Starbucks has finally come out with the pumpkin spice and the witchy ladies are all putting out their throw blankets. So, you know what that means – It’s Spooky Season! I’d like to talk about my favorite Jane Austen Novel – Northanger Abbey.
My husband has argued that, if we ever play the Newlywed Game, I’m required to choose Pride & Prejudice as my favorite novel because it’s the only one which has inspired me to write a variation novel (or 5), and I completely understand his point. (Although, I did just finish a short Christmas story based on Northanger Abbey which will be coming out in December in both English and Spanish as part of the Annual Austen Christmas Anthology. Stay Tuned! ) However, I really do like Northanger Abbey best for a couple of reasons.
First, I adore Henry Tilney. He’s funny, sweet, kind, and devoted to Catherine from the first moment. There’s no unsociable insulting behavior (Darcy), secret fiancé (Ferrars), red-flag friends (Bertram), jealous tendencies (Knightly), or holding a stupid grudge against a perfectly reasonable woman for the better half of a decade (angry eyes directed at Wentworth). Tilney provides a beautiful example of someone genuine, someone worthy of a true Austen heroine. The way Catherine and Tilney joke with each other and tease actually reminds me of my own marriage. I’m also a huge fan of JJ Field and, unrelated, think that Austenland might be the best Pride & Prejudice variation ever written.
Now that I’ve said a bunch of things that will probably make some of y’all mad at me, I have a second, more substantive reason that Northanger Abbey is the best Jane Austen novel:
Northanger Abbey is a perfect parody of the Gothic Novel genre and a critical statement on women’s place in society at the turn of the 19th century.
Gothic fiction novels came into prominence with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764. Many of the most popular novels of the late 18th and early 19th century belonged to the gothic genre, written by some of the most recognizable authors of all time such as Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, and Walter Scott. While gothic novels come in many shapes, sizes, and contain a huge variety of themes, the largest shared theme of the gothic genre is the feminine struggle against some tyrannical threat.
However, even as gothic novels were immensely popular and sold in huge quantities to mostly female audiences, the genre was the subject of much scorn from literary critics at the time, all men. The literary world of the early 1800’s deemed these novels to be sensationalist and overly emotional. The stories centered on female heroines or written by female authors were even more marginalized. It became passe for men to read the novels of Radcliffe and the morality of such books were challenged by religious and political leaders. (Sound familiar? Like modern romance novels maybe …)
Now, on a surface level reading of Northanger Abbey, it might seem that Austen is right in line with the literary critics of her time. Written around 1803 but published posthumously in 1817, Austen’s first completed novel can be read as a simple farce of the gothic traditions. Catherine Morland, a young impressionable women, out in society for the first time, gets swept up in fantastical imaginings that the people around her are villains and murders.
Throughout Austen’s story, Catherine is reading various popular gothic novels with stories of haunted castles, kidnapped heroines, and murderous monks, which the reader is led to believe is the cause of Catherine’s ridiculous and offensive suspicions surrounding the death of Mrs. Tilney. She is obsessed with figuring out which of the people in the society of Bath are ‘not to be trusted’ or whether there are vampires and ghosts at the Tilneys’ estate, called Northanger Abbey. After it becomes clear to Tilney that Catherine believes his father murdered his mother, which is not the case in reality, Austen’s most loving hero tells Catherine that perhaps “it is possible to read too many novels.”
That is just the surface though and, while Northanger Abbey is still a great book with interesting themes just on that surface level, if you care to take another step down, the real genius of the story begins to shine.
In order to appreciate exactly what Austen is trying to accomplish with Northanger Abbey, we need to determine whether she was an actual fan of gothic novels or not. Since we can’t ask her, we have to turn to what we have left of her writings and personal letters to glean insight. I would posit that she was actually a great lover of SOME of the gothic novels at the time. The first piece of evidence I will provide is that in letters to her family, Austen spoke of her fondness for reading the genre and defended the integrity of other female writers at the time.
Secondly, I would point to the text of Northanger Abbey itself. The novels that Catherine expounds upon are very specific. One such novel mentioned, Peter Teuthold’s Necromancer of the Black Forest, was actually thought to be made up by Austen herself, until several copies of the first printing from 1794 were found in the 1920s.
Clearly, Austen was a connoisseur of the early Gothic genre.
Then there are the counter examples of certain gothic novels that the anti-hero, John Thorpe, claims are decent. Since John Thorpe is a vulgar man with unchecked hubris and mercenary motivations, we can assume that the novels he finds acceptable are ones that Austen herself probably disliked.
Each of the seven novels that Catherine adores are prime examples of the Female Gothic while the books John Thorpe champions are examples of the Male Gothic. A number of literary critics have discussed the differences between these types of gothic novels, but I think that the best and simplest differentiation can be summarized as this:
In the Female Gothic, the main threat against the heroine is society itself and that women are powerless in society, therefore must be kept pure and protected by men.
In the Male Gothic, the main threat is a supernatural source, often embodied by a villainous, older woman of some magical power, and the hero usually must battle both the external threat as well as his own lusts for the heroine.
Simply put, the Male Gothic shows women as unnatural, only sexual beings while the Female Gothic shows women as victims of men.
In terms of modern sensibilities, neither of these general representations of women are all that stellar, but if this isn’t your first time tuning into my channel, the fundamental idea that women wield less power in society and are often victims of patriarchal structures should come as no surprise. And it should also come as no surprise that Jane Austen’s radical (for 1803) gender politics are on full display in the difference between the books praised by Catherine verses the books praised by John Thorpe.
So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that Austen was a fan of gothic novels, at least those that fall into the Female Gothic tradition. If not, well, maybe keep reading a bit longer so you can leave me a thorough comment about why I’m wrong down below.
This blog post started with the position that Northanger Abbey was a perfect parody of gothic novels, and I stick by that. Austen is clearly making fun of the fantastical plots, overly sexualized themes, and ridiculous villains of even the best examples of the genre. Every character in her own novel stands as a contradiction to their counterparts in gothic tropes. Catherine is from a normal, happy family with no dark or mysterious past. Henry Tilney is open, fun, and gentlemanly from the onset. Even General Tilney is only guilty of being obsessed with status and money. Not even one murder in his past!
But the more interesting and subtle brilliance of Austen’s work is that she takes the gothic themes and applies them to the real Regency societal norms. Catherine Morland still experiences a ruthless and dangerous midnight flight from the villain, a mainstay in 19th century gothic novels. She is turned out from Northanger Abbey in the middle of the night by General Tilney when he discovers that she is not as rich as he was misled to believe by John Thorpe. Not caring for her welfare, the General forces Catherine to travel in public coaches, alone, through the countryside. He doesn’t even make sure she has enough money for the trip! That journey would have been hugely dangerous for a young woman at the time.
We also have a very well-developed example of the trope character who is hiding their true nature with Isabella Thorpe. She befriends Catherine early on and professes many times that she cares for nothing, except for love of Catherine’s brother, James, to whom she becomes engaged. But when it is revealed that James Morland will have only £400 a year (gasp!) she transfers her affections to Tilney’s older brother, Captain Frederick Tilney.
The real danger outlined in Northanger Abbey is how the commodification of purchasing a wife through the marriage mart is a constant threat to all women. This theme will weave through all of Austen’s novels. From Mrs. Bennet’s lamentations about the hedgerows to Anne Elliot’s displacement from her home after losing her first bloom of beauty.
In a very real sense, Jane Austen did not just parody the gothic, she reinvented it.
While none of her heroines were kidnapped or raped (though Willoughby and Wickham certainly might have gotten close to those lines off screen), the real horrors for upper class women in the Regency era, as depicted and discussed by Jane Austen, were the power structures that reduced women to their father’s property until sold to a husband. In such a world, it was imperative that women chose husbands wisely, guard their reputations, and cling to each other for support.
Once again, Jane Austen is proven to be one of the most radial, intelligent and advanced minds of her time. It is her insight into human nature that keeps her novels relevant to modern society, and why I am inspired to write new stories centered on her themes and powerful female characters.
Come find me in all the usual places!