Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publication Date: December 1817 (posthumous)
Gothic Reading Challenge
For this round of the Gothic Reading Challenge, I’ve chosen a novel by Jane Austen, who I didn’t think was a Gothic novel writer. For good reason, turns out. Here’s Northanger Abbey.
Catherine Morland is excited to visit Bath with her friends the Allens. There she meets Isabella Thorpe, and together the two explore the city while discussing their new favorite novel: The Mysteries of Udolpho (the archetypal Gothic novel of the time).
Catherine’s enjoyment of Bath is doubled when she meets Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. She finds herself falling in love with Henry, and is delighted when the brother and sister invite her to visit them at their home, Northanger Abbey.
But things are not as cheerful as they seem. Everywhere she looks, Catherine discovers odd things: locked cabinets, mysterious chests, and long-hidden letters. The Tilney’s father acts strangely, and avoids talking of his wife, who died long ago under mysterious circumstances.
Is all of this merely something cooked up by Catherine’s overactive imagination, or is the master of Northanger Abbey protecting a dangerous secret?
A surprising read
I was surprised to discover Northanger Abbey on a list of Gothic novels — mysteries and haunted castles are not themes for which Jane Austen is well known.
As usual, though, Austen has surprised me. Northanger Abbey isn’t so much a Gothic novel as a giggle/cringe-worthy glimpse of what happens when an impressionable young mind indulges too much in what some (includes Austen, I’ll bet) would consider to be less-than-stellar literature.
Catherine is described by the author as being a little…well, stupid. More so than the average 17 year-old girl, anyway. Her trip to Bath is her first excursion without her parents, and her chaperones are rather lax in their guidance. She is left mostly to the influence of Isabella Thorpe and Udolpho.
Henry is a great character who both pokes fun at and indulges Catherine’s overactive imagination. He is also a good man who does what is right. He tells Catherine the truth, banishing her Gothic romanticism and fear.
Sometimes comical, sometimes just a bit creepy and spooky, Northanger Abbey is well worth reading. I always appreciate an author who is clever enough to teach a lesson while telling a great story.
The Gothic element
Sadly, no ghosts, crumbling castles, or supernatural activity. Nary a mystery in sight. Northanger Abbey makes for a pretty terrible Gothic novel, but I love how it turns the genre on its head and pokes fun at it throughout the entire narrative. A perfect addition to this challenge.
“ ‘I shall make but a poor figure in your journal to-morrow.’
‘Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.’ ”
“A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”
What do you think of books that make fun of other books? If you’re participating in the Gothic Reading Challenge, how’s it going so far?