Thursday, 11 August 2016


With her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen visited Gloucestershire in 1794, when she was 18. Accounts kept by the Rev. Thomas Leigh, vicar of Adlestrop and a cousin of Jane’s mother, confirm this. The trip could have suggested the placing of Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire; and it is possible that Jane passed through Petty France, just as Catherine Morland did.

While telling a tale with her usual realism, Jane sets out in Northanger Abbey (as in her juvenile work) to enjoy the absurd unrealities of the fashionable 'horrid mystery' novels. Gothic novels flourished in the 1790s. A quotation from G.T. Morley's Deeds of Darkness, or the Unnatural Uncle, a Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1805), and a reviewer's reaction to it, epitomize amusingly the thrills afforded by these novels:

Watching with straining eyes the painted canvass, her fears were at last confirmed, and, dreadful to behold, it was slid back, and a man, masked and armed, stepped softly through the aperture, followed by three others!

The terrified and trembling Josephina could scarcely believe her eyes, and with difficulty drew her breath. The men, all of whom were masked, beckoned silence to each other, and advanced towards the bed, where our heroine, giving a faint scream, fainted. Lifting her up, they seized upon their prey, and bore her through the panel, closing it after them, and extinguishing the lamp.

The Critical Review of January 1806 commented, As our fair readers must burn with impatience to learn the fate of the unhappy Josephina, we may beg leave to inform them that they may safely gratify their curiosity, for (as is our bounden duty) we have taken care to ascertain that the sentiments in this tale are proper, and the moral is good!

The gothic novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe in Chapter 6 of Northanger Abbey (The Orphan of the Rhine, Clermont, The Midnight Bell and so on) were real novels. Jane Austen's object was not so much to ridicule them (she enjoyed their escapism) as to show how, in the real world, there is more call for sound judgement than for wild flights of imagination.

George Crabbe, one of Jane's favourite poets, made similar fun of gothic novels. In Ellen Orford (Letter 20 of The Borough), he catalogues their incredible details - bloodstains that last for centuries in the dreaded west wing, tapestries that move mysteriously, and heroines who, held for months in dungeons by banditti:

Find some strange succour, and come virgins out.
And, having thus adventured, thus endured, 
Fame, wealth and lover are for life secured.

In Mrs. Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790), the Marchesa Mazzini walks out of her subterranean prison with collected piety and apparently as neat as a new pin. In Mrs. Carver's Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), Laura escapes from the French Revolution, only to be imprisoned in a Cumberland abbey by Lord Oakendale. Looking in an ancient chest there, she of course finds a skeleton. Such details were routine.

These novels were not written only by women. The Castle of Hardayne (1795) by John Bird has the usual ingredients: exquisite suffering, the option of either consorting with bandits or being put to death, sublime scenery, a recluse and a skeleton. Thomas Pike Lathy's The Invisible Enemy (1806) is packed with thrills, featuring endless secret chapels, skulls, pistols and scaffolds. The Mystery of the Black Tower (1796) was by John Palmer (son of the actor who was the original Joseph Surface). Stephen Cullen's The Haunted Priory: or, The Fortunes of the House of Rayo (1794) is another in the genre.

Jane Austen's aunt Mrs. Cassandra Cooke wrote the novel Battleridge at the time when Jane began working on what was to become Northanger Abbey. Battleridge is the stereotype gothic novel, with several incidents remarkably similar to those parodied by Jane. Almost certainly Jane had read her aunt's novel in manuscript.

I suspect that Mrs. Cooke played a greater part in Jane’s becoming a novelist than she has been given credit for. Mrs. Cassandra Cooke (neé Cassandra Leigh - like Jane Austen’s mother, ) was married to Samuel Cooke, the vicar of Great Bookham, who was Jane‘s godfather. She was also the daughter of Theophilus Leigh - Master of Balliol College and uncle of Jane’s mother. We know that Jane stayed with the Cookes and she must have been inspired by the conversation and literary activity of an aunt who came from such a background. We know that her godfather later became an admirer of Jane’s novels. Incidentally, there was a maid called Miss Elizabeth Bennett whom Jane probably met at Great Bookham; and the village may have given her a model for the Highbury of Emma.

Jane Austen seems to have finished the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (at the time called Elinor and Marianne) in 1798 and then to have written a novel called Susan. Nineteen years later, shortly before her death, she revised Susan and was calling it Miss Catherine. She wrote to her niece Fanny Knight: 'Miss Catherine is put upon the Shelve for the present, and I do not know that she will ever come out'.

It did 'come out': Jane's brother Henry had the novel published (together with Persuasion) a few months after Jane died. Presumably Henry provided its third and final title – Northanger Abbey – a title which puts the focus on the novel as a satire of all the other fashionable 'Abbey' novels, whereas it really is something richer.

In the first half of the book, the Abbey is not even mentioned. (In fairness, we also read far into Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho before seeing Udolpho itself mentioned.)

In an intended 'Advertisement by the Authoress', Jane pointed out that her novel had become 'comparatively obsolete'. Since she wrote it, 'places, manners, books, and opinions' had 'undergone considerable changes’.