Possible spoilers through chapter 23 of Northanger Abbey.
Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey has a very close relationship to Gothic fiction. However, what is that relationship? The novel has been argued to be a parody or a satire of the genre; it has been argued to be a response to it, or perhaps even an ode to it. I personally think it’s doing some combination of all of these, but I definitely don’t think it hates the genre of Gothic fiction, even if it pokes fun at it.
Regardless, there are a lot of references within Northanger Abbey to other novels it is responding to or spoofing, some of them obvious, some less so. In this post I’m going to list off the major novels that Austen refers to, as well as some of the basic Gothic tropes that we see mentioned in Northanger Abbey.
The Sublime: This is a key concept in Gothic fiction of the time. Edmund Burke wrote a treatise called “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1757), in which he defines it as “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” Basically the Sublime is when terror is added to beauty to create a sense of awe, mysterious and powerful and painful all at once. It’s important to Gothic fiction because these stories are all about scaring the crap out of you on the one hand, but in a way where you also appreciate the beauty and aesthetic of the terror as well.
The Castle of Otranto: This book by Horace Walpole is generally named as the first Gothic novel (published 1764). This also happens to be the only one I’ve read (as yet. My TBR list is too long to talk about). It starts out with a giant magical helm falling from nowhere and crushing this rich guy’s son. This makes the rich guy, Manfred, decide that he’s under a curse or something and he decides he had better get a new and better wife to give him another son. After that, things get REAL WILD. Plenty of damsels, creepy interiors and exteriors, and dudes making terrible choices.
Mrs. Radcliffe’s works: Catherine Morland is a huge fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s work. The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably Catherine’s most-mentioned and favorite novel. This story features Emily St. Albert as the heroine, and as typical in many Gothic romances, she is separated from the guy she is in love with and instead forced to live with her aunt and her aunt’s new husband, Montini, who lives in a big scary castle and has probably done a bunch of dark scandalous things. The Italian features another pair of star-crossed lovers, this time in conflict with The Italian’s mom and her monk-confessor who is the sketchiest dude ever. A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, and The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne are other novels by Radcliffe with similar themes and terrifying stories.
The Monk: Published in 1796, this is a scandalous tale about a monk who is supposedly really devout but the whole book is about him being scandalous and murdering, seducing, raping, and generally being pretty terrible. It features many damsels who have a really bad time. This book is more in line with the horror genre than many Gothic novels. John Thorpe is a big fan of this book, but it’s implied Catherine probably wouldn’t be as impressed by it as him.
Camilla: This is a Gothic novel by Frances Burney, and is alluded to several times in Northanger Abbey. This one features the titular Camilla, along with her cousin Indiana and her sister Eugenia. Their uncle is rich and a bit fickle about which of them will inherit his money. It’s got a lot of melodrama, especially in regards to Camilla’s love interest, Edgar. The reference to a “sister author” in chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey is probably in regards to Frances Burney, whose heroine Camilla is beautiful but not very intelligent.
The Tropes and Jokes
In chapter 1, Catherine is warned to keep good account of her spending. This might be a reference to Frances Burney’s Camilla, who gets her family in big trouble because of overspending.
Later in the same chapter, Catherine and the Allens don’t suffer in their travels by robbers, bandits, or carriage accidents, which is a reference to Udolpho, as the heroine meets her hero in a “lucky overturn” of her carriage.
“It is now expedient to give some description of Mrs. Allen….and how she will, probably, contribute to reduce poor Catherine to all the desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is capable…” In many Gothic novels, there is an older woman who is determined to ruin the young heroine in whatever way possible.
Catherine, as we know, REALLY likes Udolpho and is constantly making references to it. In chapter 6, she’s still reading it and talks a lot about what could possibly be behind “the black veil.” In 11, she wants good weather, like they had in Udolpho on the night that “St. Aubin” died; St. Aubin should be St. Albert, the heroine of Udolpho’s father. On her walk with the Tilneys in chapter 14, Catherine talks about the south of France as it is described in her favorite novel. On the one hand, I understand her obsession with a literary work; on the other, Catherine’s gotta calm down. Henry has clearly read many Gothic novels, as he tells us so himself, and his comment about “Julias and Louisas” in this same chapter alludes to the typical names of Gothic heroines, and his reference to Valancourt, a character in Udolpho, shows his familiarity.
When Catherine is anticipating her trip to Northanger Abbey and imagining what it’s like, her reference to an “injured and ill-fated nun” in chapter 17 is probably a reference to the nun Olivia in The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, who turns out to be another character’s mother.
Henry Tilney spins Catherine a ludicrous Gothic tale on their drive to the Abbey (chapter 20). This, of course, includes many stock tropes of Gothic fiction. The “ponderous chest” he mentions (and which winds up as a real chest in Catherine’s room, to her distress) is one of these; there’s an important chest in both The Romance in the Forest by Ann Radcliffe, and in Caleb Williams by William Godwin. In both cases, really terrible secrets or evidence is found inside the chests.
In this same passage, Henry mentions “Matilda,” which is also the name of the heroines in The Castle of Otranto, The Recess by Sophia Lee, and The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne by Radcliffe.
“She had nothing to dread from midnight assassins or drunken gallants,” Catherine feels in chapter 21. This is yet another reference to her favorite book, Udolpho. The heroine and her nurse almost fall victim to a couple of this sort of hoodlum, and wind up going to the villain for protection.
In chapter 23, Catherine considers the possibility “that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and received from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly spply of coarse food.” This is a reference to Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance, both by Radcliffe, in which this kind of wife-hiding for villainous purposes occurs.
Tom Jones: Another of John Thorpe’s favorites, this novel by Henry Fielding is about a guy named Tom Jones! Tom is raised in a wealthy household and has to seek his own path and sleep with a lot of women and learn how to be a man and such. It’s not a Gothic novel, but a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) and a picaresque novel (a story featuring the scandalous adventures of a lower-class character).
Sir Charles Grandison: This is by Samuel Richardson, the same guy who wrote Pamela, the novel I mentioned in another post about a girl who has to resist all efforts to destroy her virtue. It’s about a Really Nice Guy, Charles, and was written by Richardson as a response to Tom Jones, and also as a male version of Richardson’s virtuous heroines in other books. Apparently Jane Austen liked this book (as does Catherine Morland).
*Sources for this post are in the links or in the Oxford’s World Classics of Northanger Abbey, published 2003.*