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.

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