As lovers of regency romance novels (whether Jane Austen variations or otherwise), we are all familiar with the idea that well-bred young ladies indulged in gothic romance novels.
But what exactly are the gotchic romance novels they might have read? We may have all heard of The Mysteries of Udolpho, for example, but what was it about? Were these books as scandalous as some matrons may have claimed? And what made a gothic romance novel difference than other novels?
What is a Gothic Romance Novel?
Gothic fiction books are full of ghosts, crumbling manors, and mysteries where things happen and no one knows why. Works like “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley or “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe fit into this category, which began to be very popular in the mid-1800s, which was the beginning of the Victorian Era (1820-1880).
Gothic romance novels, therefore, are these kinds of mysteries – supernatural, horror, or otherwise – that include dashing heroes and love at first sight (or any kind of romance), along with a particularly evil and lecherous villain.
The Jane Austen character who is most associated with reading these kinds of novels is Catherine Morland of Austen’s 1817 novel “Northanger Abbey.” In fact, the entire book is a satire of gothic romance novels, as poor, young Catherine becomes convinced that something terrible has happened at the Tilney’s ancestral home.
Gothic romance novels were quite prevalent in Jane’s day. Here is more information about them.
Perhaps the most well-known author of Gothic romance novels is Ann Radcliffe, whose fourth work “The Mysteries of Udolpho” is mentioned specifically in Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.”
In fact, Radcliffe had four books published in her lifetime between 1789-1797. A fifth and final book was published posthumously in 1826, and it was the only one of her books to include a “real ghost.”
One common thread throughout Radcliffe’s novels was that female characters had the same equality as male characters and were therefore able to fight for themselves.
The Castles of Athlin and Dubnayne (1789)
Following her husband’s death at the hands of the Baron of Dunbayne, Lady Matilda retired to her castle to raise her children. Now a young man, her son Osbert swears to avenge his father’s death. On a trek through the Highlands, he meets a man with a shocking secret.
A Sicilian Romance (1790)
On the northern coast of Sicily, a young tourist wanders through the ruins of an ancient castle. There, he listens to a monk as he shares the story of the once-noble Mazzini family. Unwilling to let his daughters marry for love, the Marquis Mazzini carried out an act of unspeakable cruelty.
The Romance of the Forest (1791)
Unable to pay their creditors, Pierre de la Motte and his wife flee Paris in the dead of night. When it becomes too dark to see, Pierre stops their carriage and wanders off in search of a place to stay. Following a faint light, his life is changed forever.
The Italian (1797)
At the church of San Lorenzo in Naples, a young nobleman falls in love with the lovely orphan Ellena di Rosalba. When Vincentio di Vivaldi informs his mother, the Marchesa, of his romantic intentions, she forbids him from marrying the girl, enlisting the mysterious Father Schedoni to bend her son’s will.
Gothic Romances Known to Jane Austen
In her work “Northanger Abbey,” Jane Austen lists seven horrid novels that Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland. They were orginally thought to have been made up by Austen, but these titles actually existed.
Castle of Wolfenbach – Eliza Parsons
Matilda Weimar flees her lecherous and incestuous uncle and seeks refuge in the ancient Castle of Wolfenbach. Among the castle’s abandoned chambers, Matilda will discover the horrifying mystery of the missing Countess of Wolfenbach. But when her uncle tracks her down, can she escape his despicable intentions?
Clermont – Regina Maria Roche
The story of the beautiful Madeline, who lives in seclusion with her eponymous father until they are visited by a mysterious Countess from Clermont’s past. Madeline travels to complete her education, accompanied by the Countess. A series of assaults by shadowy foes cannot dissuade Madeline from unraveling the mystery of her father’s past and pursuing her paramour, De Sevignie. Madeline uncovers the secret of her own noble origins and her virtue proves its strength through a series of trials and tribulations.
The good old Count Renaud is dead, and his will makes the degenerate Rhodophil his heir, disinheriting his other son Ferdinand, who has married against his father’s wishes. Rhodophil promises to share his new riches with his younger brother and his wife Claudina, but Ferdinand hears a mysterious voice from beyond the grave, warning him to flee his brother and his wife to save himself from sin and death!
Necromancer of the Black Forest
The Necromancer consists of a series of interconnected stories, all centering on the enigmatic figure of Volkert the Necromancer. Filled with murder, ghosts, and dark magic, and featuring a delirious and dizzying plot that almost defies comprehension, The Necromancer is one of the strangest horror novels ever written.
Young Alphonsus Cohenburg enters his mother’s bedroom and finds her covered in blood. She tells him his uncle has murdered his father, and orders him to flee Cohenburg castle forever to save his own life!
Orphan of the Rhine
Seduced and betrayed by a rake, Julie de Rubine lives in seclusion with her infant son, Enrîco. One day, their calm retirement is interrupted by the Marchese de Montferrat, who promises to provide for Julie and her son if she agrees to care for an unfortunate orphan, Laurette, whose origin is shrouded in mystery. Under the assumed name of Madame Chamont, Julie raises the two children, whose youthful friendship eventually blossoms into love.
Horrid Mysteries – Carl Grosse
The hero of the tale, the Marquis of Grosse, finds himself embroiled in a secret revolutionary society which advocates murder and mayhem in pursuit of an early form of communism. He creates a rival society to combat them and finds himself hopelessly trapped between the two antagonistic forces.
Other Gothic Romances Read During Regency Times
Here are some of the other stories that Jane Austen and others of her time may have read.
The Monk (1796) – Matthew Lewis
Father Ambrosio, the most pious and venerated monk in all of Madrid, is held as a paragon of virtue. But after 30 years of study and prayer, evil thoughts begin to permeate his mind. As two plots cleverly converge, torture, murder, incest, rape, poison, and magic prevail, sustained by an elegance in the writing of the 19-year-old Matthew Lewis.
Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798) – Mary Wollstonecraft
Imprisoned by her husband, Maria struggles to survive daily life in an insane asylum. There, she befriends an attendant, who brings her books and introduces her to Henry Darnford, another inmate. The three share their stories, reflecting on the hardships and inequities that led them to the asylum.
Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788) – Charlotte Turner Smith
Emmeline, an illegitimate orphan, is brought up at her father’s secluded castle in Wales. When her Uncle comes to visit with his son, Emmeline’s peaceful world is forever shaken. Her cousin Delamere develops an extreme passion for her that she doesn’t welcome and neither does his father who doesn’t want him to marry beneath his station in life. Emmeline constantly moves from place to place, usually to avoid Delamere’s advances.
As you can see, there were quite a lot of gothic romances that Jane Austen may have read during her lifetime. Whether or not she actually enjoyed them is another matter!
Based on Mansfield Park – which many people say was Jane’s version of a satirical gothic romance and mocked those who read them seriously – I don’t think Jane thought those works were of any worth.
And based on the descriptions, one can see how the matrons of the time labeled these novels as scandalous!
Have you read any of these stories?