19th Century Lit
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is known for its gothic parody and its satirization of the gothic novels circulating around the reading market at the time of Northanger Abbey’s publication. The heroine of this story, Catherine Morland, is described as a plain young woman of 17 years old, and is occasionally called, “almost pretty”. She is a girl who takes these sort of compliments with every happiness, and is refreshingly honest and straightforward. In Jane Austen times, the “plain Jane” types of characters like Catherine were very uncommon as the star of a novel.
In the story, Catherine Morland travels down to the town of Bath with some family friends, and it is there that she meets the Eleanor and Henry Tilney, the latter of which later becomes the target of Catherine’s affections. The Tilneys invite Catherine to stay at their family home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine is immediately overtaken with imaginings of dark creepy hallways, and hidden rooms full of mystery, due to an overactive imagination heavily influenced by the constant reading of gothic thrillers. What awaits her instead is a perfectly normal house. In this house however, is a set of unused rooms that no one enters, as they belonged to the late Mrs. Tilney. Catherine immediately fabricates a fantasy around this bit of information, deluding herself to believe that the late Mrs. Tilney was in fact murdered by her husband, or worse yet, that Mrs. Tilney lived still, imprisoned in the attic!
It is at this point and time when we see the elements of gothic literature used within the story. Northanger Abbey is both innovative and refreshing in the use of gothic satire and characterization. Not only does it satirize the gothic novels circulating around the Jane Austen’s time, but Austen also implemented the writing style used in those novels into Northanger Abbey to describe Catherine’s delusions about the house and the Tilneys. When Catherine goes to explore about the house upon her arrival to Northanger Abbey, she looks over her chambers in mild disappoint until she spies a large high chest standing by the fireplace. The chest made Catherine “start; and, forgetting about everything else, she stood gazing on it in motionless wonder, while these thoughts crossed her.” (Austen, 132) The entire following passage is written as Catherine’s thoughts, and written in a different style than the book had been written previously up to this point.
"This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this! An immense heavy chest! What can it hold? Why should it be placed here? Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it--cost me what it may, I will look into it--and directly too--by daylight. If I stay till evening my candle may go out." (Austen, 132)
Catherine thinks to herself in a way that a character in a novel would think. She thinks in questions, exclamations, and in a very dramatic way of thought. The entire paragraph has a sort of rhythm and suspense to it, meant to play with the reader’s mind and draw them into the novel, as Austen has done with Catharine’s train of thought. In the following lines, Austen writes:
She could not, in whatever direction she took it, believe the last letter to be a T; and yet that it should be anything else in that house was a circumstance to raise no common degree of astonishment. If not originally theirs, by what strange events could it have fallen into the Tilney family?
Her fearful curiosity was every moment growing greater; and seizing, with trembling hands, the hasp of the lock, she resolved at all hazards to satisfy herself at least as to its contents. With difficulty, for something seemed to resist her efforts, she raised the lid a few inches; but at that moment a sudden knocking at the door of the room made her, starting, quit her hold, and the lid closed with alarming violence.”
This passage depicts suspense both in the actions that Catherine takes and in the pacing of the scene. Austen manages to successfully draw the reader into her world, and gets them caught up in the world that Catherine has constructed in her head, through Austen. It is, in short, a gothic novel acted out by a character in a novel that is most decidedly not within that genre, and poked fun at by doing so.
After Catharine is interrupted in the unveiling of the chest’s contents, there is a subtle transition from the gothic style to the normal narration, and the contents of the trunk have been discovered.
This ill-timed intruder was Miss Tilney's maid, sent by her mistress to be of use to Miss Morland; and though Catherine immediately dismissed her, it recalled her to the sense of what she ought to be doing, and forced her, in spite of her anxious desire to penetrate this mystery, to proceed in her dressing without further delay…At length, however, having slipped one arm into her gown, her toilette seemed so nearly finished that the impatience of her curiosity might safely be indulged. One moment surely might be spared; and, so desperate should be the exertion of her strength, that, unless secured by supernatural means, the lid in one moment should be thrown back. With this spirit she sprang forward, and her confidence did not deceive her. Her resolute effort threw back the lid, and gave to her astonished eyes the view of a white cotton counterpane, properly folded, reposing at one end of the chest in undisputed possession!
After all that anticipation about the contents of that trunk, it turns out in the end that there was nothing inside but a folded, white quilt. Catharine felt very silly indeed once she received that jolt from reality; that life is not a horror story, and that she is not, in fact, the heroine of one (although ironically, she is the heroine in this one).
The transition from the gothic narration to the Austen’s narration style mirrors the shift from Catharine’s fantasy to reality. It’s a feat that was cleverly executed, and discreetly done so. Northanger Abbey is a successful example of subtle satire, and is doubly successful in utilizing the elements of the genre she was ridiculing. It’s a work both entertaining and refreshing to read, both in subject matter and character.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1817