craze was both fascinating and fun--enough so that I played with the genre in The Vanishing Volume, the second installment in The Ladies of Almack's series. Enjoy!

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Jane Austen must have enjoyed a good laugh. How else could she have created Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, and today's topic, Northanger Abbey?

Much of the divine Jane's early work was outright comedic, written to amuse her family; she especially seemed to have enjoyed parody, gently making fun of existing works and genres (her A History of England, a parody of Oliver Goldsmith's book of the same name and dedicated to her sister Cassandra, is pure silliness.) We've discussed the Gothic novel craze as a brief thing of the past, a temporary blip on the history of the English novel...but Jane experienced it in real time. And just as there are people who find today's vampire craze amusing, it's pretty clear that Jane got a chuckle from Gothic novels.

Northanger Abbey, though not published till after her death in 1818, is one of Jane's earliest major works: a first draft, entitled Susan, was probably written in 1798 or 1799. It's also the most explicitly literary of her major novels in that it's very much a book about books. The story begins with the introduction of the heroine: "No one who had seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman...and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense...and instead of dying in bringing [her] into the world, as anyone might expect, she still lived on...."

Jane is poking fun here at the convention in Gothic novels that the heroine be perfect and either orphaned or subject to the whims of a parent who has suffered a clouded past which will of course rebound upon his or her hapless child. The book continues in this vein with frequent authorial intrusions to point out how boring and normal Catherine and her life are...much to Catherine's dismay, for she is a devotee of books "provided they were all story and no reflection." Poor Catherine, with a head full of stories and a life full of commonplaces, for "There was not one lord in their neighbourhood; not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintances who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door; not one young man whose origin was unknown....But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way."

Of course Catherine does find a hero while visiting Bath. Handsome Henry Tilney and his sister invite her to visit their country home, Northanger Abbey, and Catherine is in raptures at the thought: will it be infested with the ghosts of murdered monks and inhabited by ancient retainers who know all the awful secrets of the family they serve? Jane has a field day with Catherine's visit: the Abbey is no crumbling, battlemented ruin but a comfortable, modern house; a dusty scroll hidden in a strange Japanese cabinet turns out to be an old laundry list. But then poor Catherine does indeed get a fright when the Tilneys' father, hitherto almost fawningly nice to her, suddenly turns cold and declares her visit at an end. Catherine learns that being the heroine in a dramatic story isn't as much fun as she thought it would be, but all ends happily: Henry Tilney follows her home and proposes, explaining that his rather money-grubbing father had thought her an heiress, but is told (falsely) that she was a penniless adventuress. Papa is brought round when he learns that Catherine has a respectable dowry, and all live happily ever after.

Northanger Abbey is probably the most light-hearted of Jane's books, with even its central love story being something of a joke (Henry Tilney takes no real notice of Catherine until he realizes she admires him enormously: "in finding him irresistable, becoming so herself." Read it, and laugh along with its author across the centuries.


P.S. Amusingly, it was thought that Jane Austen had made up many of the titles of Gothic novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey, until some scholarly detective work in the 1920s revealed that they had all, indeed, been realio, trulio published works.


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