Gisèle M. Baxter’s teaching and research interests include the Gothic inheritance, especially in Victorian/neo-Victorian literature and popular culture, dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives, and the contemporary bildungsroman. I’m delighted to introduce her guest post on Gothic daydreams for my “Youth and Experience” blog series celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Originally from Nova Scotia, Gisèle moved to Vancouver in 1997 to teach at the University of British Columbia. She’s co-editor, with Brett Grubisic and Tara Lee, of Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature (2014), and she’s currently preparing a Broadview Anthology of British Literature edition of Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla. In her spare time, she takes photographs, writes fiction, and takes beginner-level adult ballet classes.
…while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! the dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina’s skeleton behind it. (Northanger Abbey, Volume 1, Chapter 6)
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. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. (Northanger Abbey, Volume 2, Chapter 10)
Despite its status as a satire of the genre, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is popular among those of us who work in Gothic studies, and came up early in a senior undergraduate course in Victorian supernatural fiction I taught this past year. We were discussing susceptibility in terms of the Gothic reading the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has done prior to her arrival at Bly, and of course Jane Eyre’s susceptibility came up, as did Catherine Morland’s.
You probably have, hidden at the back of the metaphorical cupboard of memory, some cultural pleasure of your adolescence you no longer admit to having loved. This is likely truer if you’re still quite young yourself; at some point later you may find yourself revisiting and enjoying it, realizing that your abandonment of it didn’t mean it was rubbish, it meant people whose opinions you valued disparaged it. Possibly nostalgia (even ironic) has caught up with it, and you can then freely broadcast your rediscovered youthful love, confident now that it is cool. In my case, it was Star Trek, the original TV series, which was running in syndication on Saturday mornings when I was in high school in the early 1970s. Star Trek was not cool then, and eventually I shredded my fan stories. Now, of course, I deeply regret that.
If you’ve read Anne of Green Gables, you’ll remember the episode when Marilla sends Anne on an evening errand to Diana’s house, only to discover that the girls, both very fond of ghost stories, have populated the path with characters from such tales and think of it now as the Haunted Wood, and Anne’s intensely sensitive imagination renders the place actually haunted. Marilla takes the tough love approach and insists Anne go anyway; Anne returns insisting, teeth chattering, that she’ll be content with the commonplace from this point. Well, we know she won’t, but after Miss Stacy’s arrival at the school, Anne desperately wants to finish reading a novel called The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall, on loan from Ruby Gillis. However, Miss Stacy says this is not a good book for girls their age (around 13) and so Anne abandons it (with a pang).
I must confess that when reading Anne for the first time, and younger than 13, I felt a little pang at this point, as I too wanted to know what the lurid mystery was. This brings me to 17-year-old Catherine Morland, protagonist (and heroine, after a fashion) of Jane Austen’s posthumously published early novel satirizing Gothic tropes, Northanger Abbey. Despite her lack of conventionally heroic qualities, Catherine loves to read from an early age, and has the opportunity to read quite broadly in her unprosperous but reasonably modern-minded middle-class environment. Her imagination is awakened by the quite lurid variety of 18th century Gothic fiction, all medievalism and sinister castles and predatory villains and virtuous heroines and secrets, and a fair amount of the explained supernatural Ann Radcliffe made a cornerstone of her improving approach to Gothic literature, and it is a nod to the novel’s attitude towards such material that much of it is recommended to Catherine by the duplicitous Isabella Thorpe. Or is Northanger Abbey a slyer sort of satire than it is often given credit for being?
True, Catherine makes a fool of herself in trying to impose a Bluebeard narrative on the Abbey’s inhabitants, particularly General Tilney and his late wife. Yet in subtle ways, the novel also makes a case for the virtues of reading, even reading books in formative years that you might put to the back of the cupboard once you are a fully fledged adult.
First, and this is significant, Catherine’s reading becomes one of the first things she discovers in common with her eventual partner, Henry Tilney (though it’s perhaps even more significant that he’s a little older and more widely read).
Second, even if the novel mocks Catherine’s preferred adolescent reading and its effect on her, it also subtly suggests its benefits: she becomes more observant, less apt to give people the benefit of the doubt, so that as the initial pleasantness of association with the Thorpe siblings, John and Isabella, wears off, she discerns both his shallow dullness and her duplicity. And for that matter, even if he’s not hiding deep dark Gothic secrets, General Tilney is an arrogant autocrat with misplaced priorities as far as his children’s happiness is concerned, so that her aversion to him becomes at least partly justified, though not in the way she expected.
Finally, Catherine’s reading preferences reflect a rising trend that was to become even more notable in the 19th century: the production and consumption of what we’d now call “genre fiction” (much of it Gothic, and much of it ghost stories) by the rapidly increasing population of literate women with time to read and write. Indeed, there is an echo of Catherine’s breathless love of this material—if not of Catherine herself—in Little Women’s Jo March, herself an echo of Louisa May Alcott, who got her start writing Gothic fiction for popular magazines. And so, perhaps it’s best just to put those outgrown texts at the back of the cupboard, and not shred your fan stories, for you never know what enjoyment they might yield when revisited later, with an adult’s perspective.
Quotations are from the Penguin Classics edition of Northanger Abbey, edited and with an introduction by Marilyn Butler, revised 2003.
Eighth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Theresa Kenney, Judith Thompson, and Sara Malton.