“It is only a novel ... or, in short, only some work 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.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
The publication of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe in 1719 launched what is arguably the most popular literary style of the English language today — the novel. Nearly 100 years later, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey offered a noteworthy guidepost in reflecting the form’s journey over its first century of use as well as in illuminating its future trajectory.
The rise of the Gothic novel began in the late 18th century. It is the predecessor of modern thrillers, horror tales, and ghost stories. These fantastic stories took place in the Medieval era, which earned them the appellation “Gothic” after the architecture style of that period. It was not until after Austen’s time that Victorian writers shifted the genre toward contemporary English settings, such as in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.
The hallmarks of 18th century Gothic novels were dreary castles, mysterious knights, treacherous villains, damsels in distress, psychosis, bad omens, and an overall atmosphere of suspense. It is easy to see why this genre was so immensely popular as many of those characteristics are still commonplace in entertainment today, but the exaggerated nature and excessive drama of the stories of this period also made them ripe for parody.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen’s “heroine” Catherine Morland (protagonist would be much too banal a term for her) is obsessed with popular Gothic novels of the time, most especially Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Through Catherine’s childish obsession with these stories — and tendency to imagine their fictitious horrors as real-life possibilities — Austen launches simultaneously a satirical mockery and an energetic defense of fiction, parodying the current absurdities of the genre while also rebutting the critics who downplayed novels as a frivolous pastime for empty-headed women.
“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad,” shares the narrator, and so begins young Catherine’s debut into society. Like any heroine, she must have both a hero and a villain, and she finds both in her journey into Bath for “the season.” Her naiveté and honest nature endear her to Eleanor Tilney and her brother, Henry, with whom Catherine falls quite in love.
Henry, in addition to the narrator, is a mouthpiece for Austen’s voice of reason in the novel. His obvious love and appreciation for Gothic novels is juxtaposed by his mockery of their being taken to the extreme. Like the narrator to the reader, he tells Catherine a tale that parodies the Gothic, and he rebukes her for applying Gothic fantasies too literally after also encouraging her love for them; similarly, Austen too seems to both support and laugh at her heroine.
As in all of Austen’s fiction, the timeless quality of both the characters and the story defies it being designated as only satire for that particular culture. In her introduction to the Folio Society edition, Val McDermid writes, “Whatever the age we are when we’re reading her, there is something in the text that speaks very directly to us. No matter at what stage in our lives we are, her novels deepen our own understanding. Somehow, Austen had the insight and skill to delineate life beyond her years and her experience … There is scarcely a character in the novel who doesn’t evoke stirrings of appreciation in us. The complacent mother whose children can do no wrong; the swaggering bad boy, irresistible to a certain kind of shallow young woman; the domineering father for whom having his own way is the key to everyone else’s happiness; and the young sister, drawn in a minor key, whose trials and tribulations ought to cast her as a Gothic heroine but, in this incarnation, place her much closer to genuine human reactions to grief and loss.”
While Northanger Abbey is one of Jane Austen’s lesser read novels today, it is a gem — as dynamic and complex as it is fun and lighthearted. Her first “adult” novel, it bridges the gap between her juvenilia that is pure parody of late 18th century culture and her adult novels that curtail such exaggerated caricature. In any Austen novel, however, there is no dearth of her bemused, sardonic mirth at her era’s society — and at the reader who is so enraptured with it.