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Epistolary Machinations in the Female Gothic: Northanger Abbey and the “Horrid” Novels

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe expresses her delight in Catherine Morland’s immersion in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, listing seven more novels for their future mutual enjoyment—“‘Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries’” (40).  Catherine inquires, “‘are you sure they are horrid?’” before consenting to Isabella’s reading itinerary.  “Horrid” here means the “dreadful pleasure” (Skinner 230) that the reader experiences when absorbed in gothic tales of heroines in constant danger of being murdered, kidnapped, imprisoned, raped, or forced into marriage.  Part of the novels’ horridness lies in the preponderance of nefarious epistolary deceptions that endanger female characters.  Austen plays with this gothic convention in Northanger Abbey when her narrator introduces Mrs. Allen as one who “will, probably, contribute to reduce poor Catherine to all the desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is capable—whether by her imprudence, vulgarity, or jealousy—whether by intercepting her letters, ruining her character, or turning her out of doors” (20, emphasis added).  The social danger of interference with epistolary relationships is here equated with the destruction of reputations and expulsion from home.  While Mrs. Allen refrains from these villainous deeds, letters do play key roles in Austen’s novel and the gothic novels it satirizes, revealing dangers to women both mundane and extreme, and providing heroines opportunities to exercise agency.

Scholars have probed Austen’s novel to elucidate her use and destabilization of gothic leitmotifs, yet the discourse of and about letters and gender in Northanger Abbey in relation to the “horrid” novels has not been examined.  To address this gap, I want to explore the reflections and refractions of epistolary discourse in Northanger Abbey and the women-authored “horrid” novels mentioned therein, including Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Eliza Parson’s The Mysterious Warning: A German Tale (1796) and Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) by Eleanor Sleath, and Clermont: A Tale (1798) by Regina Maria Roche.  While epistolary villainy in these novels highlights acute dangers to women living in a gender hierarchy, subversive female epistolarity allows characters to mitigate patriarchal dominance, leading to a collective ambiguity surrounding female power in this gothic body of work.  Finally, an alternate reading of Isabella’s letter to Catherine exposes the everyday, but nonetheless “horrid,” economic and social dangers for impoverished, fatherless women in her patriarchal culture. 

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The writing of familiar letters constituted an essential aspect of women’s social agency during the long eighteenth century, in part because this domestic duty was a potentially empowering, socially acceptable form of female self-expression.  Relationships could be maintained or destroyed within “epistolary space”—“that intangible space that is set up between two people who write to each other—and into which they project that writing” (How 192) both in actual letters and in epistolary novels.  Austen illustrates the destabilizing possibilities of the epistolary form in Lady Susan in which the title character uses letters as “a means of force rather than passivity” to negotiate her position and power in her patriarchal culture (Spacks 89, 96).  Indeed, letters within the context of women’s culture served as a “safety valve” (Kaplan 82) for the larger patriarchal culture by providing an acceptable outlet for women’s subversive impulses of discontent and dissent within their gender hierarchy. 

The familiar letter therefore constituted a crucial link within “the homosocial context of the eighteenth-century female friendship” (May 119), such that young women were expected to write consistently to their friends and family, utilizing letter-writing manuals to improve their skills.  Thus in Northanger Abbey, when Mrs. Morland says her goodbyes to Catherine before her visit to Bath, the narrator states, “It is remarkable, however, that she neither insisted on Catherine’s writing by every post, nor extracted her promise of transmitting the character of every new acquaintance, nor a detail of every interesting conversation that Bath might produce” (19).  Austen here pokes fun at this societal expectation that young women will generate epistolary triviality.  Henry Tilney continues the joke when he tells Catherine that “‘[e]very body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female’” and that “‘the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars . . . :  [a] general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar’” (27), implying letters written by women are in fact not “agreeable” but are instead insipid and incoherent. 

Henry’s complaint aligns with the general understanding that young women themselves were “inherently emotional and irrational” (Jerinic 145) and is representative of the movement against sensibility in the late eighteenth century.  Samuel Richardson’s letter-writing manual is an example of this backlash in that it promotes a plain, direct style of writing that “encourages character traits such as rationality, clear-headedness, and modesty” (Myers 391), while “empty flourishes and incoherent rhapsodies are tools of morally degenerate faculties” (382).  The former was associated with men and the latter with women letter-writers, but the epistolary discourse in Northanger Abbey complicates these historical gender stereotypes through the importance of epistolarity in female friendships. 

Isabella damages her friendship with Catherine after failing to write to her at the Abbey in a timely manner.  She tells Catherine, “‘so you are going to Northanger! . . . I shall depend upon a most particular description of it,’” and Catherine replies, “‘You shall certainly have the best in my power to give’” (143), constituting her promise to write and maintain their relationship despite distance.  Catherine becomes frustrated when Isabella fails to uphold her end of their epistolary bargain despite receiving two letters from Catherine: 

She was quite impatient to know how the Bath world went on, and how the Rooms were attended; and especially was she anxious to be assured of Isabella’s having matched some fine netting-cotton, on which she had left her intent; and of her continuing on the best terms with James.  (201) 

Catherine’s concern for Isabella’s relationship with James is listed almost as an afterthought to more trivial matters, yet Catherine’s “only dependence for information of any kind was on Isabella” (201) due to James’s and Mrs. Allen’s reluctance to engage in the work of epistolary communication.  Isabella’s abrogation of the letter-writing relationship disappoints and sequesters Catherine, laying the foundation for her rejection of Isabella when she finally does receive a letter from her.  Catherine’s refusal to reply to Isabella’s subsequent letter is a denial of friendship that is, in part, retribution for Isabella’s epistolary tardiness. 

Catherine temporarily endangers her friendship with Eleanor Tilney on the morning of her expulsion from the Abbey when she hesitates in agreeing to a writing relationship.  Eleanor pleads, “‘You must write to me, Catherine. . . . Let me have the satisfaction of knowing that you are safe at Fullerton, and have found your family well, and then, till I can ask for your correspondence as I ought to do, I will not expect more’” (228).  Catherine responds with, “‘No, Eleanor, if you are not allowed to receive a letter from me, I am sure I had better not write’” (228).  Eleanor is blameless in Catherine’s forced departure, yet Catherine at first refuses to agree to her epistolary proposal, a refusal that would mean an end to their friendship.  Catherine relents when faced with Eleanor’s sadness, and on the morning after she arrives home, Catherine is overwhelmed at the thought of writing “a letter which Eleanor might not be pained by the perusal of—and, above all, which she might not blush herself, if Henry should chance to see,” and decides that “to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety” (235–36), contradicting the stereotype of thoughtlessness and incoherent triviality in young women’s letters.  She also has what Sara Crangle calls a “hovering audience” influencing her epistolarity (434).  While Catherine’s style is likely plain and direct in her brevity, the anxiety she experiences at writing a letter that meets so many requirements prevents her from expressing her feelings and thus stifles her ability to communicate—a further indication of her awareness of the importance of letters in maintaining relationships.  Emotional well-being and health of female friendships rest on the writing or not writing of letters in the novel, and while elements of frippery appear in the epistolarity of the characters, Catherine does not always exhibit the “incoherent rhapsodies” Richardson cautions against. 

Susan Allen Ford finds in Lady Susan that letters “are as liable to convey misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and mistakes between correspondents as they are to convey legible or transparent truths,” a potentiality also realized in Northanger Abbey to the disadvantage of its female characters.  James Morland is a reluctant letter-writer, leading him to elide important information when he writes to his sister about his visit to John Thorpe’s house, where he met Isabella. “‘You hardly mentioned any thing of her, when you wrote to me after your visit there’” (50), Catherine tells him after his arrival in Bath.  James’s epistolary brevity prevents Catherine from understanding Isabella’s interest in becoming her friend—as the sister of the man Isabella hopes to tempt into a proposal of marriage—and misleads Catherine into thinking James has come to Bath to see his sister, an assumption James does not correct as he enjoys Catherine’s gratitude.  This episode highlights the inability of letters to reveal the whole truth and the potential of taking advantage of such ambiguity for social gain. 

John Thorpe sends a letter to Isabella misrepresenting Catherine as accepting his allusions to their betrothal with “‘the most positive encouragement’” (144) when she was merely being polite in her goodbyes.  Catherine earnestly denies loving or flirting with Mr. Thorpe, but Isabella doubts her sincerity, insisting that John “‘says so in this letter, says that he as good as made you an offer, and that you received his advances in the kindest way, . . . [s]o it is in vain to affect ignorance’” (144).  Isabella believes her brother’s construction of Catherine over Catherine’s own assertions, which Isabella characterizes as an affectation typical of an overly modest female, providing an example of letters used as evidence against female characters within the context of patriarchal norms.  A mirror episode occurs when James writes to Catherine to inform her that his engagement to Isabella is broken because of Isabella’s duplicitous flirtations with Captain Tilney, whom James assumes Isabella will marry.  James’s construction of Isabella directly influences Catherine’s reaction to Isabella’s subsequent letter to her in which she portrays herself as innocent, James as mistaken in her conduct, and Captain Tilney as a cad.  The result is that Catherine “was ashamed of Isabella, and ashamed of having ever loved her” (218).  In both cases, the construction of the female character by a male letter-writer influences the female letter-reader’s perceptions, revealing the patriarchal impact on this feminine-gendered activity. 

The epistolary machinations in Northanger Abbey are subtle but nonetheless question the ability of letters to reveal their authors’ characters and expose their potential for deceit at the expense of women.  These qualities of epistolarity corroborate Claudia Johnson’s assertion that the “moral and physical coercion of powerless females which figures so predominantly in gothic fiction is here transposed to the daytime world of drawing room manners, where it can be shown for the everyday occurrence it is” (37).  Thus it is an example of the “female gothic,” which “articulated women’s dissatisfactions with patriarchal society” (Smith and Wallace 1), and “give[s] voice to the female condition:  the condition of being an outsider to male society” (Marinovich 190).  In essence, female gothic novels expose societal gender inequalities. Northanger Abbey evokes and plays with gothic tropes and conventions, and it alludes to other gothic novels.  Miriam Rheingold Fuller asserts that Northanger Abbey represents a particular brand of the female gothic—the “domestic gothic,” the purpose of which “is to underscore the realistic, but seemingly innocuous, dangers and misfortunes that beset Catherine and Eleanor” (92), whether they be social, financial, or sexual. 

All of these gothic novels highlight “the moral and physical coercion of powerless females” (Johnson 37), even in feminine domestic spaces and activities such as writing letters, through what Thomas Beebee calls “an epistolary Gothic, where villains are waiting to intercept and forge communications at every turn” (72).  The “horrid” novels cited in Northanger Abbey abound with epistolary machinations used to manipulate female characters, thus exposing the patriarchal prerogative—the real danger to women in Austen’s society. 

Purposeful misdirection of personal letters by gothic villains obfuscates communication and removes the heroine’s agency in her relationships through isolation, paving the way for more sinister gothic tropes.  The virtuous heroine of Udolpho, Emily St. Aubert, for example, never receives the letter in which Valancourt, her hero, “propose[s] a clandestine marriage” (Radcliffe 149), because her aunt, Madame Montoni, intercepts the epistle at the behest of her husband, Signor Montoni, who burns it.  Emily is “afflicted” (150) by the epistolary silence of her lover, but she knows her aunt and uncle are to blame and is powerless to stop them.  In a similar fashion in The Orphan of the Rhine, the jealous Marchese de Montferrat steals a letter meant for the heroine, Laurette, in which her lover, Enrico, explains his continued absence.  The deprivation of this communication distresses and isolates Laurette, heightening her vulnerability to the Marchese’s advances and thus the gothic themes of rape and unwanted marriage. 

Beyond merely intercepting letters, some gothic villains resort to trickery and using letters as “evidence” against the women they wish to bend to their will.  In Udolpho, Emily receives a letter from Valancourt detailing the disturbing news that Quesnel, Emily’s maternal uncle, has rented out La Vallée, her home in France, without consulting her (Radcliffe 193).  Quesnel denies Emily the information necessary to give “voice” to her will, bypassing her agency, and instead exhibits “the absolute authority he thought himself entitled to exercise in her affairs” (195) due to her gender. Montoni uses Emily’s preoccupation with La Vallée to deceive her into writing her acceptance of a marriage proposal to a man she does not esteem—Count Morano—by making her think she is writing her dismay and reluctant concession in the matter of La Vallée to Quesnel.  Montoni is later able to use her written words against her when she again refuses Morano’s advances.  Montoni affects surprise, accuses Emily of caprice, and exclaims that she “shall adhere to the declaration, which you have made me an agent to convey to the Count,” constructing her written words as a contract against which she cannot operate, and herself as inconstant (198).  Montoni knowingly exacerbates the epistolary transgression by refusing to write another letter disabusing Quesnel of Emily’s apparent submission to Morano’s proposal, instead constructing Emily as a fickle and weak female through her epistolary actions. 

A letter used as evidence against an innocent female character in Eliza Parsons’s The Mysterious Warning highlights the social anxiety surrounding truth.  The mistress of Count Renaud bears false witness in an anonymous letter to the Countess, implicating the guiltless Caroline and the Count in an affair.  The Countess uses the letter as validation of her jealousy and as an excuse for hitting Caroline and damaging her reputation.  The Count declares the letter to be evidence of the Countess’s diabolical ingratitude, while the Countess, in response, insists that “that letter shall be produced as my justification” for her actions against Caroline (31).  Like letters deployed as evidence in trials against eighteenth-century women, the letter was “made to fit oppositional readings” in an era of “debates about letters and their powers of truth-telling” in an effort to manipulate, construct, and throw blame on women (Brant 60–61). 

Villains also use letters to gain power over their innocent victims by denying heroines the right to write.  Mr. Weimar forces the long-suffering heroine of Eliza Parsons’s Wolfenbach, Matilda, from a convent in order to compel her to live with him as his wife or mistress.  To test his doubtful assertion that he has her best interests at heart, Matilda says, “If you are sincere, permit me to write to the Marchioness [her protectress] that I am in your care, to dispel the anxiety she will naturally feel on my account,” but Weimar denies Matilda the opportunity to communicate her predicament to her friend (142).  In Orphan, Julie de Rubine is also refused “the use of pens, paper, and every other implement of writing” during her captivity in a convent at the express direction of the Marchese (Sleath 381).  These extreme instances of epistolary manipulation of female victims highlight the unequal power dynamic between men and women, even in the domestic and feminine space of epistolary communication. 

Female characters in the “horrid novels” mitigate patriarchal power through their epistolarity in opposition to the gender norm of the acquiescent, self-sacrificing woman.  Eugenia takes control of epistolary space in The Mysterious Warning when she writes in her letter to Baron S.—, the man she was pressured to marry by her father, “All endeavors to discover my retreat will prove fruitless, nor will you ever see me more. . . . Love, such as I have an idea of, had no share in your bosom, for you sought your own gratification at the expense of my happiness:  On your account therefore I feel no regret” (104).  By writing instead of attempting to speak her mind in person, Eugenia is able to “talk back” in this relationship, where she had previously been “condemned to silence and invisibility” (Larson 106) as a fiancée.  In the same novel, Claudina writes with similar boldness to her husband, Ferdinand—in a letter delivered after she escapes to a convent—that, “warned by a mysterious event, I fly from you, from guilt and misery”; she directs him to forget her, gives him permission to remarry, and refuses to explain further (52).  Victoria of Wolfenbach defies her husband after he fakes her death and imprisons her at the Castle when she continues to write to her sister by dictating to her maid and never signing her name.  Adapting her writing to the potential for nefarious discovery is an extreme example of writing under the influence of a “hovering audience.”  In Northanger Abbey, Miss Tilney begs Catherine to write to her despite her father’s displeasure with Catherine, instructing Catherine to “direct to me at Lord Longtown’s, and, I must ask it, under cover to Alice” (228), presumably her maid.  The General’s gothic control of his daughter’s epistolarity reveals Miss Tilney’s ingenuity and willingness to subvert his tyranny, risking his wrath, for the sake of communicating with Catherine.  These women exert their will in their epistolary relationships, refusing and bypassing male authority over their lives and the gender norm of female submission, illustrating the subversive possibilities of letter writing. 

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Isabella Thorpe attempts to exercise agency in her letter to her “‘dearest Catherine’” (216) by trying to enlist her help to persuade James to reinstate their engagement.  Isabella’s language throughout the novel is characterized by many scholars as the embodiment of “social artifice,” and while this characterization is true, I argue that her letter exemplifies the domestic gothic by underscoring dangers to women that lurk in the everyday of Austen’s time period.  Scholars have branded Isabella as a “crass fortune hunter” (Bilger 174), a hypocrite with a “romance-addled mind” (Clery 168), and as performing an “unmixed didactic role in this novel:  she is an object lesson to Catherine about how not to behave” (Cohen 221), while James complains of her duplicity in his letter to Catherine, who calls her a “‘vain coquette’” (218) after reading Isabella’s letter.  These characterizations align with the patriarchal ideology that “[objectifies] women and cast[s] them as praiseworthy or blameworthy types,” the most acceptable of whom are women “who have been powerless; passive rather than active, self-sacrificing rather than self-assertive, meek rather than bold” (Stein 124).  Catherine clearly places the active and bold Isabella in the “blameworthy” category after reading her epistle, and critics often laud Catherine as “able to properly read the emptiness of Isabella’s words” (Bilger 176).  But James’s letter has influenced Catherine’s reading of Isabella’s letter, preventing Catherine from considering a more nuanced interpretation of Isabella that questions the patriarchal binary categorization of women and instead focuses on her motivation and choices—or lack thereof—within the sexist power structures of her society. 

Isabella’s letter reveals the double standard of Captain Tilney’s deception and her fear for her reputation.  Tilney pursued Isabella despite his knowledge of her engagement to James, and she writes to Catherine that he “‘was amazingly disposed to follow and tease me’” and “‘became quite my shadow’” (217).  She also claims she never thinks of him, despite discussing him for over half of the letter, and labels him as part of the “‘fickle sex’” (217), implying that she does have feelings for him and is disappointed in his rejection of her.  Catherine witnessed Isabella’s failure to rebuff Tilney at a ball and at the Pump-room and therefore condemns them both, telling Henry she does not like his brother, although this will have no impact on the Captain’s future prospects.  By contrast, Isabella gives hints that her reputation is in jeopardy, writing that “‘I have not been to the Rooms this age, nor to the Play, except going in last night’” (217), where she was teased by the Mitchell family.  Her reluctance to be seen in public might be a ploy to gain Catherine’s sympathy for her supposed pining for James, but it can also be read as societal shunning after her flirtations with Tilney damaged her social standing and hopes for the future.  She may not miss James as much as she misses her untarnished reputation.  The Captain will suffer no such permanent consequences for exercising his patriarchal privilege of choice in flirting with, possibly seducing, and finally rejecting Isabella. 

Isabella’s letter also divulges her desperation to reinstate her engagement to James to escape the hardships of poverty and dependence.  James’s letter implies that Isabella threw him over for the Captain, but Isabella writes to Catherine that she is “‘quite uneasy about your dear brother, not having heard from him since he went to Oxford; and am fearful of some misunderstanding’” (216), indirectly disclosing that her plan to marry a richer man than James was fruitless.  She is now anxious to gain back James’s favor despite his future income of £400 per year being insufficient to finance her earlier ideal of “a carriage at her command, . . . and a brilliant exhibition of hoop rings on her finger” (122).

 Isabella’s attempt at a bigger prize after being disappointed in James’s financial prospects can be read as an attempt at choice in the marriage economy, but as Henry Tilney tells Catherine of marriage and dancing, “‘man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal’” (77).  As a fatherless female member of the professional class, Isabella does not have the option to join a profession to improve her pecuniary power.  She is in danger of becoming a member of the “shabby genteel,” what Juliet McMaster terms people who have sunk in social status due to the loss of a male breadwinner (121).  The safest recourse for a woman in her situation is to marry a man with money, and now that James and Frederick have given her up, she is frantic to avoid the “chilly and exposed position of an economically marginal female member” of the “economic shadow” (Copeland 141).  Thus she writes to Catherine of James, with the hope that Catherine will share the letter with her brother, “‘Your kind offices will set all right:—he is the only man I ever did or could love, and I trust you will convince him of it’” (216).  “Love” here equates to a pragmatic gratitude for rescue from economic hardship. 

Mrs. Courtney’s letter to Matilda in Wolfenbach, in which she also attempts to manipulate her addressee in the matter of a man, provides a useful comparison of motivations.  Instead of a cash-strapped and desperate girl, the letter-writer is widowed and wealthy and wishes to steal Count de Bouville’s affections from Matilda.  Mrs. Courtney writes, “I conjure you, my dear Matilda, to believe I will not consent to what he calls his happiness, without your permission” (123), misrepresenting the Count’s feelings, leading Matilda to think him unfaithful in his love, and manipulating her into writing a kind letter back ensuring her “sincerest wishes for his happiness with any other woman” (124)—a falsification of her true feelings.  Mrs. Courtney’s motivation of greater wealth at the expense of Matilda’s love makes her the obvious adversary to the heroine.  Isabella, however, is not clearly an antagonist to Catherine.  She does not wish to steal Henry Tilney from Catherine, but instead writes to salvage her engagement and survive economically in the marriage market of her day. 

Isabella’s letter may be “a strain of shallow artifice,” full of “inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood” (NA 218), but, reflecting the epistolary discourse in the horrid novels, it highlights the dangers to women in a misogynistic society that limits their agency and categorizes them as worthy or unworthy.  The combination of Isabella’s letter and Catherine’s reaction to it, under the influence of James’s letter, unmasks the threat that patriarchal culture dictates how women interpret what they read, whether it be novels, personal letters, or each other.

Works Cited
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