Welcome Jane Austen Society of North America! This year, Portland, will be the host city for JASNA's annual conference, from October 28 through October 31. The theme is "Jane Austen and the Abbey: Mystery, Mayhem and Muslin in Portland," which centers on aspects of mystery in Northanger Abbey, and its parody of the Gothic novel. Visit JASNA's website for more information.
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In Praise of Catherine Morland
In 1803, Jane Austen completed her first novel, Northanger Abbey, and sold it for publication. For reasons never made clear, the London publisher Crosby & Co., who bought the rights, chose not to publish it. While this must have been frustrating for its author, Austen persevered with her literary efforts and found a more sympathetic publisher in Thomas Egerton, who agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. After further success with Emma, published by John Murray, Austen began work on Persuasion. Her brother Henry Austen bought back the rights to Northanger Abbey, which was then published posthumously.
Northanger Abbey follows 17-year-old Catherine Morland, an innocent country lass and Gothic-novel enthusiast. (Young girls who love the Twilight series: look no further then Catherine Morland; she is your predecessor when it comes to obsessing over brooding men and plights of peril.) The premise of Northanger is an old one: Girl meets boy. Girl loses boy. Boy comes to seek girl's hand in marriage.
Though a romantic comedy, Northanger Abbey is also a send-up of the Gothic novel. Austen plundered the stereotypical elements of Gothic literature and used them realistically. Though never in mortal danger, our heroine has to learn how to interpret the double meanings of those around her, detect true friends from false, suffer physical and mental anguish at the hands of tyrants and villains, and sleep in an ancient medieval structure — all the while supremely unaware of her own comic misinterpretations of nearly everything around her.
As Austen writes, "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to have been born an heroine." Catherine is not the intelligent Elizabeth Bennet, the busybody Emma, or the sensible Elinor Dashwood. In fact, Catherine is naïve almost to the extreme. She takes everyone at his or her word, sees no hidden motives, and has a moral compass generally tuned to the superficial. But Catherine is a constant surprise, for just as you begin to doubt her, you realize she is, in fact, not as simple as you were first led to suppose. Catherine has a highly developed sense of right and wrong, honor and deceit. She is free from falsehood and has the strength (a requirement in all heroines, not just Gothic inspired) to stand her ground and work her will. All she needs is the life experience to grant her the confidence to know that she can depend on her own judgment.
Another striking characteristic that Catherine possesses is a thoroughly refreshing candor. Few women in Austen novels love their man as obviously as Catherine loves Henry Tilney. As she begins to fall in love with him, her delight in his company is always sincere, never coy, never veiled. Once when kidnapped by a villain and prevented from meeting her man, Catherine later apologizes to Henry, explaining, "...but I begged Mr. Thorpe so earnestly to stop...and if Mr. Thorpe would only have stopped I would have jumped out and run after you."
In Northanger Abbey, Austen creates her most comical, laugh-out-loud dialogue and situations that recall Shakespearian comedies and Monty Python sketches. Her famed use of irony is on full display. The narrator (Austen herself), while never scornful, dryly observes the goings on, sometimes with barely suppressed amusement at her own cleverness. But since she is having such fun and has delighted us so much, we easily forgive her. While it hasn't the complicated layering of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey is more than a delightful romp, easily taking first prize for comedy, satire, coming-of-age awakening, uncomplicated love, and the sheer pleasure it provides in its approval of feeding the imagination through the reading of fiction.
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Northanger Abbey and Gothic Fiction
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is deeply influenced by Gothic fiction, and her flights of fancy take inspiration from Ann Radcliffe's popular novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho follows the fortunes of Emily St. Aubert, who suffers, among other misadventures, the death of her father, supernatural terrors in a gloomy castle, and the machinations of an Italian brigand.
Other Gothic novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey:
The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
Clermont by Regina Maria Roche
The Mysterious Warning: A German Tale by Eliza Parsons
The Necromancer: or, The Tale of the Black Forest by Lawrence Flammenberg (pseudonym for Karl Friedrich Kahlert)
The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom
The Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
Horrid Mysteries by the Marquis de Grosse
The Italian by Ann Radcliffe