Gothic Reading List: Northanger Abbey

After the eerie hair-raising, checking the shadows for eyes experience of James’ The Turn of the Screw, I decided to expand my gothic fiction tropes knowledge by reading a parody. Let’s face it, the best way to pick apart the tropes of anything is by seeing how people make fun of it.

Jane Austen does this exceptionally well in Northanger Abbey. I should preface by saying I believe Jane Austen does everything exceptionally well. Her canon is on my annual reading list, and each time I read through them I get something new out of them. In spite of her tendency towards romantic fiction, all of her works satirize society’s concepts of courtship, class, and propriety. The more I read them, the more I’m able to see how many of her secondary characters are not so much two dimensional as they are caricatures. This is why Mrs Bennett is so grating and senseless, and why John Thorpe (*eyetwitch*) is so much a cad.

Austen’s life is something of a sad one. Her closest friend was her sister Cassandra, and she was a devoted aunt to her little ones, but aside from a reported one-day engagement that she made in haste and then broke off, she spent her life alone. Not that that’s the sad part if that’s what she preferred, but she died far too young after only six novels (I say “only” because more would have been a wonderful indulgence), and a few novellas.

As an author, her experiences give me hope, because, while she did find some praise for her work while she lived, some of the negative reviews would have been a good punch to the gut. Charlotte Bronte was known to have said her work was “very incomplete and rather insensible”, and Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention.” Yeesh. The always-needed reminder, fellow authors, that you can’t please everyone.

The other incredible lesson I just read about was shared by her brother. According to him, she wrote even to her last day: “She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen was become too laborious. The day preceding her death, she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.” A perfect example that we do not write, we ARE writers. There comes a time when it’s not a matter of choice.

But enough rambling about my love of Austen and return to the point of the post. Northanger Abbey, Austen’s first written and last published novel, is a parody of the very popular gothic fiction of the time. She breaks the fourth wall a good many times throughout this shorter novel to poke fun at the genres, as well as the critics who insulted the genre — which included authors writing within the genre! People, I tell ya.

Austen picks at tropes like the heroine’s mandatory difficult history, the fears she faces after being whisked away by the rival of her lover, the mysteries that build once she’s trapped in the old, isolated gothic estate. There’s a scene where the hero, Henry Tilney, teases Catherine Morland’s love of gothic fiction by describing the scene that awaits her at the Abbey. He describes how she’ll be led up to a bedroom far from anyone else in the house, and while setting up her fire, the servant will drop hints about how the room is haunted. On the third night, there will be a storm, and the lightning will shine upon a piece of furniture she didn’t notice on her arrival. After exploring the cabinet, she’ll find the letter of a woman who had once stayed in that room under horrible circumstances…. and he ends the story there. Of course, with such ideas in her head, everything Catherine faces at the Abbey has a sinister twist, and more than once she’s forced to admit her imagination had grown larger than her reason.

For not being a writer of horror or suspense, I found Austen did a great job building it up. Less so for the reader – it’s clear to us from the outset that no dark secrets lie in the drawers of the old cabinet, but her description of Catherine’s fear and anticipation, the way her hands shake as she has trouble with the locked drawers, you get the full sense of that “what will I find?” from the character. Three times it happens where Catherine’s surmises lead her to explore and reveal the mundane truth, and no matter that she’s failed before, there’s still that bated-breath sensation. The descriptions of empty galleries, of listening for noises downstairs to confirm that she’s alone upstairs; the moment where she’s about to open the cabinet, holding her breath, and then the knock at the door that makes her jump. As a parody, Austen pulls the twist pretty quickly to make it laughable, but the initial build-up is no less intense for it being comical.

I enjoyed the read of Northanger more this time for looking at the tropes, and it has moved its way up in the rankings of favourite books. Not to mention has kicked off another desire to read through the other five Austen novels…. but no! Bad Krista. That will have to wait.

Next on the list is the novel within the novel. Catherine Morland’s first foray into gothic fiction is Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and if one of Austen’s heroines can brave it, then so can I!

Previous: The Turn of the Screw

First: Frankenstein

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6 comments

  1. VERY interesting choice of read, since I just finished reading Northanger Abbey about a month ago. While I agree with your assessment, I also find Austen uses far too much tedious description of her characters. She tells us about each person in enormous detail, rather than showing it through the character’s dialogue and actions (like you do!). I would tend to agree with Charlotte Bronte’s assessment, and in truth I much prefer the writings of the Bronte sisters!

    1. I can’t say I ever noticed the over-describing before! I know she does that for emphasis of flaws (describing outfits/dresses to show the vanity of her character, for example), but I’ll look out for that the next time I read. I love the charms of both sets of writing – just depends what mood I’m in!

  2. Nothanger Abbey is a fun story and Catherine the perfect heroine for it. This is the most young adult of her novels! I’m glad you explored it for tropes. This is a great story for various tropes.

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