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.

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