The Gothic Satirised: Northanger Abbey

The Gothic was a highly formulaic genre, and its greatest exponents such as Walpole and Radcliffe found so many second-rate imitators that it soon became an easy target for pastiche and burlesque. As such, Gothic fiction was a victim of its own success, enjoying huge popularity at its height in the late 18th century, but experiencing a rapid decay. It was soon replaced by a new mode of domestic realism (Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot etc.). Jane Austen was of a quite different school of novel writing from the Gothic set, and while she admired the works of Radcliffe to some extent, she also deplored the excesses and improbabilities of Gothic. Her first full-length novel, Northanger Abbey, satirises the genre by sustaining a sharp contrast between the conventions of Gothic literature and the mundane realities of everyday life.

Thus, the novel opens, just as Udolpho does, with an elucidation of the heroine's situation in life, although it turns out to be the opposite of what a reader of contemporary novels would expect:

"Her father was a clergyman... and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution... and instead of dying... as anybody might expect, she still lived on... "

The same thing applies to the heroine herself, who is merely "almost pretty", less than accomplished and not of perfect virtue, although she possesses a kind heart and an appealing open disposition. However, a diet of novels and their sensational characters and plots soon give this ordinary girl more romantic notions:

"From fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives."

Naturally, every heroine needs a hero, but there is a distinct lack of suitable candidates in Catherine's village; unlike in The Monk, "there was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door."

The necessary forum for romantic adventure is found not in a ruined castle but respectable lodgings in Bath, where, in the pump room, Catherine is befriended by Isabella Thorpe and is thus introduced to the work of Mrs Radcliffe. Isabella inquires how Catherine is enjoying Udolpho, she replies that she is "delighted with the book" and is eager to know what lurks behind the black veil (a key mock-supernatural event in Radcliffe's novel), guessing it to be Laurentina's skeleton. Isabella than promises that when she has finished they will read The Italian together and then lists their next projects as "Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries", ensuring her protégée that they are all "horrid". Austen analyses the addictive effects of reading such literature, pinpointing the element of pleasure in the terror:

"Catherine was then left to the luxury of a raised, restless, and frightened imagination over the pages of Udolpho"

Further, there is a considerable amount of authorial commentary on the nature of the novel. Henry Tilney, the man with whom Catherine falls in love and eventually marries, proves to be a more reliable judge of the merits of Radcliffe, and is probably representative of the author in his cautious approbation but his satiric teasing on the excesses of the Gothic:

"I have read all of Mrs Radcliffe's works, most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it I could not lay down again"

Catherine takes her delight in the Gothic a little too literally, and when she is invited to stay at Henry's family home, Northanger Abbey, she interprets a Gothic plot in which the patriarchal general murdered his wife. Having satirically encouraged these silly fantasies, Henry eventually enlightens her:

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