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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' - Contrasting the Gothic with the Real

The heroine of Northanger Abbey had to be an ordinary girl from a homely family, to contrast with the characters in the gothic novels satirized. Catherine's 'family were plain matter-of-fact people, who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun ...'. Catherine Morland's father is just right. Unlike gothic father-figures, he is 'not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters'. He is respectable 'though his name was Richard – and he had never been handsome'. Jane's own father may have been a model. Mr. Morland is a clergyman with two livings and adequate resources. He tutors his daughter in writing and the arithmetic necessary to housekeeping. When she sets off for Bath, he prudently does not give her unlimited funds but only ten guineas, with a promise of more when she needs it.

To the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, brought up in a peaceful Wiltshire parsonage, ancient mysteries, dungeons and villains – found amidst sublime mountain scenery – were self-evidently thrilling. Invited to a place called 'Northanger Abbey', she dreams of cloisters, 'long damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel' and hopes for memorials to 'an injured and ill-fated nun'.

She is disappointed. What she finds are modernizations, such as the fireplace 'contracted to a Rumford.’ This 'improvement' of General Tilney's is modern indeed. It was an ornamental cast-iron stove invented by the American-born Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814). He had been created Count von Rumford for his services to the Elector of Bavaria. (Incidentally, in 1799 the Count founded the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street.)

In gothic novels 'all the dirty work' in abbeys or castles 'was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost'; but at Northanger Abbey, Catherine is amazed at the 'number of servants continually appearing ... Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsey, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off’.


The plot highlights the contrasts between real life and the gothic conventions. When Catherine sees Henry with 'a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm', she does not faint from jealousy or assume 'a deathlike paleness'; she guesses correctly that the woman is his sister. And when Henry's brother Captain Tilney appears, we are assured he will not be Henry's rival and kidnap Catherine. He is no 'instigator of the three villains in horsemen's great coats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a travelling-chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed’.

Jane Austen enjoyed making fun of the historiette, the 'story-within-the-story' whereby a newly-introduced character monopolizes several chapters with woeful autobiography. She satirized this device in her juvenile work Jack and Alice. So in Northanger Abbey, introducing Mrs. Thorpe at the end of Chapter 4, Jane Austen offers a mock apology for being unable to interpolate 'a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attorneys might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated.' Instead she summarizes Mrs. Thorpe's entire life in two sentences!