PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.33, NO.1 (Winter 2012)

A Sweet Creature’s Horrid Novels: Gothic Reading in Northanger Abbey

Susan Allen Ford


Susan Allen Ford (email: is Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at Delta State University.  Her most recent publication is the introduction to an edition of James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (Chawton House Press).  She is at work on a book on what Austen’s characters are reading.


while Catherine Morland is still deep in The Mysteries of Udolpho, even declaring that “‘I should like to spend my whole life in reading it’” (33), Isabella Thorpe offers a list of “‘ten or twelve more of the same kind.’”  When Isabella takes out her pocket-book and reads the titles, however, that ten or twelve turns out to be a mere seven:  “‘Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries’” (33).  So Austen introduces the gothic in a context of exaggeration and limitation, of imagined possibility met with a reasonably contracted reality.


Isabella’s habitual exaggeration—which the preceding seven paragraphs underscore—might tempt us not only to dismiss the character who inflates the “five minutes” she’s waited into “‘these ten ages at least’” (32) but also to dismiss the novels she recommends.  In fact, the narrator’s ironic pronouncement at the beginning of the chapter has already encouraged that impulse to write off these novels:  “The following conversation,” the narrator declares, “is given as a specimen of [the two friends’] very warm attachment, and of the delicacy, discretion, originality of thought, and literary taste which marked the reasonableness of that attachment” (32).  The marked absence of discretion and originality immediately implies the fraudulence of the friendship and, of course, of their literary taste.  And Catherine’s eager, repetitive question—“‘but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?’” (33)—seems to affirm the judgment and extend it to the genre.


It’s a puzzling shift, following immediately—as Elaine Bander also notes (47)—upon the energetic defense of the novel, which the narrator begins by promising “not [to] adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding,” and in which she further suggests, “Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans” (30).  This moment exemplifies what Tara Ghoshal Wallace has defined as Austen’s strategy throughout Northanger Abbey:  “She mocks and undermines her own chosen method—parodic discourse—so that both narrative and reader are kept off-balance” (17).  Indeed, Bander suggests that The Mysteries of Udolpho “really does turn out to be . . . a reliable guide to human behavior in the midland counties of England” (57).


Setting aside—at least momentarily—the unstable ironies of the narrative voice, the list Isabella produces suggests careful selection on Austen’s part.  As Michael Sadleir argues, Austen excels as a parodist because “she had herself enjoyed the victims of her fun.  Wherefore, when she mocked, she mocked the more tellingly because fondly and with knowledge” (“All Horrid” 193).  Through much of the nineteenth century, those titles on Isabella’s list were assumed to be invented.  In 1891, in his introduction to Tales of Mystery, George Saintsbury acknowledged the limitations of his own reading in an “enormous” field but then attempted to defend himself:  “I have not read a single one of the list which was ‘all horrid.’ . . . I should indeed like some better authority than Miss Isabella Thorpe’s to assure me of their existence; but they, or things like them, certainly did exist in vast numbers” (ix).  In 1901, John Louis Haney provided evidence from the Reviewers of the day for their existence.


The novels Isabella lists—four written by women, three by men—were published in the 1790s.  Six of them were published by William Lane’s Minerva Press, famous for supplying circulating libraries in London and the provinces with novels and romances.1  There’s no record that Jane Austen read these, nor do they appear in the catalog of novels at Godmersham, the estate of her brother Edward.  There is, however, a significant mention of the odd one of the seven.  Travelling with her parents from Godmersham to Steventon in 1798, the very day her writing box had to be rescued from a coach heading towards Gravesend, Jane writes to Cassandra, “My father is now reading the ‘Midnight Bell,’ which he has got from the library, and mother sitting by the fire” (24 October 1798).  The Midnight Bell, highly episodic and fast-paced, seems like a good choice for an evening after a day on the road.  This tantalizing mention, incomplete though it is, suggests that our consideration of these novels may have to comprise more than merely our judgment of Isabella Thorpe—that indeed not only may Jane Austen herself have read them but that her references to them might be specific.


And of course Isabella has not read these novels, relying instead on the experience of “‘a particular friend of [hers], a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world’” (33).  Is there any warrant for Miss Andrews’s critical judgment?  She reportedly hasn’t been able to get through the first volume of Sir Charles Grandison (35)—surely, for Jane Austen, a bad sign.  Unlike Grandison, however, these novels are “readable” (35).  The one thing we can surmise—based on a telling error in the list Isabella reads—is that the claim that Miss Andrews has “‘read every one of them’” (33) might be true.  Mysterious Warnings is really The Mysterious Warning (singular not plural), but there are indeed multiple mysterious warnings in that novel, a significant plot detail that for either Miss Andrews or Miss Austen might supersede an exact memory of the title.  (The mistitled frontispiece referring to Warnings might have had some effect!)



Perhaps the question is not whether we should offer these gothic novels as works in which “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language” (31).  A more useful question might ask what Jane Austen might expect of her readers, whether they can compete with Henry Tilney in their knowledge of Julias and Louisas, or Madelines and Matildas.  Or to put it a different way, what does familiarity with that sweet creature’s horrid novels add to our reading of Northanger Abbey?


I’ve dwelt on the scene wherein these novels are mentioned because I’m tormented by the idea that it holds the key to unlocking the mystery of Austen’s inclusion of these novels.  One peculiarity of the scene is its repetitive excess:  sweet, horrid, amazing are reiterated, and even Miss Andrews’s name occurs five times in the space of two pages.  This repetition is characteristic of the gothic, which Fred Botting defines in terms of excess (1).  Its features are repeated from novel to novel: castles and caverns in which heroines are imprisoned or that they must penetrate; mysterious groans and voices; enforced vows and secret oaths, etc.  In fact, the reviewers of gothic fiction during the 1790s often complained about such repetition.  The Critical Review, for example, though admiring The Mysteries of Udolpho, charged Mrs. Radcliffe with presenting “the same powers of description, . . . the same predilection . . . for the wonderful and the gloomy—the same mysterious terrors” as in The Romance of the Forest (361).  In its consideration of The Italian, the Critical Review warned that gothic romance “might for a time afford an acceptable variety” but ultimately “would degenerate into repetition, and would disappoint curiosity.  So many cries ‘that the wolf is coming,’ must at last lose their effect” (166).  Its review of Roche’s Clermont objected to “the usual apparatus of dungeons, long galleries, clanking chains and ghosts, and a profusion of picturesque description” (356).


But I would argue that gothic repetitions are more than conventions, a word that implies a somewhat orderly coming together in agreement.  The repetitive nature of the gothic does not so much represent elements of a rational structure as it acts out the compulsive tracings of the anxieties that this nightmarish genre explores through recurring characters, plot elements, topics of conversation.


If there’s a genre synonymous with sex, money, and power, it’s the gothic.  And in exploring those forces, the gothic dwells particularly upon stories of the family.  In Art of Darkness, Anne Williams considers the implications of the interconnection of gothic structures and family structures.  “Like all dreams—even nightmares—,” she argues, “Gothic narratives enabled their audiences to confront and explore, and simultaneously to deny, a theme that marks the birth of the Romantic (and modern) sensibility:  that ‘the Law of the Father’ is a tyrannical paterfamilias and that we dwell in his ruins” (24).  The 1790s was already inundated with narratives of families under threat—from the stage, to sentimental novels, to the polemics of the pamphlet wars responding to the French Revolution.  Such texts suggested that the family and the state were analogous structures, threatening repression, threatened with disintegration.  The gothic, Williams notes, participated in those anxieties about cultural structures and political upheavals (89).


What might we look for, then, in these horrid tales recommended by the sweet Miss Andrews?  What might they tell us about the erotics and economics of power in the family? in the nation?  What imaginative spaces might these nightmarish novels lay bare?  How do their worlds, their characters, the anxieties they explore, compare with those Northanger Abbey reveals?  For convenience, and in deference to the conference theme, I’ll group my discussion of these novels in terms of sex, money, and power, but these categories are almost always interdependent.  The sexual impulse might be stimulated by money, is very often also an expression of power; the possession of money can confer power.  I will divide for my ease what these horrid novels have united for theirs.




In its representation of sexual desire, the gothic most often charts the guilt associated with that passion—though in some cases pleasure competes with and even overwhelms guilt.  Horrid Mysteries, translated from the German, is filled with soft arms, burning mouths, and bosoms meeting in a variety of combinations that take us well beyond Mrs. Radcliffe’s chaste representations.  In a dark forest, Count S— is pulled into a fervent kiss by what turns out to be a young lady:  her surprise on discovering that he is not the person she expected causes him, as he tells his auditor, to “recover[] the use of my senses. . . . My right-hand . . . encircled, by a secret impulse, her taper form, and I pressed her violently to my panting bosom” (8).  In another incident, the hero, Carlos, finding the senseless body of his friend “cold and stiff,” works to save him:  “Oh! how unspeakably dear was he then to me! . . . All the breath that animated me was concentrated on my lips, to impart itself to him by numberless kisses” (15).  Even a family scene is described with a lush physicality as “a feast of tenderness and love”:


James, a tall and handsome man, was sitting on the floor, and had taken his wife upon his lap. . . . She clung with the greatest tenderness round her husband’s neck, and her angelic looks were directed at his eyes. . . . He lifted his eyes up to his heavenly wife, whose cheeks rested upon his; she imprinted fervent kisses on his majestic brow, and seemed to intend to bury him in her bosom.  A look of rapturous enthusiasm glowed on either face, the little boy hung around the neck of the mother, and the most beautiful girl I ever saw caressed her parents by turns.  What a silent, and yet, what a speaking scene!  Low sighs only were exchanged; and every word was kissed away from the opening lip ere it could form an articulated sound.  (23-24)


And Carlos’s “oath of eternal love” to the illuminati is a similar scene of word made flesh:  “I was in the twinkling of an eye encircled by every arm; and the horrid vow escaped my lips at the altar, amid the kisses of my new brethren” (61).  Horrid Mysteries, of the same “German” School of Horror as The Monk, John Thorpe’s novel of choice (43), suggests an interesting dimension to the sweet, angelic, and yet insipid Miss Andrews.  Michael Sadleir notes, “The love scenes are luscious and detailed beyond even the aspirations of Monk Lewis himself, and I am aware of no Gothistic novel issued in English during the period that can rival it for enraptured fleshiness” (Northanger Novels 19).


Jane Austen’s novel provides no such fleshy pleasures.2  And yet, the sexual aspect of the gothic does invade this novel’s representation of physical bodies.  We might think of Catherine’s restraint in the streets by Isabella and John Thorpe, who each catch hold of a hand, a bodily contact underscored by Catherine’s demands “‘Let me go, Mr. Thorpe; Isabella, do not hold me’” (101).  As Eleanor Ty has argued, Austen uses the gothic to “remind[ ] her readers . . . of the vulnerability of the female body” (248).  Henry’s interest in muslins and his mastery of the social codes of Bath allow him surprising opportunities early in the novel to examine what reveals and conceals Catherine’s body.  He “gravely examine[s]” Catherine’s gown, deciding that “‘it will fray’” (21).  His ventriloquizing of Catherine’s journal entry allows him to describe her in some detail:  “‘wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage’” (19).  (The only other time perhaps in which the hero speaks with such attention to the heroine’s clothing is when Edmund Bertram admires Fanny’s dress for its resemblance to one Mary Crawford has worn.)


The seductive practices of Frederick Tilney hint at the pleasures of gothic terror.  His language not only picks up the gothic fears of surveillance and torture but also lingers on female flesh.  His meeting with Isabella in the Pump-room begins with a gothic complaint:  “‘What! always to be watched, in person or by proxy!’” (149).  The “‘torment’” Isabella and Frederick claim has a very different connotation than the desire for torment Catherine earlier ascribes to historians.  The love-talk climaxes, at least for the reader, with Frederick’s description of the delights of Isabella’s flesh and the promise of more to come:  “‘the edge of a blooming cheek . . . in view—at once too much and too little.’”  Whatever Catherine’s interest as a reader, her feelings as an auditor are clear:  “quite out of countenance [Catherine] could listen no longer.  Amazed that Isabella could endure it, and jealous for her brother,” she leaves (150).


More often in the novels on Miss Andrews’s list, however, sexual guilt derives from the suspicion or the fact of incestuous desire.  While the incest discovered in The Monk, in which Ambrosio rapes and murders his sister, is simpler in its definition and so more horrifying in its pleasures, these novels approach the topic most closely through the forbidden desire for a brother’s wife.  Moreover, they don’t approach too near the horrors of this safer kind of incest:  rather than pursuing the forbidden passions, Miss Andrews’s novels examine the consequences.  In Roche’s Clermont, St. Julian’s suspicion that his half-brother Phillipe had introduced him to his wife only to disguise his own seduction of her spurred him to murder his brother.  In fact, Phillipe was married to St. Julian’s wife’s sister.  As the strands of the novel are untangled, St. Julian finds that he is not a murderer because Phillipe did not die.  Further, De Sevignie, the young man loved by St. Julian’s daughter, Madeline, the heroine, is revealed to be Phillipe’s son.  The marriage between the issue of two brothers and two sisters restores the family of Montmorenci, long suffering from the sins of the father.  In The Midnight Bell, Alphonsus, “addicted to suspicion” (3), convinces his brother Frederic to attempt to seduce his wife Anna, in order to test both her virtue and his brother’s.  In one last refinement of his plan, Alphonsus pretends to have been murdered; Anna accuses Frederic of villainy, makes her son, also named Alphonsus, swear to avenge his father’s death, and then, when a man enters her chamber at night, stabs him, thinking that he’s Frederic and there to rape her.  Of course, she has murdered her husband and spends the rest of her life in self-flagellation and prayer while her son is in the problematic position of having sworn to kill his mother to avenge his murdered father.


Other novels use confirmed incestuous desire as a mainspring of the plot.  Eliza Parsons’s The Castle of Wolfenbach begins its narrative with a species of father-daughter incest, but tracks backward in time—though within the same family unit—to the desire of a brother for a sister (or sister-in-law).  The orphan Matilda flees from her uncle Weimar, who has raised her but who now attempts to seduce her, showing her indecent drawings and “for ever seeking opportunities to caress [her]” (1: 29).  Although later he denies he’s her uncle and attempts to enforce a marriage, after he’s kidnapped her and they’re attacked by pirates, he finally admits not only that he’s her uncle but that, in love with his brother’s wife (Matilda’s mother), he killed his brother “by repeated stabs” (2: 160).  Incest is also the mainspring of The Mysterious Warning (also by Parsons).  Ferdinand’s wife Claudina is seduced by his half-brother Rhodophil.  But the family structure is even more complicated.  Claudina turns out to be the half sister of Ferdinand and Rodophil’s half sister Charlotte (also known as Fatima).  Again, the sins of the father create a world of fleshy complexity.  In a mysterious warning, Ferdinand hears a voice urging him to “Fly, fly from her arms, as you would avoid sin and death!” (51).  While the immediate cause for that warning is Claudina’s continuing relationship with his brother, their link through the father’s sexual adventuring, as yet unknown, is later seen as evidence of the forbidden nature of the marriage.  Further, Claudina’s father turns out to be Count M***’s brother, whom Ferdinand has rescued from a dungeon and who then becomes his best friend.


In these horrid novels, even as characters roam around France, Germany, Italy, Corsica, Morocco, Turkey, and England, the world collapses: everyone is related. Ferdinand meets his sister in a Turkish seraglio; in The Midnight Bell, the heroine Lauretta is abducted by a bandit named Ralberg, who turns out to be her father, Count Biroff, whose wife was in love with Frederic, the uncle of Lauretta’s husband Alphonsus.  Names change, identities shift, and relationships are in continual flux.  Guilt and alienation are the consequences of the sin.


In Northanger Abbey Austen flirts with these gothic suggestions.  General Tilney’s attentions to Catherine—“saying every thing gallant” and “admiring the elasticity of her walk, which corresponded exactly with the spirit of her dancing” (104)—are not read by Catherine as discomfiting.  She has yet to connect the “tall and handsome” (131) General with Montoni.  But the reader of the horrid novels might experience a foreboding of sexual entanglement.  Catherine looks at Frederick Tilney “with great admiration, and even supposed it possible, that some people might think him handsomer than his brother” (133).  The narrator quickly assures us, however, that “whatever might be our heroine’s opinion of him, his admiration of her was not of a very dangerous kind; not likely to produce animosities between the brothers, nor persecutions to the lady.  He cannot be the 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” (133).


But Frederick Tilney, like his gothic counterparts, does complicate the relationships of the novel.  Isabella’s engagement to James inspires the declaration of sisterhood between herself and Catherine, and the Thorpes design to strengthen, or double, that sisterhood with a marriage between Catherine and John Thorpe.  But as Catherine’s relationship with Henry Tilney progresses and Isabella sets her sights on Frederick, Isabella cryptically tells Catherine that “‘there are more ways than one of our being sisters’” (148)—suggesting a sisterly connection through their relationship with the Tilney brothers.  (It’s also significant that Henry, the brother of one principal and the potential suitor to the brother of another, facilitates the Frederick-Isabella entanglement even while discounting its seriousness.)  Even Eleanor, who says that Henry “‘is treating [Catherine] exactly as he does his sister’” (109), plays with the shrinking world of relationship as she suggests the substitution of Catherine for Isabella, matching Henry’s ironic description of the sister-in-law that Isabella Thorpe will be, “‘Open, candid, artless . . . ,’” with a comment on her preference for Catherine:  “‘Such a sister-in-law . . . I should delight in’” (212).  But although Jane Austen may entertain its possibilities, in Northanger Abbey she casts off the complications of affinity that characterize the gothic world:  Catherine and Isabella will not be sisters in any way at all.  These playful reminders of gothic incest serve mainly to distance the world in which Catherine lives from that which she will enter through books, to disarm—temporarily—the relevance of Austen’s gothic parody.




Money functions as another object of desire in the gothic, a motive for plotting and plot.  In Udolpho, Montoni marries Mme. Charron and imprisons Emily, controlling both her body and her prospects for marriage in order to gain a fortune.  In Miss Andrews’s horrid novels, money is often a motivating factor.  The Necromancer: or the Tale of the Black Forest presents what seems a series of ghost stories, supernatural manifestations that are later explained as the disguise for criminal activity.  Banditti roam the gothic landscape.  In The Mysterious Warning, a bandit who attempts to murder Ferdinand (one of a company that includes Ferdinand’s sister Fatima/Charlotte) tells him that their plan is “to leave off that trade, go over to England, set up for gentlemen, and take to the gaming-table” (351).


Most of the novels on Miss Andrews’s list contain at least one story of paternal greed enforcing the marriage of a daughter or son.  In The Midnight Bell, for example, Arieno compels his daughter Lauretta to marry Count Biroff rather than the man she loves, engendering a narrative of apparent betrayal, murder, and alienation.  The question of inheritance is another common element.  In Clermont, the villainous D’Alemberts, father and son, concoct a complex scheme of abductions and murders over two decades because the elder M. D’Alembert is “son to the Marquis of Montmorenci’s sister, and heir to his titles and fortunes if he died without children” (351).  The access of women to money is a matter of particular anxiety.  In The Mysterious Warning, Charlotte/Fatima “claims [her] right” (380) to the estates of Ferdinand’s father, “scorn[ing] to humble [her]self, or sue for favours” (386).  When the claim is revealed as a fabrication, she kills her co-conspirator and then plunges a dagger into her own bosom.  Matilda, heroine of The Castle of Wolfenbach, on the run with few resources, “burst[s] into tears on viewing the small quantity of necessaries she possessed” (1:11).  In a scene that might look forward to Eleanor Tilney’s thoughtful concern for Catherine, the countess imprisoned in the castle in which Matilda has taken refuge offers linen and money for the trip.


For money in these horrid novels can also be a marker of benevolence.  In The Castle of Wolfenbach, the Countess’s sister and brother-in-law, the Marquis and Marchioness de Melfort, with whom Matilda seeks refuge, claim her immediately as a “sister by adoption” (1:105), protect her, and ultimately provide for her.  When they settle a fortune on Matilda, she argues that the Countess has the natural claim to it; the Countess, however, argues that “the best claim to a generous mind, is being unfortunate with merit that deserves a better fate.  I think little of those favours which are bestowed from claims of affinity only; since family pride, the censure of the world, and many causes may unlock a heart to support their own consequence in their connexions, but the truly beneficent mind looks upon every child of sorrow as their relation, and entitled to their assistance” (2: 26-27).  So concerned is this novel with sharing wealth that when Weimar retires in penitence to a Carthusian monastery, Matilda even pays “the sum agreed upon” to Weimar’s assistant in her own kidnapping (2:198).


Northanger Abbey links and domesticates gothic and financial concerns.  The pocket-book from which Isabella reads Miss Andrews’s list of horrid novels is companion to the little book Mrs. Morland gives to Catherine to “try to keep some account of the money [she] spends” (11).  The mysterious manuscript Catherine finds in her room at the Abbey contains washing-bills, accounts for hair-powder and shoe-string, and a farrier’s bill (176-77).  Money also directs the financial schemes of the Thorpes.  John’s inflation of his friend Morland’s substance was at least partly responsible for Isabella’s particular interest; her disappointment in the provision Mr. Morland makes for their marriage leads directly into her flirtation with Frederick Tilney, an eldest son of a wealthy family.  Financial circumstances change, opinions alter.  General Tilney’s concern with money—both getting and spending—is one of his most gothic traits.  His claim that “‘he only valued money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children’” (211) is a fiction that would disguise a central irony of the novel:  Henry “ha[s] been directed to gain” Catherine’s heart and her supposed fortune (257).




Power in the horrid novels is arbitrary, it is accessible only to those with money, and, most frighteningly, its sources are invisible.  Comprised of murders, torture, periods of imprisonment, fraudulent marriages, gothic plots are set in dark forests, monasteries, ruined castles, homes—all places that suggest anxieties about social institutions.  Of particular relevance to Northanger Abbey are anxieties about the state and the family.


Austen’s novel most pointedly and comically evokes the link between the gothic and the political following Henry Tilney’s “lecture on the picturesque” with a “short disquisition on the state of the nation” and a “general pause” (112-13).  All roads lead to the gothic, but not only for Catherine.  The narrator pumps up the drama:  that pause is “put an end to by Catherine, who, in rather a solemn tone of voice, uttered these words, ‘I have heard that something very shocking indeed, will soon come out in London’” (113).  The information presumably comes from Isabella (a “‘particular friend’”), who has received “‘an account . . . in a letter from London’” (perhaps from that sweet Miss Andrews?).  Catherine’s explanation that “‘it’” will be “‘more horrible than any thing we have met with yet,’” that “‘it’” will be “‘uncommonly dreadful,’” including “‘murder and every thing of the kind’” speaks to the effect of the genre, despite glossing over the defining nouns.  The nouns Eleanor Tilney substitutes but doesn’t articulate demand “‘proper measures . . . taken by government to prevent its coming to effect’” (113).  Henry’s elaboration provides the specifics—and more:  “‘a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the 12th Light Dragoons, (the hopes of the nation,) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Capt. Frederick Tilney [here featuring in the role of hero], in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window’” (114-15).  “Catherine looked grave,” the narrator puns, as unwilling as Henry Tilney to let go of the fun of her gothic parody.


The social upheavals of the 1790s were reflected, of course, in the gothic though the political stances varied (sometimes even within the same novel).  The bandits of The Midnight Bell are enemies to tyranny and brothers in affliction.  In The Necromancer, Wolf, the Captain of the Gang, explains his outlawry with a narrative of social dispossession that looks forward to the story of Victor Frankenstein’s creature.  In both novels, however, the possibilities of community and brotherhood are defeated and ultimately treated with skepticism.  The reach of the illuminati in Horrid Mysteries terrifies:  Carlos is haunted by the “radiant splendor” of Amanuel, who tells him, “You are surrounded everywhere with invisible spies” (13).  In The Midnight Bell a lettre de cachet—a means in pre-Revolutionary France by which one could be arrested and imprisoned without recourse—confines Count Biroff in the Bastille; in The Castle of Wolfenbach, Matilda escapes the power of a similar letter by going to England.


Indeed contemporary England, for Parsons, serves as a model of benevolence, liberty, and reason set against the legally and socially sanctioned violence of the continent.  The Count De Bouville, in love with Matilda and chafing against the imprisoning codes of French society, is enthusiastic in his praises of the English:


I consider the English as the happiest people under the sun: . . . they enjoy the blessings of a mild and free government; their personal safety is secured by the laws; no man can be punished for an imaginary crime, they have fair trials, confront their accusers, can even object to a partial jury. . . . Very few, if any, suffer but for actual crimes, adduced from the clearest proofs.  (1: 145-46)


And there’s more.  De Bouville here instructs Matilda in the comforting protections England’s legal system provides.  Has Henry Tilney read The Castle of Wolfenbach?  Compare his challenge to Catherine, who would make of his family narrative a horrid novel.


“Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. . . . Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?  Do our laws connive at them?  Could they be perpetrated without being 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?”  (203)


These energetic questions are perhaps more convincing than flat assertion, but they are also more ambiguous.3  Though we may discount Catherine’s theory of Mrs. Tilney’s nine-year imprisonment and sustenance on coarse food, Henry’s questions leave open spaces wherein to write the narrative of domestic tyranny.


That narrative is central to the novels on Miss Andrews’s list.  Both The Castle of Wolfenbach and The Mysterious Warning contain stories of women imprisoned for years by jealous husbands.  The Critical Review traces The Castle of Wolfenbach’s story of imprisonment to “the adventure of the duchess de C. in the Theodore and Adelaide of Madame de Genlis” (49)—a text closely connected, as Gillian Dow has demonstrated, to the fiction Catherine invents in Northanger Abbey.  In each case, the husband suspects his wife of infidelity because their marriage has been enforced by a tyrannical father.  In The Mysterious Warning, the suspicion is valid.  Eugenia is compelled to marry Baron S*** but internally takes vows to remain faithful to Count M***.  She elopes with M*** and lives as his wife until Baron S*** accidentally discovers their whereabouts and imprisons them and their young child.  The Baron’s memoir recounts in grotesque detail the first eight years of their twelve-year imprisonment during which the child dies.  At the Baron’s death, Ferdinand frees them from their chains but not to happiness together:  Eugenia retires to a convent while M*** returns to the world with Ferdinand; Eugenia’s eventual death frees him to marry at the novel’s end.


Perhaps because of the prevalence of masculine tyranny, in the gothic there are no mothers who can hold on to both life and their children.  In Clermont, the Countess de Merville, who becomes Madeline’s guardian and acts a mother to her, is murdered.  In The Midnight Bell, Anna banishes her son while she remains in a moldering castle, repenting the murder of her husband.  In The Castle of Wolfenbach mothers are separated from their children through imprisonment (in the case of the Countess) or because of the substitution of the child (in the case of Matilda).  The happy ending punishes the tyrannical fathers and reunites mothers and children.



These novels also suggest the national significance of paternal tyranny.  Arieno, of The Midnight Bell, not only forces his daughter to marry for gain but also embezzles money from the state, for which he’s ultimately executed.  General Tilney, with his military status and political interest, not to mention his separation of his daughter from “the most charming young man in the world” (260), is cast in this mold:  the domestic tyrant who “‘por[es] over the affairs of the nation’” (193) late into the night.


But though husbands and fathers are apt to be tyrannical, and though the laws of the country fail to protect women, Miss Andrews’s horrid novels do not argue for revolution either in the family or in the state.  Mrs. Parsons’s The Mysterious Warning characteristically has it both ways, affirming and challenging the exercise of parental authority.  After the death of Claudina and Rhodophil, Ferdinand marries the perfect Miss D’Alenberg:  “generally speaking, those marriages, contracted contrary to the wishes of parents, influenced chiefly by transient personal charms, and hurried on by rash tumultuous passions, seldom fail to be productive of sorrow, regret and reproach—perhaps of punishment and shame” (302).  But Eugenia’s death also provokes a moral:


From her melancholy story may be deduced two observations of equal importance to society; when a parent exercises an undue authority over his child, and compels her to give a reluctant hand without a heart; by giving his sanction in the outset to deception and perjury; he has little to expect but that the consequences will be fatal to her honour and happiness.

A parent has an undoubted right to a negative voice, to persuade, to reason, and direct a young and unexperienced mind; but to force a child to the altar, from motives of ambition, interest, or to gratify any selfish passions, too generally lays the foundation for that indifference, and neglect of the domestic duties, which terminates in folly, vice, and the ruin of all social happiness.  (302-03)


With characteristic economy, Austen’s narrator echoes and subverts these improving sentiments.  She concludes her novel with neither a clear moral statement in support of parental authority nor even a self-conflicted one (à la Parsons) but instead “leave[s] 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” (261).



Will Catherine ever read the books on Miss Andrews’s list?  After Henry Tilney’s rebuke, Catherine’s interest in the gothic, perforce, wanes:  “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, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for” (205).  For Catherine, the visions of romance are over, replaced by Woodston’s domestic idyll.  But for Austen, gothic language and gothic conventions retain their power as she reveals the real gothic tyrannies of General Tilney, their effect on his daughter and even on her friend.  More comically, as the gothic hero suddenly (though very tardily) wakens to resistance, Jane Austen exploits the pleasures in the fulfillment of those gothic expectations.  Perhaps the torment of those unstable ironies of Chapters Six and Seven with which I began might be explained as the designs of a teasing narrator, who tempts us to dismiss the pleasures and profits of the horrid, then resolutely and perfectly reinvents them.





1. These were Eliza Parsons’s Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), Regina Maria Roche’s Clermont (1798), Eliza Parsons’s The Mysterious Warning (1796), Lawrence Flammenberg’s The Necromancer: or the Tale of the Black Forest (1794), Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine (1798), and Carl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796).


2. Andrew Davies’s adaptation of the novel (2007) does include such pleasures, breaking down the distinction between the sexualized world of the gothic and the experiences of Isabella Thorpe and, to some degree, even Catherine, both in Bath and in the midland counties.


3. Diane Long Hoeveler attributes to this speech a “smug enlightenment attitude” (133); Claudia Johnson characterizes Henry as possessing “unquestioning confidence in his focality and the breadth of his understanding” (37).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____Northanger Abbey.  Ed. Barbara M. Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Bander, Elaine.  “Reading Mysteries at Bath and Northanger.”  Persuasions 32 (2010): 46-59.

Botting, Fred.  Gothic.  The New Critical Idiom.  London: Routledge, 1996.

Davies, Andrew.  Northanger Abbey.  ITV/Grenada with WGBH, 2007.

Dow, Gillian.  “Northanger Abbey, French Fiction, and the Affecting History of the Duchess of C***.”  Persuasions 32 (2010): 28-45.

Flammenberg, Lawrence.  The Necromancer: or the Tale of the Black Forest: Founded on Facts. In Two Volumes.  Trans. Peter Teuthold.  London: William Lane, at the Minerva-Press, 1794.

Grosse, Carl.  Horrid Mysteries  A Story.  Trans. P. Will.  1796.  The Northanger Set of Jane Austen Horrid Novels.  Intro. Devendra Varma.  London: Folio P, 1968.

Haney, John Louis.  Letter to the Editors.  Modern Language Notes 16.7 (Nov. 1901): 446-48.

Hoeveler, Diane.  “Vindicating Northanger Abbey: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Gothic Feminism.”  Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.  117-37.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Lathom, Francis.  The Midnight Bell, A German Story, Founded on Incidents in Real Life.  1798.  Intro. David Punter.  Kansas City: Valancourt, 2007.

Parsons, Eliza.  Castle of Wolfenbach; A German Story In Two Volumes.  London: William Lane, at the Minerva Press, 1793.

_____.  The Mysterious Warning, A German Tale.  1796.  Ed. Karen Morton.  Kansas City: Valancourt, 2008.

Rev. of Clermont. A Tale.  By Regina Maria Roche.  Critical Review ser. 2, 24 (Nov. 1798): 356.

Rev. of The Castle of Wolfenbach; a German Story.  By Mrs. Parsons.  Critical Review ser. 2, 10 (Jan. 1794): 49-52.

Rev. of The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents. A Romance.  By Ann Radcliffe.  Critical Review ser. 2, 23 (June 1798): 166-69.

Rev. of The Mysteries of Udolpho, a Romance; interspersed with some Pieces of Poetry.  By Ann Radcliffe.  Critical Review ser. 2, 11 (Aug. 1794): 361-72.

Roche, Regina Maria.  Clermont. A Tale.  1798.  Ed. Natalie Schroeder.  Chicago: Valancourt, 2006.

Sadleir, Michael.  “‘All Horrid?’ Jane Austen and the Gothic romance.”  Things Past.  London: Constable, 1944.  167-200.

_____.  The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen.  English Association Pamphlet No. 68.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1927.

Saintsbury, George.  Introduction.  Tales of Mystery.  The Pocket Library of English Literature.  Ed. George Saintsbury.  New York: Macmillan, 1891.  vii-xxix.

Sleath, Eleanor.  The Orphan of the Rhine. A Romance.  1798.  [U.K.]: Dodo P, 2009.

Ty, Eleanor.  “Catherine’s Real and Imagined Fears: What Happens to Female Bodies in Gothic Castles.”  Persuasions 20 (1998): 248-69.

Wallace, Tara Ghoshal.  Jane Austen and Narrative Authority.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

Williams, Anne.  Art of Darkness.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.


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