Having read Udolpho and looked
at what chiefly characterises the Gothic genre (and its really
important to keep these features of plot, character and style
uppermost in your mind when approaching your topic paper texts)
you should have become aware, in your reading of Northanger
Abbey that it is by no means a "straight" example
of the genre.
As I have mentioned previously, Jane Austen took a delight
in exposing in her own writing that which was ridiculous in
the literature of her time. An early example of this is Love
and Freindship (her misspelling) which dealt in a 13 year old's
way with material which she was to look at in her mature writings
with Sense and Sensibility, a novel which contrasts the way
an "augustan" young lady and her more "sentimental"
sister experience life.
The object of her scorn in Northanger Abbey is the Gothic and
the Sentimental, two closely linked forms, the Gothic being
a more extreme and darker extension of the Sentimental. Actually,
to be more precise, Jane Austen is not attacking the novels
themselves, some of which she rates highly (bottom p.57 - 59)
so much as the credulous way in which they were read by some
of her contemporaries. It is not, therefore Udolpho which comes
under attack here- indeed it is defended by no less a character
than Henry Tilney, whose judgement both we and Catherine come
to rely on, and who claims to have finished it "in two
days (Samantha!) my hair standing on end the whole time"
(p.121). No, the problem lies in the reader, and our attention
is repeatedly drawn to the fact that Catherine, whilst a fountain
of Augustan good sense in areas with which she is familiar,
doesn't know how she ought (a frequently used word in this context)
to think and behave in circumstances which are new to her. We
see this on her walk with the Tilneys when drawing and the picturesque
is discussed (I'm surprised the word sublime wasn't used); in
this instance she has the wise and trustworthy Henry to guide
her, but her malleability appears in a much more sinister way
when we see how her reading of "horrid" i.e.. Gothic
fiction has affected her judgement at Northanger.
In fact this novel is much more than merely a spoof on the
contemporary novels of the time, although it began life that
way, in its first incarnation as "Susan". Alongside
this literary strand is the examination of a young girl's development
from trustful naivetï¿½ to a more sound and
realistic view of the world and people around her. The two strands
are skilfully interwoven; the two arch deceivers of the novel,
Isabella and General Tilney, are inextricably linked with the
Gothic thread, Isabella being the cause of Catherine's introduction
to the genre and the General the focus of her most serious "gothic"
misjudgement. It seems that, in learning to distinguish between
fact and literary fiction, she also comes to see in the people
around her the difference between their real and assumed characters.
Both are painful lessons for Catherine, much of whose charm,
both for Henry and the reader, lies in the fact that she is
so innocent and trusting.
So, having taken this overview of the novel ( in addition to
which you must read the introduction which you will find in
your text) let's take a more detailed chapter by chapter look
at some of its salient points and key moments. You must remember
that Jane Austen's style is very economical and subtle, and
that often a great deal of reading between the lines is required
if you are not to "do a Catherine" and take what is
on the page at face value.
We have already discussed how, at the beginning of this chapter,
Catherine is deliberately and very consciously introduced in
a way which portrays her as being quite the opposite of what
a fictional heroine should be. This sets the tone for what is
to come, and I think we talked last
term about the way in which other characters are also cast as
anti - stereotypes. Just in case we didn't, or in the very likely
event that a long hot summer has obliterated all recollection
of it, I'll draw your attention to it as we go along.
It would be a useful revision exercise to
go through this first chapter and list all the ways in which
C is made to defy the Gothic stereotype.
As promised, more anti-stereotypes; our notice is drawn to
the very unliterary way in Mrs. Morland and Sally/Sarah deal
with the departure of Catherine, as contrasted to the way in
which they ought (there's that word again)
to behave. Mrs Allen too is cast then uncast in the role of
wicked older woman, filled in the "straight"
Udolpho by Madame Cheron; we are told the she shows
"more care for the safety of her new gown
than for the comfort of her protegee"
, but this more or less plumbs the depths of her
We are introduced to Henry Tilney, and here Jane Austen's economy
and subtlety come into play; our expectations of a match between
he and Catherine are immediately (I think) raised by the information
that he "if not quite handsome, was very near it."
(p.47) We haven't forgotten the description of Catherine as
"almost pretty" (p.38) and the symmetry should not
go unnoticed, (and, yes, I do think Jane Austen did it on
We are introduced to the Thorpes, the superficiality of whom
is evident to us but not to the trusting Catherine who, sincere
and good natured herself, assumes all around her to be so too.
Your task is to pick out a selection of phrases
from this chapter which show the reader the true nature of the
Thorpes. Don't take things at face value, be aware of Jane Austen's
use of irony.
We learn more of Isabella; more hints of an attachment between
Isabella and James are dropped; we laugh more at Mrs Allen and
her vanity; Catherine behaves like a real person, not a heroine,
in her response to Isabella's sighs; Jane Austen makes it clear
that she has no quarrel with novels, drawing the reader's attention
to the fact that this is one. We must bear this in mind when
talking about what precisely is the focus of this book's attack.
More of Jane Austen's economic irony. The word "reasonableness"
in the first paragraph of p.60 highlights for the reader the
fact that this quality is , in fact, entirely wanting in this
friendship. This undermines all the other commendations contained
within the paragraph, convincing the reader that, in each area,
exactly the opposite is true. Isabella again shows herself to
be a shallow, lying flirt, and Catherine again remains oblivious
to this, because she isn't.
James and John make personal appearances. John immediately
shows himself for what he is, but Catherine only sees what is
good; "That was very good natured of you." p67. In
fact we see that he is ill mannered (p.66) dishonest (p.66,
67) thoughtless, regarding his horse(p.68) ignorant (p.69) racist(p.69)
and altogether unpleasant. Jane Austen even indicates that Catherine
would also have thought so but for her desire to like her brother's
friend and friend's brother, and his flattery. James is shown
to be as deceived by Isabella as is Catherine, describing her
as "so thoroughly unaffected
and amiable" and possessing "such
a superior understanding". (p.71)
At the end of this Ch. we find a good description of what the
gothic novel relied on and aimed to produce: "a raised,
restless and frightened imagination" (p.72)
The description of Catherine's "suffering" whilst
waiting for John Thorpe is a clear spoof of the more extreme
but fictional sufferings of the heroines of popular novels,
and her failure to jump to romantic conclusions about Eleanor
serve a similar purpose, as well as showing the reader that.
as yet, Catherine is still behaving in an Augustan, if naive
manner. Her response to Isabella's query about dancing with
James again(78) shows this.
Interestingly, though this novel deals with the gap between
appearance and reality (though to the reader the difference
is usually apparent) Eleanor is one example of a character who
is absolutely what she seems to be (p.76) and the description
of her, with its direct contrast to Isabella, shows the reader
that we have here someone we can trust.
"The progress of Catherine's unhappiness" is introduced
in the way a fictional heroine's would, but again reality is
more prosaic, an Catherine, far from tossing the night away
anxiously, falls asleep for nine hours!
The ride in the gig shows us more about John, particularly
his motivation in courting Catherine- he thinks she's Mr. Allen's
heiress. It also reveals once more Catherine's simple, straightforward
"Catherine listened with astonishment...would
alarm herself no longer." (p.85)
Interestingly here it is her very Augustan reasonableness,
allied with her naivety, that deceives her.
Isabella continues to betray to us her awfulness, Catherine
continues to fail to behave as she "ought" as a character
in one of Isabella's novels, in that she's too straightforward
to read between Isabella's very heavily drawn lines. Just as
she misses the hints Isabella deliberately drops about her interest
in James, she is unaware of how she is giving herself away to
Eleanor over Henry- "How well your brother dances...without
the smallest consciousness of having explained them" (p.91-
Again the "set piece" situations of the gothic novel
are taken and trivialised, as Catherine's attempts to avoid
John Thorpe are written up as if she were Emily pursued by Verezzi.
This chapter juxtaposes Catherine's conversations with John
and Henry in order that the reader may compare.
In this chapter we see another "set piece" brought
down to size- the abduction of the heroine by the villain. Remember
that Morano tried it with Emily. This is as close as John Thorpe
gets to an abduction of Catherine, yet we are alive to the real
distress which it causes her.
This is the chapter in which John misleads the General as to
Catherine's prospects, though we don't know exactly what has
been said yet. Near the end of the chapter the line
"she joyfully thought, that there was not
one of the family whom she need now fear to meet." p.112
acts as a warning that in some way there is; by now we should
be used enough to Jane Austen's way of working to pick up on
this inverted clue. In fact it is Frederick Tilney who steals
Isabella away from James.
This chapter sees Catherine beginning at last to see in part
Isabella's faults- "Isabella seemed to her ungenerous and
selfish, regardless of everything but her own gratification."p.114.
This is a "one off" incident however, & Catherine
continues to see the best in all around her.
Again, novelistic set pieces are ridiculed; Catherine's heroic
moral struggle over the trip to Clifton is presented in a way
akin to Emily's willingness to give up her inheritance for Madame
Cheron's safety, though it represents a secure future for herself
& Valancourt. (p.115). Later, when Mr.Allen expresses his
sense of the impropriety of the excursion and Mrs Allen explains
why she didn't warn Catherine we see that she is as unable to
see the difference between the trivial and the important as
Catherine is later to be between fiction and reality. This "escape"
is presented, in mock heroic style, as an avoidance of a dishonoured
The chapter begins by again differentiating between the worlds
of reality and fiction; Catherine's ability to fulfil her engagement
would only be unnatural in the world of novels, in which a cloaked
Italian figure would have spirited her away in the night. Though
Jane Austen cannot in truth be saying that she is dealing with
reality, not fiction, she is at least claiming that it's not
that kind of fiction.
In this chapter Jane Austen expresses, through Henry, many
of her own views on novels and contemporary attitudes; we cannot
believe that either she or Henry really believe that
"A woman especially, if she have the misfortune
of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can."
On p.128 we have a reference to the second Miss Thorpe an
"two of the sweetest girls in the world
who has been her dear friends all the morning."
This is clearly superficial, and we are reminded that Isabella
speaks in the same easily gushing tones of Catherine. We suspect,
once more, that her affection is equally shallow and meaningless.
At last Catherine is made aware of the relationship between
James & Isabella. Isabella's vehement declarations that
money is nothing to her lead us to guess that she believes James
is rich and is motivated by greed in her pursuit of him; by
now we know that we have always to believe the opposite of anything
Isabella tells us. Indeed, the point at which we are told that
"worked herself into a state of real distress"
may be the only occasion upon which we see Isabella demonstrate
real feeling of any sort; usually she is pure pretence.
This chapter also contains the comic "proposal" by
John Thorpe, which Catherine utterly fails to recognise for
what it is, though we are painfully aware of John's intentions.
The humour of this encounter is added to later in the novel
when it is revealed that Catherine proceeded to forget entirely
the whole conversation though he believed he had "her
explicit encouragement." (p.137)
We are prepared for later revelations about General Tilney's
character by the knowledge that
"John thinks very well of him, and John's
Jane Austen leaves the sentence unfinished, inviting the reader
to contradict in their ending the one which Isabella had obviously
Explicit comparison is made between the General and gothic
villains, leading us to expect that he will, in some non-gothic
but very real sense, contribute to Catherine's unhappiness.
Still the exaggerated language of the sentimental/gothic novel
is used, here to describe the relatively trivial likelihood
of Catherine having to go home. For this to be presented as
" an evil which nothing could
counterbalance" (p.147) undermines the use of such
language for more major occurances in other people's novels.
It also shows us the girlish intensity of Catherine's feelings,
however, thus serving the purposes both of literary satire &
Everything is presented as going Catherine's way, but the reader
is less sure than Catherine of a happy ending, as we have already
begun to suspect both Isabella & the General.
In this chapter our convictions that Isabella is false are
strengthened by her behaviour towards Frederick Tilney. Her
deceit is all the more clear when contrasted with Catherine's
honesty, which Isabella has the nerve to question with regard
"I do not pretend to determine what your
thoughts & designs in time past may have been " (p.154)
Her subsequent assertion that
"Circumstances change, opinions alter."
prepares the ground for her later abandonment of James. This
is patently obvious to the reader but, because Catherine is
so far from deceit herself, she persists in believing that
"To doubt her truth or good intentions was
Thus our judgements of both girls are strengthened by this
Catherine, unhappy with Isabella's behaviour but thinking it
thoughtlessness not wilful cruely, attempts to tackle the problem
via Henry. Henry's response shows a practical & realistic
approach to the situation but, though Catherine is persuaded
by his arguments, we are not, being better acquainted with Isabella's
In this chapter Catherine travels to Northanger with the Tilneys.
Her coach ride with Henry serves to highlight two things: firstly,
the slightly unseemly haste the General seems to be in to throw
Catherine & Henry together - the ref. to Mr. Allen's views
on young men & women riding together shows this - &
secondly the contrast between Catherine's two suitors. Jane
Austen draws an explicit comparison between the driving skills
&, indirectly, the characters of John & Henry.
Henry's description of Catherine's possible experiences at
Northanger is entertaining in itself, as a pastiche of the standard
gothic ingredients. It becomes more so, as well as contributing
to Catherine's personal growth into maturity, when it comes
so near the truth on her first night in the house. This growth
is a slow thing however & progresses only by stages; just
as her disillusionment with Isabella is moving at a creeping
pace, so is her awakening to the unreality of her novel inspired
ideas. Early signs can be found in her feelings of disappointment
with the comfort & convenience of Northanger, but she has
to make more painful & humiliating mistakes before finally
being convinced that life is not like books.
The language, emotional responses, and "props" in
this chapter are pure gothic, yet we are distanced from the
terror felt by Catherine by our knowledge that this is, as far
as this novel is concerned, the "real world". (Oh
dear, Russian dolls again!) Because of this we are free
to laugh at the extremity of Catherine's responses in a way
which we are not in "straight" gothic. I feel that
this sense of emotional distance could well be carried by a
reader over into the next "straight" gothic novel
read, thus undermining the seriousness of any response to it.
Since Jane Austen was attempting in this novel to satirise &,
perhaps, educate the more gullible gothic reader, this may have
been her intention.
Catherine's loss of her candle at a critical monent replicates
a similar experience of Emily's in Udolpho, if I remember right.
Catherine awakes to another disillusionment -
"She felt humbled to the dust. Could not
the adventure of the chest have taught her wisdom?" (p.177)
but still does not truly learn the error of her ways; it takes
Henry's discovery of her misapprehensions about the General
to do that, & these misapprehensions are formed in this
chapter by her once more basing her responses to the real world
on her reading. In this case her wrongheadedness is underlined
for us by the reference to Mr. Allen's views on such literature.
He feels characters such as Catherine is likening the General
to are "unnatural & overdrawn"
(p.185), & Mr. Allen is a man whose rarely expressed views
we have been taught to trust.
The "well read" Catherine moves deeper into her mistake
in this chapter, & sees events at Northanger increasingly
in terms of a gothic novel. The language used shows how far
she has moved from rational judgement;
" the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet
lived, shut up for causes unknown & receiving from the pitiless
hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food was the
conclusion that necessarily followed."(p.191)
This chapter is, indeed, dotted with "probably",
"not unlikely", "plausibility" , "certainly"
etc. The reader is well aware that Catherine's suppositions
are anything but probable, likely, plausible & certain,
but Catherine is now so enmeshed in her novelistic delusions
that she is unable to separate fact from fiction, imagination
from reality. Though originally presented as an essentially
sensible & augustan character, Catherine is now demonstrating
the dangers of imagination unrestrained by judgement.
Catherine continues to wallow in her delusion, though entirely
without hard evidence, & convinced that such evidence could
be faked anyway. Her ability to "remember" many cases
of heartless villains is not based on her personal experience!
Prevented by the General from visiting the late Mrs. Tilney's
rooms with Eleanor, Catherine goes alone & is discovered
by Henry. Now this really is a crisis, & could lead Henry
into dismissing all ideas of her. Instead he responds with surprise
but courtesy, gently showing her the origin of her errors. The
passage on p. 199 beginning
"What have you been judging from...what
ideas have you been admitting?"
demolishes her fictional world & brings her painfully
back into the real world.
Catherine is now shown to have reached self awareness as far
as her response to novels goes;
"it had been all a voluntary, self-created
delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from
an imagination resolved on alarm, and everything forced to bend
to one purpose by a mind which, before she entered the abbey,
had been craving to be frightened." (p.201)
In the very same chapter she is also finally disillusioned
about Isabella, so her growth to maturity is achieved almost
simultaneously in the areas of both fiction & character
reading. Her realistic assessment about her feelings on losing
Isabella, which do not accord with those of a sentimental heroine
as described by Henry, show that she is once more in the real
world, though she still feels unable to trust her own judgement
- "ought I?" (p.208)
The General here shows his two-facedness in the insignificant
issue of the meal to be served at Woodston. The reader extends
this characteristic to what he has said about inequality of
fortune, though Catherine herself is still naive: "why
he should say one thing so positively, mean another all the
while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate,
to be understood?" (p.212) This suspicion that the General
would regard lack of fortune as a barrier increases our suspicions
that he is in error about Catherine, just as she was in error
about him. There is a pleasing symmetry about this, to my mind,
which is typical of Jane Austen's structuring.
Isabella's letter conveys to us the information, without her
actually saying it, that she has been dropped by Frederick Tilney.
By now we are so used to reversing everything Isabella says
"I rejoice to say, that the young man whom,
of all others, I particularly abhor, has left Bath"(p.216)
clearly communicates this message. Catherine has progressed
far enough for us to read that
"Such a strain of shallow artifice could
not impose even upon Catherine" (p.217)
In one & the same chapter Catherine is entreated to extend
her stay then as good as thrown out of doors with the greatest
incivility. Now this is what a heroine might expect, & it
only comes to Catherine once she has cast off all notions of
heroism. Jane Austen explicitly contrasts the real awfulness
of this situation with Catherine's earlier gothic imaginings
"Yet how different now the source of her
inquietude from what it had been then - how mournfully superior
in reality & substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact,
her fears in probability." (p.225)
Having been shown that Catherine's imaginings were but that,
Jane Austen now suggests to us that real life can produce situations
just as distressing, though not as improbably "romantic".
Catherine's journey & arrival home are presented in a deliberately
& explicitly unheroic way - "
A heroine in a hack post-chaise, is a blow upon
. Her parents are indignant but "without
suffering any romantic alarm" (p.231)
Henry arrives to propose to Catherine in the face of his father's
disapproval. Now that is conventionally heroic. He doesn't follow
it up by eloping with her, however, & they end up married
in less than a year having suffered no gothic torments of imprisonment
etc. After all, in terms of this novel, this is the real world.
Mr. & Mrs. Morland don't make the lovers promise not to
correspond, as Madame Cheron did Emily & Valancourt. Eleanor
is conveniently married to a hitherto concealed lover, &
Jane Austen is conscious enough of the unlikelihood of this
expediency to jokingly justify him in the light of the washing
bills in the desk. By this point we are being forcefully reminded
that we are in a novel which is drawing to its close.
Like Udolpho & other gothic novels which excused all their
exploitations of human terror by the imposition of a moral ending,
Northanger Abbey also has such a moral. It is typical of the
novel, however, that the moral is mockingly immoral -
"I leave it to be settled by whomsoever
it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether
to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience."
To the end, Jane Austen cannot resist cocking a snook at the
literary conventions she is satirising.
There. Now I'm totally thought & typed out, & if
I ever have to produce a set of notes like this again I shall
probably move to a deserted castle in the Alps with a friendly
headless nun and a garrulous maidservant. Just don't say I never
do anything for you!