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.

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