2010 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Mrs. Radcliffe’s Imitator: When Catherine Creates her own Mysteries
[Jane Austen] describes men and women exactly as men and women really are,” commented Lord Brabourne, an early Austen admirer (Bolton 32). Renowned for her timelessly realistic portrayals of humans in her novels, Jane Austen recognizes that real people are multifaceted and imperfect. Ironically, Jane Austen lived in the age of the popular gothic novel, a genre often inhabited by uncomplicated, one-dimensional characters. By counteracting those characterizations found in popular gothic novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest, Jane Austen emphasizes her message in her novel, Northanger Abbey, that the key to discerning character is to recognize the many layers of human nature. She accomplishes this with an imperfect, impressionable heroine: Catherine Morland. Though innately good-hearted, Catherine Morland’s misguided conception of human nature, the fruition of her gothic novel study, leads her to confusion as she misinterprets Isabella Thorpe and General Tilney. From the chaos, Catherine learns to differentiate between the real world and the world of the gothic novel, allowing Jane Austen’s message of the complexity of human nature to resonate.
Catherine Morland’s flaws are essential to Jane Austen’s message of a dynamic human condition, and to her ability to transform from the chaos she encounters. Jane Austen once remarked, “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked” (37). Catherine Morland, in every respect, epitomizes Jane Austen’s preference for imperfection. From the first page Austen emphasizes these flaws by juxtaposing her to the indefectibility of the gothic heroine. Unlike Radcliffe’s heroines, Catherine is not remarkably beautiful or talented. While Catherine is perceived as “almost pretty” (Austen 5), her novel counterparts are endowed with features “that appealed immediately to the heart” (Radcliffe, Romance 9). Furthermore, while Catherine’s “proficiency…was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons…whenever she could,” Emily St. Aubert “exercised herself in elegant arts, cultivated only because they were congenial to her taste” (Austen 4; Radcliffe, Udolpho 7). Yet, Austen does not emulate these “pictures of perfection,” because she recognizes that perfect characters lead to flat, unrealistic characterizations (Bolton 37). Catherine, on the other hand, because of her naiveté, has the potential for growth. Unlike Adeline and Emily, whose understandings have been “cultivated…with the most scrupulous care,” Catherine has lived a secluded life in the country with few opportunities to meet people outside of her family circle (Radcliffe, Udolpho 9). Her mind is “about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is” (Austen 8). However, when Catherine decides to travel to Bath, Austen points out, “if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad” (7). Indeed, Catherine’s adventures manifest themselves into chaos and confusion as her impressionability of mind and inexperience lead her to analyze those around her as if they were from gothic novels.
Catherine mistakenly interprets Isabella Thorpe’s character according to the criteria used by the flawlessly perceptive heroines of gothic novels. With little real experience in evaluating people she meets, Catherine divines from the gothic novels how to judge from exterior appearances. Those who are beautiful or appear good are virtuous. For example, in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, Adeline’s virtue is understood through a first impression: “[because of] the beauty and seeming innocence of Adeline, united with the pleadings of humanity in her favour… he determined to protect her” (8). Newly arrived in Bath, Catherine is eager to meet the Adelines of society. She meets Isabella Thorpe, who, fittingly, becomes her companion in the study of the gothic genre and resembles Adeline with her “great personal beauty” (Austen 22). Isabella, however, is not an Emily or an Adeline. Though she is beautiful, forms a favorable first impression, and is attentive towards Catherine, her exterior veils a selfish, deceitful disposition. Catherine, however, apprehends only a good Isabella.
Throughout her visit to Bath, Catherine is constantly confused by the conflict between how Isabella acts on the outside and her true character. After Isabella, John Thorpe, and James Morland plan a spontaneous excursion to Blaize castle, chaos arrives when Thorpe lies to Catherine about the Tilneys having had prior engagements (68). Isabella, also motivated by her own enjoyment and her desire for Catherine’s connection with her brother, encourages the outing and the notion that the Tilneys forgot their appointment with Catherine: “My dearest Catherine…come, you must go; you cannot refuse going now” (68). Catherine, perceiving truth in Isabella’s words based on her conviction of Isabella’s outward virtue, agrees to go. In a moment of chaos aboard Thorpe’s phaeton, Catherine spots the Tilneys, their actions contradicting everything Isabella led her to believe (69). At the end of the day, Catherine spends the evening with the Thorpes and is “greatly disturbed and out of spirits” (71). She “could almost have accused Isabella of being wanting in tenderness towards herself and her sorrows” (72). However, her gothic “learning” represses what her instinct perceives, and Isabella’s true character escapes, for the present time, undetected.
Finally, Catherine, perceiving in Isabella only what Isabella tells her, is perplexed regarding Isabella’s engagement to her brother. She tells Catherine, “As for myself, I am sure I only wish our situations were reversed. Had I the command of millions, were I mistress of the whole world, your brother would be my only choice” (98). Catherine perceives that Isabella is in love with her brother and overlooks Isabella’s real motivation: her presumption in James’s wealth. Finding she will be unable to marry James and secure his fortune as soon as she wished, she flirts openly, leaving a bewildered Catherine in her wake. At the pump room, she assures Catherine that “dancing…is quite out of the question” (106). Yet, once again, Isabella’s words contradict her actions, and Catherine, who believed in her sincerity, is astonished to see Captain Tilney lead Isabella to the dance floor: “she spoke her astonishment in very plain terms to her partner. ‘I cannot think how it could happen! Isabella was so determined not to dance’” (109). Even after Catherine witnesses Isabella’s embarrassingly blatant flirtations with Captain Tilney, she is still disinclined to believe that Isabella’s character is not a reflection of her appearance: “Isabella was unconsciously encouraging him; unconsciously it must be, for Isabella’s attachment to James was as certain and well acknowledged as her engagement. To doubt her truth or good intentions was impossible” (120). Because Catherine learns to assess people as if they were from gothic novels, she perceives that Isabella Thorpe, who puts on a virtuous appearance, must be good.
Similar to her judgment of Isabella, Catherine also hastily applies gothic attributes to Henry’s father, General Tilney. Not only are gothic characters precisely as they appear, they are consummately good or bad. When Catherine observes General Tilney’s propensity for a short temper and his intimidating manner, she amplifies his behavior into a character worthy of Montoni, the villain of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Prior to their departure for Northanger Abbey, “his angry impatience at the waiters made Catherine grow every moment more in awe of him” (129). Catherine’s gothic fantasies fuel her negative view of the General when they arrive at the Abbey: “a building such as ‘what one reads about’” (130). Her imagination, having run amuck with her enthusiasm for the gothic genre, exaggerates the General’s flaws and elevates him into the average gothic villain. For example, Montoni is quintessentially evil: “and all the terrors of his countenance unfolded themselves…he looked upon her with a malignant smile, which instantaneously confirmed her worst fears for her aunt” (Radcliffe, Udolpho 307). Catherine’s worst fears are also confirmed for Eleanor’s mother while touring the gardens of Northanger Abbey. Eleanor comments that the General avoids walking along his late wife’s favorite path. Catherine pursues the topic, and she concludes that “he must have been dreadfully cruel to her!” (Austen 149). Here, Catherine judges the General in the only way she knows how. She sees his faults and determines that he, like Montoni, must be completely evil: “His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters, characters which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn; but here was proof positive of the contrary” (149). Catherine’s primary problem is that she has had little experience reading characters, and when she learns to fit them into the frames of gothic novel characters, they are distorted in the process. She doesn’t recognize that unlike gothic novels, people are complex: their souls are filled neither with all light or all dark.
Her judgment of the General’s character climaxes in a chaotic misunderstanding between Henry, Catherine, and the General. Catherine, in the true gothic style, ventures to Mrs. Tilney’s room to investigate her enigmatic death. Henry, discovering her, angrily reprimands her for suspecting his father of murder:
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. What have you been judging from?...Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observations of what is passing around you. (164)
The General is not as she estimated, simply a cold hearted man like Montoni: “his value of her was sincere; and, if not permanently, he was truly afflicted by her death” (164). This chaotic scene ends, and Catherine shamefully feels that Henry’s esteem for her has been obliterated (165). Further chaos unfolds when Catherine is ordered to leave Northanger Abbey. Catherine believes the General’s only cause for resentment was her recent suspicions (194). Yet, she does not know how he found out about them. She returns home after a whirlwind night of packing and “agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers” (190). Her trip is plagued by “the pressing anxiety of thought” and a mind “incapable of more than momentary repose” (194).
As part of Jane Austen’s message of the complexity of human nature, she allows her own dynamic heroine to learn from her mistakes and to perceive correctly that people are not stagnant characters like those found in gothic novels. Though Catherine begins to feel the folly of her judgments of the General, it takes a harsh awakening from the character she truly esteems to readjust her views. Astonished that Catherine would think his father capable of murder, Henry informs her of her indiscretion. The transformation occurs in Catherine after this reproof: “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened. Henry’s address, short as it had been, had more thoroughly opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies than all their several disappointments had done” (165). Catherine recognizes that her irrationalities originated in the lack of correct judgment that resulted in her recent study of gothic novels: “The mischief…might be traced to the influence of that sort of reading which she had there indulged” (166). Catherine reflects, “Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature…was to be looked for” (166). She also alters her view that people are either perfectly good or bad: “Among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though an unequal mixture of good and bad” (166). In spite of her deficiencies, Catherine is at heart a truly good person who wishes to improve herself. It is this mélange of flaws and strengths that lends Catherine a complexity that Jane Austen showcases, and which allows Catherine to better herself. Catherine sees the consequences of a flawed view of human nature, and she finally understands that people are, like her, many layered.
Shortly after Catherine’s eyes have been opened to her faulty perception of the people around her, she receives a letter from James and another from Isabella. With her new knowledge of Isabella’s behavior, she deduces that she has also been mistaken in her regard for Isabella. Catherine receives a letter from James informing her that their engagement is at an end (167). Evidence of Catherine’s recent maturation is clear during Catherine, Henry, and Eleanor’s discussion of Isabella’s motives (173). She now acknowledges, that Isabella’s unblemished exterior does not verify an equally virtuous character. After receiving Isabella’s letter, “such a strain of shallow artifice could not impose even upon Catherine. Its inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood, struck her from the very first. She was ashamed of Isabella, and ashamed of having ever loved her” (182). Catherine has now learned to perceive human nature not with gothic attributes, but with a mind in tune to real human nature.
Catherine is awakened to the fact that the General is not the evil Montoni of her imagination. She deduces, “Upon this conviction she need not fear to acknowledge some actual specks in the character of their father, who, though cleared from the grossly injurious suspicions which she must ever blush to have entertained, she did believe, upon serious consideration, to be not perfectly amiable” (166). After she suffers the consequences of her flawed conception of the General, Catherine has time to reflect on her past behavior. She is altered for the better: “Three months ago had seen her all this; and now, how altered a being did she return!” (199). She is no longer “a sad shatter-brained little creature,” but a mature young woman who has learned to better herself from her mistakes (197). This is revealed through her new feelings for Northanger Abbey, a representation of her gothic infatuation: “The painful remembrance of the folly it had helped to nourish and perfect was the only emotion which could spring from a consideration of the building. What a revolution in her ideas!” (176). Catherine is rewarded for her reflections and her transformation. Her judgment and character are now the equal of Henry Tilney, hinting at the future happiness of their union. Henry Tilney returns to her to resolve the residual confusion. He informs her that she was not completely mistaken in her views of the General. He explains that believing the match between Catherine and Henry to be a good connection, Catherine “was guilty only of being less rich than he had supposed her to be” (206). Catherine has good instinct. She senses something not wholly good in the character of the General, but the gothic novel misguides her with depictions of completely good or bad people. He is not a murderous villain, but a man selfishly motivated by money.
Jane Austen’s message of the complexity of human nature is clearly portrayed through Catherine’s ability to correct her views and grow from the chaos and confusion that result from her lack of ability to see that people, especially Isabella Thorpe and General Tilney, are more complicated than gothic novels delineate. Jane Austen remains as relevant today as she was almost two hundred years ago because of her uncanny ability to “describe men and women exactly as men and women really are” (Bolton 32). Through the use of chaos and confusion that ensues from the influence of the gothic novel, Jane Austen encourages her readers to grow from their mistakes and, just as Catherine does, to “live and learn” (Austen 198).
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: The Modern Library, 2002. Print.
Bolton, Lesley. The Jane Austen Miscellany. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2006.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.