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Her Dark Materials: The Gothic Novel as Socio-Political Critique in Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is far more complex than it might seem. This statement would ring true for most of Jane Austen’s novels, but particularly so for this one, since a surprising number of readers and critics seem to consider the text simply in terms of its “layers of parody,” treating it as nothing more than a light-hearted spoof (Rehn). The mistake is a fatal one. While Austen is engaged in pointing out the absurdity of many Gothic conventions throughout the novel, this is far from her only concern with the form. Rather, her work is simultaneously a critique and a defense of books like The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk. From this seeming opposition, Austen synthesizes a new Gothic—one marked primarily by her incisive social commentary, which sharply criticizes the passive “damsel in distress” status of previous Gothic heroines, along with the commodification of women on the “marriage market.” For her characters, the Gothic’s haunted castles and spectres are nothing compared to the very real societal horrors of the Regency, its gendered power structure and ideology. This motif is exemplified not only in Northanger Abbey, with General Tilney as the arch-Gothic villain and exploiter, but in Sense and Sensibility, where the logic of coercion and dehumanization this society relies on is thrown into sharp relief by Eliza Williams’ tragic end. Far from a harmless parody, then, Northanger Abbey marks a turning point, where Jane Austen injected the Gothic with a new level of social, political, and economic critique—a tradition that endures to this day.

As a Gothic text, Northanger Abbey begins from a marginal position in the literary landscape of the 1810s. While works of Gothic horror enjoyed widespread popular success, they were not generally considered “real” literature, since they drew a certain stigma along gender and class lines. At a time when the appropriateness of female authorship itself was very much disputed, the form’s most famous living exponent was Ann Radcliffe, whose 1794 hit The Mysteries of Udolpho is mentioned no fewer than eighteen times in Northanger Abbey. A close second was Eliza Parsons, known for The Castle of Wolfenbach. Not only did female authors predominate, but the primary audience for their novels were also women, since housewives and their unmarried daughters were the demographic most likely to have free time for reading. This made the Gothic a rare example of a female-dominated cultural space within a viciously patriarchal society overall.

Small wonder, then, that the genre drew the scorn of male critics, who largely considered Gothic narratives to be nothing more than sensationalist trash. John Thorpe’s attitude, claiming to Catherine that “Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one since Tom Jones, except the Monk” is typical of mainstream criticism of the early 19th Century (Northanger Abbey 31). Not only does his condescending disparagement of the literature Catherine enjoys display a certain chauvinism by itself, but he chooses two male authors—Henry Fielding and Matthew Lewis, respectively—as his only examples of “decent” material, suggesting that literally every female writer since 1796 has produced only “nonsense and stuff.” Crucially, of course, the scene portrays Thorpe as an ignorant boor, contributing to Catherine’s ultimate realization that he is “quite disagreeable” (Northanger Abbey 46). Again, Austen’s palpable disdain for the man and his unsolicited opinions is more complex than it seems—Thorpe’s sexism is the symptom of a much wider problem, systemic to the environment Austen finds herself in. By denigrating women’s cultural products, Thorpe and his counterparts in the real world implicitly reinforce a system of male hegemony. This, more than anything else, is the social horror at the heart of Northanger Abbey.

Given the marginal status of the Gothic, then, it is all the more remarkable that Austen stands firmly in favor of it. Here Catherine Morland is the key, becoming the avatar of her author’s literary viewpoint in many scenes—when she revels in the “luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination” inspired by Gothic fiction, the description has the ring of personal experience, suggesting that Austen herself had at some point shared her creation’s fervor (Northanger Abbey 33). In addition, both Austen and Catherine demonstrate an intimate knowledge of horror stories, naming obscure titles like Peter Teuthold’s Necromancer of the Black Forest among a list of favorites (Northanger Abbey 24). Even in 1803, when Austen initially completed the manuscript of Northanger Abbey, Teuthold was hardly a household name—indeed, he was thought to be a figment of Austen’s imagination for many years, until his works were rediscovered in 1926 (Frank 291). Had Austen merely meant to lampoon the Gothic, she would have stuck to the examples her readership would be most familiar with, such as Radcliffe and (perhaps) Horace Walpole, the genre’s progenitor. By mentioning the works of minor figures like Teuthold, she reveals herself to be not just a critic, but a fan.

The pro-Gothic stance Austen adopts in these scenes could have exposed her to a very real societal stigma, reducing her ability to be taken seriously as an artist. To risk it, she must have felt strongly that the genre, and its readers, were worth defending from their attackers. In Northanger Abbey’s notorious “defense of the novel” monologue, she does precisely that, completely abandoning the story in progress to deliver a page-long diatribe in praise of the form. The passage is characterized by a frustrated, combative attitude toward the self-appointed arbiters of good taste, who “talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans” (Northanger Abbey 22). Austen’s adamant refusal to join in with their consensus is matched only by her subtle mockery of their pretensions, shown in the use of the word “threadbare;” meanwhile, her appeal to “Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” might well be addressed to Radcliffe and Parsons themselves (22). Austen explicitly shows solidarity with the female novelists who have been unfairly maligned in the press through her emphatic use of “us” and “one another,” making their cause her own. More than a personal statement, the “defense of the novel” is an anti-sexist political intervention.

Austen’s engagement with gender politics also extends to the concept of the Gothic heroine. Historically, Gothic novels gave their female protagonists little or no agency, a tendency that can be traced to their origin with Horace Walpole’s 1764 publication of The Castle of Otranto. Walpole’s protagonist, Isabella, is a classic “damsel in distress” archetype, permitted only to find herself in danger, scream, flee, and be rescued or protected by various male characters. More than her passivity, Isabella is also a supremely flat character—it would be difficult to pin down a single aspect of her personality, other than her desire to marry the male hero. Taken together, this treatment would (unfortunately) become the template for the Gothic as it moved forward, with Radcliffe, Parsons and others creating a legion of insipid heroines in the Isabella mold. While the tacit sexism involved is perhaps unsurprising, coming from the pen of a 47-year-old Whig MP, it is glaring to modern eyes—and perhaps to Austen’s eyes, since Walpole is notably absent from her list of Catherine’s favorite texts. Northanger Abbey then, can be read as a direct response to this history of poor gender representation.

From the narrative’s opening pages, Catherine’s attributes and history are defined in sharp contrast to the traditional Gothic heroine. Where a Walpole or Radcliffe protagonist might be expected to emerge from a dark, turbulent family history, with an abundance of skeletons in her proverbial closet, Catherine’s situation is very much the opposite. Her father, as the text dryly notes, is “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters”, and her mother has survived, rather than “dying in bringing [Catherine] into the world, as anyone might expect” (Northanger Abbey 5). These ironic asides serve to illustrate the way certain Gothic novels overstate their atmosphere of gloom and tragedy to the point of ridiculousness, and establish a sharp break with the genre as it had existed thus far.

Drawing on her almost unrivaled powers of characterization, Austen emphasizes the flaws of traditional Gothic heroines by inverting them in her own protagonist. Firmly establishing a proto-feminist voice, she highlights the fact that Catherine Morland is “fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket . . . to dolls”, “could not bear” musical instruction, and “loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house” (Northanger Abbey 5-6). This description does not so much contradict the Regency’s established gender norms, as gleefully set fire to them, expanding the boundaries of what a heroine can be. Compare Catherine, for instance, to The Mysteries of Udolpho’s Emily St. Aubert, who is known first and foremost by her “elegant symmetry of form”, “delicacy of features”, and “blue eyes, full of tender sweetness”—where Radcliffe’s protagonist exists mainly as a visual object for the male gaze, Austen’s reads as a real, relatable human being with her own flaws and complexities (Radcliffe 9). In addition, Catherine has far more agency in the plot that unfolds—she makes things happen, however misguidedly, while St. Aubert is usually portrayed as a passive victim.

Thus, as Northanger Abbey unfolds it becomes clear that Austen has combined two seemingly opposite impulses. First, she upholds the inherent value and potential of the Gothic novel against its harshest attackers, insisting on its status as a legitimate art form—this can be taken as a thesis. Then, she refuses to simply accept the genre as it currently exists, and acts herself as a ruthless critic of its worst tendencies—this can be read as an antithesis. To complete the Hegelian dialectic, she defines both her criticism and her defense in terms of social and political critique, highlighting the role of women in horror fiction—and by extension, in society itself. The result is a synthesis greater than the sum of its parts, staunchly opposed to the sexism that had haunted the Gothic genre since its origins with Walpole.

In successive chapters, Austen increasingly uses the familiar tropes of Gothic horror—particularly the fixation with hidden spaces and buried secrets—in service of her socially-conscious project, addressing the repressive societal structures that women were forced to live under in the 19th Century. One particularly instructive example of this practice comes in the famous “laundry bill” scene, when Catherine breaks into a locked cabinet, expecting it to contain the “awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun” or “memoirs of the wretched Matilda”—in other words, evidence that a woman had been subjected to ghastly mistreatment of some sort (Northanger Abbey 96, 109). Instead, she finds only a stack of laundry bills. This scene is deceptively simple—while it can be read as simply a humorous puncturing of Catherine’s Gothic delusions, there is more going on beneath the surface. As Laura Baudot points out, the way the cabinet hides the bills from view reflects the way in which the polite exterior of the Regency era conceals its underlying economic realities (Baudot 332). Everything in the novel, from its stately mansions to the behavior of its characters, exists as a result of exchanging commodities and labor—a fact which results in some very particular horrors for women, who were often treated as commodities themselves, or exploited as unpaid domestic workers after marriage (particularly for gender-coded forms of labor, such as laundry). With this seemingly comic revelation, Austen is actually hinting—very subtly—at the monstrosity of the existing social order.

This idea of Regency social relations as fundamentally horrific blossoms fully with the introduction of General Tilney in Volume II. Initially a somewhat ambiguous figure, he soon becomes the embodiment of the sexist and exploitative norms that Austen wishes to critique, even as he reveals himself to be a Gothic villain of the worst sort. To begin with, Catherine’s assumption that he may have murdered his wife is more reasonable than it might seem. In a nation that produced Henry VIII, it is certainly true that the lives of women were often treated as disposable, and that wealthy men could get away with spousal abuse and violence if they so desired. But even with the revelation that the General is innocent of that particular charge, there is still a dark secret lurking just beneath the surface.

It transpires that the General has only been entertaining Catherine at the Abbey on the false assumption (given to him by the duplicitous Mr. Thorpe) that she possesses considerable wealth, which would become Henry’s in the event of their marrying (Northanger Abbey 168). Upon discovering that she does not, he turns her out immediately, without giving her so much as a carriage to take her home. This decision, while it may seem mundane, hides a world of callousness, prejudice, and cruelty. The roads of the English countryside were by no means safe at this time in history, and a woman traveling alone might be subjected to robbery, assault, or worse—but the General does not care. For him, Catherine has no worth whatsoever as a person, only as a number of pounds per year—and when that number dips below an acceptable threshold, he throws her away like so much garbage, emphasizing “his resentment towards herself, and his contempt for her family” (Northanger Abbey 168). This is the leering skull under the skin of the Regency, that Austen’s Gothic so ably uncovers. Its society is founded on the commodification of women and marriage, and the utter disdain of the ruling class for its perceived inferiors.

Austen evidently found this theme of exploitation a compelling one, for she returned to it in 1811’s Sense and Sensibility through Eliza Williams’s tragic history. Here, General Tilney finds a kindred spirit in Eliza’s nameless uncle, who forces her to marry against her will—again, entirely to gain her material wealth. This event destroys her life, as she is torn away from her true love, Colonel Brandon, and left at the mercy of a man whose “pleasures were not what they ought to have been” and who “from the first . . . treated her unkindly” (Sense and Sensibility 146). The choice of words strongly implies some form of domestic abuse and/or sadism, echoing the violent undertones of the rumors about Tilney. Where Catherine escapes unharmed from her brush with the General, Eliza is not so lucky—she is eventually driven to divorce her husband, and dies in the most abject poverty. Colonel Brandon, too, is haunted by this tragedy, and refuses to speak of it for many years, embodying the Gothic archetype of the gentleman with a dark secret in his past. Both are the victims of a malevolent economic force beyond their control, namely the transactional and class-ridden nature of marriage in this era. This is a horror far more disturbing than any number of creaking skeletons and sinister castles; through her Gothic critique, Austen forces her audience to confront the fact that their society is inherently unjust, willing to cause untold human misery to preserve established wealth and patriarchal power.

In the years that followed, Austen’s use of socio-political commentary in the Gothic took root, both in the literary community as a whole and with female authors in particular. Using a similar subtlety of metaphor, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Perkins Gilman used Gothic horror narratives to critique the role of women in the Victorian era, particularly the latter with her notorious story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892. For them, Gothic monstrosity proved to be a powerful weapon against the worst oppressions of their time, a tradition which can be seen emerging directly from the gates of Northanger Abbey. Other figures broadened the field of critique beyond gender, including Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, which leans heavily on the Gothic repression of the LGBT experience in British society. It is easy to forget that this genre has not always dealt with such subjects—and that Jane Austen, largely unrecognized, was among the first pioneers.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey, edited by Susan Fraiman, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility, edited by Claudia J. Johnson, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
  • Baudot, Laura. “‘Nothing Really in It’: Gothic Interiors and the Externals of the Courtship Plot in Northanger Abbey.” Eighteenth Century Fiction, vol. 24, no. 2, Fall 2012, pp. 325–352.
  • Frank, Frederick S. “Gothic Gold: The Sadleir-Black Gothic Collection.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol.26, 1998, pp. 287–312.
  • Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. New York, Penguin Classics, 2001.
  • Rehn, Andrea. “‘Hastening Together to Perfect Felicity’: Teaching the British Gothic Tradition through Parody and Role-Playing.” Persuasions On-Line 34.2 (2014).
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