Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is widely considered to be a parody of the Gothic genre of novels. Throughout its narrative, Austen engages with several well-known Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century by authors such as Ann Radcliffe. Typical Gothic set-pieces form the backbone of several scenes in Austen’s narrative, as well as many famous (and not-so-famous) works being directly referenced throughout the text. This article explores some of the ways in which Austen parodies the Gothic genre, the excerpts are from the Oxford World’s Classics 2003 edition of the text.
When the protagonist Catherine Morland and her friend, Isabella Thorpe, meet at Bath’s Pump-rooms, in chapter 6 of the first volume, their primary topic of conversation is the Gothic novel, especially Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated work, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Several of this book’s narrative events inform a number of scenes in the second volume of Austen’s novel, particularly those relating Catherine’s stay at the eponymous Abbey. The reading list of “horrid novels” – often referred to as the ‘Northanger Canon’ – that Isabella has prepared for Catherine indicate the vast extent of Gothic literature the naive protagonist is presumably about to absorb. Her subsequent behaviour at Northanger Abbey overtly portrays the influence of Gothic novels on an impressionable teenage girl.
Gothic heroines are generally portrayed as attractive and sensitive young women. They are also often prone to sudden bouts of impromptu verse, such as Emily St Aubert, the heroine of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Austen however styles Catherine as a burlesque of the stereotypical Gothic heroine. The opening chapter of the book describes her physical appearance in the most unflattering terms: “She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features” (1, 1, p.5). Catherine is also shown to have no particular skills in writing, drawing or music – “What a strange, unaccountable character!” (1, 1, p.6). Yet this ‘unaccountable character’ effectively undermines reader expectations by comically subverting the concept of the ‘literary heroine’.
Northanger Abbey itself is rendered in terms contrary to the expectations of Catherine’s fevered imagination. It is not a crumbling edifice situated in some remote and mountainous region but instead a low-standing building appointed with furniture which “was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste” (2, 5, p.118), approached “along a smooth, level road of fine gravel” (2, 5, p.117).
Catherine’s exploits inside the Abbey are considered a parody of the perilous adventures which regularly befall the unfortunate heroines of traditional Gothic novels. With her imagination fired by the lurid content of the books on Isabella’s reading list, the inexperienced teenager develops all sorts of wild fancies in regards to her new environment. The mysterious chest she encounters in her bedroom, and the manuscript she discovers in the cabinet, are subtle references to Gothic motifs which occur in the novels of Radcliffe and others. Yet these motifs are lampooned, for it transpires that the chest contained only a folded cotton counterpane, and the manuscript was nothing more than an inventory of linen.
Undeterred by these setbacks however, our heroine begins to entertain an unlikely notion that the Abbey’s deceased Mistress was actually murdered by her husband General Tilney, the owner of Northanger Abbey. In an overt reference to The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine supposes that if she were to explore the family vault and open the late Mrs Tilney’s coffin, what would be the probability that “a waxen figure might be introduced” (2, 9, p.140). In Radcliffe’s novel, a curious black veil conceals a recumbent figure, of which Emily St Aubert initially believes to be the body of the Castle’s long dead Mistress.
Many critics consider the character of General Tilney to be a moderated version of a typical Gothic villain. When Catherine muses that he had “the air and attitude of a Montoni” (2, 8, p.137), she is referring to Count Montoni, the principal villain of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Although older schools of criticism regard the General as an amusing send-up of the stereotypical Gothic villain, more recent scholarship has viewed him as a representation of the threat of patriarchy. This evaluation regards Austen as utilizing General Tilney as a means to highlight the dangers that an inherently patriarchal society poses to young women such as Catherine Morland. Although the General isn’t portrayed as openly villainous – bent on imprisonment, rape and murder – he is still shown to have an excessive interest in the extent of the heroine’s wealth, similar to Count Montoni.
Northanger Abbey is a literary text which engages with much of the literature of its time, particularly the Gothic novel. Works by Ann Radcliffe and others are effectively incorporated and parodied through Catherine Morland’s adventures.