Northanger Abbey: How to read a Gothic novel

Art & Lit Literature

‘Oh! I am quite delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it,’ Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, confesses to her friend Isabella, speaking of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic masterpiece The Mysteries of Udolpho. And while Isabella repeatedly tries to move the conversation away from the novel – now to bonnets, now to men – Catherine’s mind keeps returning ‘to what interested her at that time rather more than any thing else in the world, Laurentina’s skeleton’. With its whimsical heroine, stock setting and pointed references, Northanger Abbey is blatantly a parody of Gothic novels; what the common reader does not grasp is that its humorous nature, far from being a condemnation of such  delightfully ‘horrid’ works (as Catherine enthusiastically calls them), is used by Jane Austen to defend their wounded honour.

What the common reader does not grasp is that its humorous nature, far from being a condemnation of such  delightfully ‘horrid’ works (as Catherine enthusiastically calls them), is used by Jane Austen to defend their wounded honour

Praises of its own genre are to be found plentifully in Northanger Abbey, reflections of supreme wisdom along the lines of ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has no pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid’. The greatest defence of Gothic novels, however, comes from Catherine herself. Widely and unmercifully abused as the silliest, most unlikely Austen heroine, Catherine’s uncritical approach to these novels is generally seen as an example of how not to read them, a display of fancy condemned by Austen with uncharacteristic harshness. According to this reading, the narrator’s declaration, after Catherine’s slight blunder of believing her host an uxoricide, that ‘the visions of romance were over’, should be seen as the complacent triumph of cold reason over feeling, passion, and imagination. In other words, over everything Gothic novel stand for, and everything that is otherwise defended in Northanger Abbey.

If true, this would be a statement not only on Gothic novels themselves, but on the eager and thoroughly invested way in which Catherine loses herself in them. Her reflections following Henry’s rebuke, however, suggest that she has not quite learnt that lesson. While acknowledging that ‘human nature, at least in the midland countries of England’ was not to be found in the charming works of Mrs Radcliffe and of her imitators, still she is ready to believe that ‘Italy, Switzerland, the South of France may be as fruitful in horrors as they were represented’. It is in this unconquerable faith that Austen ultimately rests her case on Gothic novels. It is not simply that Catherine is silly: her value as a reader  of Gothic novels reaches the end of the story untarnished. Yes, she has let herself be carried away by her fancy, but how else would you read a Gothic novel? What else is there to do, if not gasp at every cliff-hanger and keep telling yourself, chapter after chapter, that you will close the book after the next page? What other way to enjoy it, if not crawling in bed on a lazy rainy morning to let a vampire sweep you off your feet? Certainly not Isabella’s way, so cool and detached that she can easily speak of Laurentina’s skeleton one moment and of headdresses the next.

One should always read Gothic novels as if one was seventeen, is Austen’s lesson, or not bother to read them at all. As far as Catherine Morland is concerned, the reader is left with the comfort of knowing that her recently acquired common sense shall leave space for the reading of gothic novels now and then, and that the visions of romance may not be over for her after all.

One should always read Gothic novels as if one was seventeen, is Austen’s lesson, or not bother to read them at all