Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 4

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) is a text coming at the heels of Gothic novels, which uses the fictional framework of the Gothic to investigate the abbey and bring out its evil reality. Austen, however, does not ridicule and dismiss the Gothic novels, like many suppose, but rather, she takes the already complex readings of Gothic novels, illustrated above, and adds another layer of complexity to them. On one hand, she seems to laugh at the expectations of naive readers of Gothic fiction, but on the other, she upholds every expectation, and as a lover of Gothic fiction herself, uses those expectations to rejuvenate the Gothic conventions into a more complex Gothic fiction.

The mystery of Northanger Abbey, for Catherine Morland, is what happened to Mrs. Tilney and whether General Tilney murdered her at the abbey. The ideal reader of Northanger Abbey, well-versed in Gothic novels, also desires to uncover this mystery. He is uncertain as to whether a body and a murderer will turn up, because on one level, he has already received clues that Catherine’s imagination makes her suppositions misleading and that this novel does not necessarily follow the reader’s expectations. On another level, the reader discovers that often when Catherine is wrong she is also right in some sense, and that although his expectations seem to be jettisoned, in the end they are actually satisfied more fully. It seems that Catherine has not been a careful reader of Gothic novels, for she has not yet learned to look beyond the abbeys and skeletons to discover the truly terrifying evils of the world. But as she explores a real abbey herself, she will learn to see through buildings and objects and into real dangers. The reader also is led through a similar process: from being naive to being aware; from reading a Gothic novel superficially, to reading it more carefully. So, how the mystery of the abbey will be solved has much to do with how the novel interacts with the reader. In the end, Northanger Abbey seems to be another, more complex, kind of Gothic novel.

The first expectation of the reader concerns the heroine. The narrator opens the novel suggesting that the reader may be disappointed: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Austen 37). Catherine’s person, as well as her mind, until the age of fifteen were not remarkable, but she was gradually improving. The narrator adds: “But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives” (Austen 40). Although readers expect heroines to have read, Austen’s inclusion of this detail about Catherine is more than just checking off a requirement on a list. Catherine’s reading is what will make Northanger Abbey a complex and more satisfying novel, and that which will help to discover the mystery. Catherine’s quixotism, so to speak, has literary precedents.

In Ethelinde (1789), Charlotte Smith had already provided a character whose reading had led her to imagine herself as if she were within a book. Speaking of Clarinthia Ludford, Mr. Maltravers says:

‘The girl is well enough as to figure and face,…but she is over-run with affectation and folly. A sort of something Mrs. Ludford has got in her head about education, had made her stuff this girl’s memory with scraps of every thing; she has a fine romantic name for an adventure; and will probably, by dint of reading plays and romances, fancy herself the heroine of a novel, and find one of her father’s clerks for the hero.’ (Smith 130)

According to Mr. Maltravers, although Clarinthia does not have overt physical flaws (“figure and face”), she has problems with her thinking (“affectation and folly”). Mr. Matravers seems to blame the girl’s wrong thinking to Mrs. Lutherford’s ideas of “education,” who gave the girl unrelated “scraps” of information, a romantic name, and plays and romances to read.  Mr. Maltravers believes that because of these circumstances, and because of the reading of plays and romances, Clarinthia will forget who she is, believe she is a novel heroine, and marry a clerk.

Clarinthia’s forgetting of herself and living an imaginary life in books of romance is akin to Don Quixote’s forgetting his identity in the same way. However, in Clarinthia’s case, Mr. Maltravers seems to condemn all plays and romances, for he does not say that she read too many plays and romances (or that she read them at the expense of sleep), but rather, he just points out that she read them. Alternatively, Clarinthia’s problem for Mr. Maltravers may be that the girl read these novels without having received the proper extended information (rather than spotty) to process the plays and romances. Nonetheless, the real danger, for Mr. Maltravers, is that Clarinthia would end up falling in love with a clerk—an action that would clearly reveal her affectation (thinking herself a heroine) and folly (marrying a clerk).

Unlike Clarinthia, however, Catherine does not have affectation because she does not see herself as a heroine—rather, she is modest. Also, because she does not see herself as a heroine, she is unlikely to look for a hero, and in this sense, she is not overrun with folly. Moreover, Catherine is much more complex than Clarinthia: the former begins as a naive reader and has much to learn, but she does learn and becomes more discerning, unlike the latter. Even so, because Catherine has read many Gothic novels, she initially will look at the abbey through those books, misread the signs, and make the mistake of thinking that the General murdered his wife. But when the mystery of the abbey is solved—when Henry tells Catherine why his father had rudely kicked her out of the abbey—the narrator vindicates Catherine: “Catherine, at any rate, heard enough to feel that in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (Austen 236). Although the General had not, indeed, murdered his wife, his character was such that he could have done it and may have contributed to it somehow, for his treatment of her and of his children was cruel. It is only through the fictional framework of the Gothic that Catherine discovers the real evil. So, in a sense, Northanger Abbey is a Gothic novel with a real villain, only the villain has never directly murdered anyone.


Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Claire Grogan. Ed. Ontario: Broadview, 2002. Print.

Smith, Charlotte. Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. Stuart Curran. Ed. The Works of Charlotte Smith. Vol. 3 London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005. Print.


Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 3

Following closely on the theme of a superficial exploration of the abbey resulting in an exploration into sins and crimes and purification is The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797). Laura, a beautiful young lady is sent to Oakendale Abbey, rumored to be haunted, by a villain who wants to terrify her into being his mistress. Laura’s first encounter with the abbey is pleasant, even though everyone around her fears the place. But she has good reason to appreciate the abbey. She tells her companion, Mary:

Here is nothing to create fear; hark, how the robin twitters his gentle note; and see how the frost glitters upon the verdure! The winds only bespeak the wintry season, but nothing to inspire notions of fear or dread. Ah! Would fortune but smile upon me with the same benign aspect that the face of nature does, how little I should have to regret; and how well should I be pleased to remain all my days in this sequestered retirement? But, alas! No such happiness awaits me—a poor unprotected orphan, without a claim upon any human being, nothing but my own courage and virtue to guard me from the power of a villain! (23)

Laura’s description is that of a beautiful place, with gentle singing of birds, frost on the grass, and soft wind. Nature is tame, and since none of these things can cause her fear, she wishes she could remain safe in this place. The source of her fear is the villain who would rape her, because she has no relation and no money to protect her from him. As long as he is far away, Laura is confident and wants to explore the abbey, and after breakfast she and Mary visit some underground rooms which have very little light. In one of those rooms, a noise and the gloomy surroundings augment Laura’s fears, and they stumble upon a horrifying object:

[She] was hastily preparing to return, when a large trunk, or coffer, which stood in one corner of the room, attracted her notice…she advanced to the place where it stood, determined to lift up the lid, and see what it contained. She did so; but how was she struck with horror and astonishment, when the skeleton of a human body presented itself to her affrighted view! She gave an involuntary scream, and dropping the lid from her trembling hand, the sound, echoing through the hollow roofs, vibrated with terror upon her palpitating heart. (27-28)

The similarities between this scene and that in The Romance of the Forest seem to be too many for them to be coincidental. Here, too, is a large trunk with a skeleton in it, which evokes feelings of horror and terror, and which stands for the corruption and mystery of the abbey. However, Laura is not a man and she does not return for a second look, like La Motte does. Furthermore, the skeleton, in the end, is not someone who had been murdered at the abbey, as is the case in Radcliffe’s novel, but rather, is a body stolen by resurrection men. Although the skeleton does not involve a murder, it raises equally serious ethical questions brought about from the enlightenment relating to the sacredness of the body and its proper use, especially with regard to scientific exploration. It could be said that the exploration of the abbey leads to questions about the scientific exploration of the body and capitalism.

Also, even though Adeline is not a man, she seems to be as courageous as men, and therefore, destabilizes gender roles in the novel. Her reaction to the skeleton is not unlike La Motte’s, especially when after the encounter, she tells Mary that she is ashamed of having been frightened because she does not believe in ghosts, that, “a little reason and recollection will conquer [her] fears,” and asks, “What was there to fear in seeing the bones of a fellow-creature, whose peaceful ashes were as quietly deposited there as in the mouldering earth?” (29). Laura’s view of the body seems to be somewhat scientific. Furthermore, she tells Mary that “if any necessary discoveries were to be made thro’ her means, she might, and ought to be thankful for being considered as an instrument worthy to bring good out of evil” (30). Laura’s language of rationalism and discovery and instrumentality seems to evoke enlightenment ideas. She almost sounds like a scientific researcher with an insatiable desire to explore and find “the truth.” This emphasis seems different from Radcliffe’s novel, although both ultimately discover the evil hidden in the abbey through the skeleton. In both, the skeleton is not what terrifies, but rather, it is what discloses the more terrifying evil: living people who can do harm. Laura’s bringing the “good out of evil” could be said to be bringing enlightenment to the abbey (that is, dispelling the superstition of ghosts) and simultaneously questioning that enlightenment (that is, questioning whether the body is merely an object of study and nothing more).

The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey: A Romance. New York: John Harrisson, 1799. Print.

Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 2

Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel, The Romance of the Forest (1791), also utilizes the abbey to uncover deeper issues. As La Motte explores the underground part of an abandoned abbey in order to find a place to hide from his creditors, he discovers something else:

Upon the ground within [the door], stood a large chest, which he went forward to examine, and, lifting the lid, he saw the remains of a human skeleton. Horror struck upon his heart, and he involuntarily stepped back. During a pause of some moments, his first emotions subsided. That thrilling curiosity which objects of terror often excite in the human mind, impelled him to take a second view of this dismal spectacle. La Motte stood motionless as he gazed; the object before him seemed to confirm the report that some person had formerly been murdered in the abbey. (Radcliffe 53-54)

La Motte here, having been walking through dark corridors with a feeble light, stumbles upon a skeleton that embodies the mystery of the abbey: who had been murdered and who was the murderer. The skeleton stands for corruption and murder and destruction, and because La Motte is faced with the unknown in the dark, this causes him horror. Even though at first repulsed, La Motte is drawn to have a second look. The narrator attributes this to an aesthetic pleasure for that which frightens, the natural “thrilling curiosity” for “objects of terror” that human being have. Interestingly, this is the curiosity that draws readers to Gothic novels, however terrified they may be when they encounter a decaying corpse or a skeleton. La Motte’s curiosity is also the curiosity of the reader, who sees the skeleton through La Motte.

After leaving the skeleton and exploring other subterranean areas of the abbey, the man analyzes the structure: “La Motte, in his then depressed state of mind, thought [the cells in the most ancient parts of the abbey] the burial places of the monks, who formerly inhabited the pile above but they were more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead” (Radcliffe 54). Having seen the skeleton, La Motte can only think of death (“in his then depressed state of mind”), and perceives what used to be the monks’ cells as their burial place. The abbey, once a place of activity and community, now is turned into a burial ground, even those places which were not meant to contain the dead. One skeleton keeps the living away from the abbey and has turned the whole place into a tomb, and yet, paradoxically, the skeleton drives the living back to the abbey with an insatiable curiosity to discover the abbey’s mystery. Until the mystery of the skeleton is revealed, the reader will not end the exploration of the abbey and will not stop thinking about the skeleton, returning in his mind again and again to have a second look at that spectacle.

The end of the passage quoted above also contains irony. That the cells were “more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead,” at first glance, seems to refer to the monks who used to inhabit the abbey. In other words, their cells were not their tombs, but their places of penance. But the syntax is ambiguous, and therefore, can also point to the current inhabitants of the abbey. In this sense, the “dead” skeleton does not have “rest” until his mystery is solved, and La Motte is at the abbey “doing penance” or “purging” his sins of greed and pride which led to his having to run away from his creditors. His metaphorical “journey to the underground” through the abbey vaults where a skeleton is also evokes this image of going through purgatory. Only when the mystery of the skeleton is solved and when La Motte does his part to save Adeline and bring justice to the murdered will La Motte finally be seen as purged. In the end, even though he is condemned for his crimes, Adeline’s intercession softens his sentence to banishment and gives him money, “a sum more than sufficient to support his family in a foreign country” (353). Adeline’s mediation before the law on behalf of La Motte also evokes ideas of purgatory and prayers for those being purged. The abbey, then, hides two criminals—the murderer and La Motte–, but the abbey also serves as purgatory for one of them. So, what seems to be a superficial exploration of the abbey results in an exploration into sins and crimes and purification and bringing about justice.


Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. Chloe Chard. Ed. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009. Print.

Northanger Abbey: How to Read a Gothic Novel Properly – Part 1

Abbeys often contain mysteries, and these mysteries need to be investigated. How they are investigated or how the meaning of the mysteries is discovered varies from abbey to abbey. Also, how abbeys are investigated varies according to the vantage point of the investigator. Imaginative texts from the eighteenth century and beyond display different types of abbey explorations which ultimately are used to voice larger social problems and concerns. In this sense, an abbey exploration is not merely an abbey inspection, but rather, if the abbey stands as a microcosm of communal life, the examination is a metaphorical exploration of society. The gothic novels reveal this inquiry into social affairs most clearly, but pre-gothic works as well as later texts also manifest this impetus.

In Charlotte Smith’s novel Ethelinde (1789), the arrival at the abbey discloses a great deal about Sir Edward and Lady Newenden, and offers ironic clues to the reader. Upon Lady Newenden’s first arrival at the abbey which had been in Sir Edward’s family for generations and which her money had helped to disembarrass, the narrator says:

When the coach stopped, Sir Edward appeared at the door of it; and taking the hand of Lady Newenden, he led her into an hall, saluted her tenderly, and bade her welcome to Grasmere Abbey.

Instead, however, of attempting to gratify him by expressing any pleasure at that which evidently gave him so much, she turned abruptly away, and exclaimed –‘Don’t keep me, Sir Edward, in this great cold place; it strikes as damp as a family vault. I hope you have ordered fires. I assure you that my departure will be a much fitter subject of congratulation than my arrival.’ (Smith 16)

That Sir Edward “venerates” the abbey would have been readily apparent from this passage, even if the narrator had not disclosed that information in the previous chapter. The manner in which he introduces Lady Newenden to the estate (leading her to the hall), his formal salutation, and the pleasure he receives in these actions show Sir Edward’s pride in and respect for the estate. For him, the abbey is not merely the place which holds his fond childhood memories, but it is also the land that makes him and his ancestors aristocrats. Lady Newenden’s perception of the abbey is much different. She sees it as a cold monument to dead relatives (“family vault”), not fitting for the living. For her, to venerate the abbey is to hold on to something dead that must be let go, something that once was living, but now no longer is.

The scene also reflects the emotions of the characters and something about their relationship. Sir Edward is warm towards his wife, “welcoming” her to the abbey, “tenderly” saluting her, while Lady Newenden is as cold as she claims the abbey is: she turns abruptly away, speaks cold words, and looks forward to her departure. The abbey is what brings out their differences in outlook and in values: Sir Edward reveres tradition, while Lady Newenden values comfort and modernity. Ironically, Lady Newenden’s statement that “[her] departure will be a much fitter subject of congratulation than [her] arrival” becomes true later in the novel, after she has an affair with Lord Danesfort. In this sense, the Grasmere Abbey could be said to be a “family vault,” because her relationship to her children and to her husband will be cold and dead by the end of the book. Thus, in Smith’s book, the abbey is not merely a place, but rather it is a lens from which to see inside family relations and values.

Smith, Charlotte. Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. Stuart Curran. Ed. The Works of Charlotte Smith. Vol. 3 London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005. Print.