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Monday, 16 May 2016

Catherine Morland's Gothic Experiences in Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'


Catherine's 'gothic' experiences are only a small feature of Northanger Abbey. On the journey to Northanger, Henry teases her by describing the room she may expect. It will be a 'gloomy chamber' with a mysterious tapestry and a ponderous chest. A secret trap door will lead to a vault. An ancient manuscript will be there for her to discover in 'a large, old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold’.

Her imagination is fired by a chest in her bedroom but it contains only a counterpane. Later she spots a cabinet with many drawers. One of these yields up a 'precious manuscript' from which she anticipates gothic thrills: Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale. She even manages to extinguish her lamp and, in a cold sweat, feels her way back to bed. But the 'manuscript' is only an inventory of linen and a farrier's bill.

Far worse, Catherine suspects the General of either having murdered his wife or keeping her locked away in some remote chamber. Gothic novels suggest such behaviour is commonplace; and, after all, the General is fearsome. After nerve-tingling attempts, Catherine gets into the room which had once been Mrs. Tilney's. To her surprise, it is bright and modern. Henry catches her in this quest and, to her great embarrassment (and ultimate disillusionment), says:

If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to – Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. ... Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you – Does our own education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

His lecture reduces her to tears. (Like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, she benefits from a good cry brought on by the reproof of her lover.) Catherine has found that, however 'charming' the works of Mrs. Radcliffe may be, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for.

Then Jane Austen turns Catherine into a truly suffering heroine. Catherine knows she deserves to suffer. What can Henry think of a girl who had such wicked thoughts? She is humbled. Punishment comes; and the General's behaviour in turning her out with no thought about how she is to pay for her journey home is monstrous.

The manner in which it was done so grossly uncivil; hurrying her away without any reference to her own convenience, or allowing her even the appearance of choice as to the time or mode of her travelling; of two days, the earliest fixed on, and of that almost the earliest hour, as if resolved to have her gone before he was stirring in the morning, that he might not be obliged even to see her.