Jane Austen and the Gothic novel

It’s generally agreed that the first Gothic Novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto of 1764. The first edition of the book claimed it was a translation of a 16th century document found in Naples, and only recently rediscovered in a house belonging to “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. Walpole did later admitted he was the author, but this little bit of literary subterfuge sets the tone for a lot of later Gothic fiction.

Horace Walpole

Although published for English readers, most of these novels were set in the past, and in foreign countries – most commonly Italy. This has the effect of distancing the story from everyday life, and adding to the atmosphere of strangeness and mystery. Creating this atmosphere was vital to the effect the writers wanted to achieve, which was based on one of the most influential theories of art in the eighteenth century. This was Burke’s idea of ‘the Sublime and the Beautiful’. According to Burke, works of art that are beautiful offer the reader or viewer the pleasure of order, proportion, sunlight, serenity; the Sublime, by contrast, aimed to create ‘delightful horror’ by means of darkness, terror, grandeur, and savagery. The most obvious way to illustrate this is the contrast between the painting by Claude below, and the one by Salvator Rosa beneath it.

In fact, Rosa’s landscapes were extraordinarily influential on English Gothic. Mrs Radcliffe was one of the most successful authors of the genre, but even though she set her novels in Italty, she never actually went there, and based all her descriptions on what she saw in Rosa’s paintings.

The Gothic novel rapidly developed a whole tool-kit of other props that could create the sublime frisson of ‘awful pleasure’, including ruined castles, mountainous scenery, ghostly apparitions, secret passages, and subterranean dungeons, as well a a cast of highly stereotyped characters ranging from tyrant fathers to sinister monks to dangerously attractive anti-heroes, and beautiful persecuted heroines.

All good escapist stuff, of course, and still enjoyable even now, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye (quite literally!). Despite its rather unsubtle narrative techniques, the Gothic novel was a precursor of Romanticism in its attempt to explore and describe subconscious or irrational psychological states. This is why dreams and madness are such important recurring themes. And some of the Gothic ‘machinery’ is actually an externalisation of the same idea. For example, these novels are full of references to ‘veiled’ or ‘half-seen’ forms, which conceal secrets, or mask true identities. As Ann Radcliffe put it, “To the warm imagination the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the sun can show”.

The other point about the Gothic novel was that it was written for women, and usually by them too. At the time, feminine sensibility was thought to be dangerously susceptible to madness or ‘hysteria’, and many Gothic novels show their heroines pushed to the brink of insanity by sheer terror. This is one reason why the Gothic was so disdained by serious readers (most of them, of course, men). As a reviewer in the Aberdeen Magazine put it in 1798,

Ye female scribes! Who write without a blot,
‘Mysterious Warnings’ of – the Lord knows what;
O quit this trade; exert your proper skill,
Resume the needle, and lay down the quill.

But not all serious readers were men; Jane Austen was one herself, and she has the eminently sensible hero of Northanger Abbey confess to liking Ann Radcliffe’s novels, and go on to make what must be one of the most often-quoted statements in the whole of Austen’s works: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” But if that’s the case, why does she parody the apparatus of the Gothic so mercilessly, and have so much fun at her Gothic-loving heroine’s expense? Partly simply because it was fun, I suspect. Northanger Abbey was first written at the height of the Gothic craze, and some elements of it simply cry out for parody. And let’s not forget Jane Austen’s own appreciation of order, harmony, and decorum – which are all qualities of the beautiful, not the sublime.

I think she also uses Northanger Abbey to make a more serious point about the danger of excessive sensibility – a theme she took up again, more seriously, in her portrait of Marianne Dashwood. And, perhaps, to make a clear distinction between the ‘horrid novels’ so beloved of Isabella Tilney, and those – like her own – “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”.

“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”[1] “Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?” “I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

Austen turns the conventions of eighteenth-century novels on their head, by making her heroine a plain and undistinguished girl from a middle-class family, and allowing her to fall in love with the hero long before he’s even thought about her. And in exposing all Catherine’s Gothic imaginings as groundless, she writes a hilarious anti-horror novel, long before anyone thought of having Mr Darcy do battle with an army of the undead….


The original version of this post was written in 2012 for the AustenAuthors website

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