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Udolpho and Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s direct comment on the gothic novel. By creating the characters in this novel “types” instead of well-rounded characters, she makes them serve as representative of characters in gothic novels. Austen also explicitly comments on the gothic novel by references to the genre throughout her own book. The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, typifies the gothic novel in many aspects, as Austen represents in Northanger Abbey. One typical feature of the gothic novel as shown in Northanger Abbey is the portrayal of the heroine as an ideal person.

This is presented by showing that Catherine Morland is so unlike the typical heroine. Thus the book begins, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Austen 297; ch. 1). The readers are further told of her “thin awkward figure” and “sallow skin” (Austen 297; ch. 1) and also that she was “occasionally stupid” (Austen 298; ch. 1). However, in keeping with the tradition, Emily St Aubert is all perfection, with an “uncommon delicacy of mind, warm affections, and ready benevolence” (Radcliffe 124; vol.

1: ch. 1) and “a softness to her manner, which added grace to beauty” (Radcliffe 124, vol. 1. ch. 1). Further, she is also well-educated, with “a general view of the sciences and an exact acquaintance with every part of elegant literature” (Radcliffe 125; vol. 1. ch. 1). In a gothic novel, the typical heroine finds typical things. Thus, in both Northanger Abbey and Udolpho, there is a mysterious chest in the heroine’s bedroom, a “hidden” picture, and a back staircase which is not for common use.

Furthermore, the image of the tortured/locked up/murdered wife often comes to Catherine Morland’s mind, suggestive of their frequent occurrence in gothic novels. The “well-read Catherine” (Austen 471; ch. 23) suspects that “Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food” (Austen 477; ch. 23). She further thinks that the General “must have been some way or other her [i. e. his wife’s] destroyer” (Austen 479, ch.

24). In Udolpho, Montoni “confines [his wife] in the turret, under a strict guard” (Radcliffe 266; vol. 3. ch. 3). Also, the Marquis de Villeroi “consented to destroy his wife” through a “slow poison” (Radcliffe 286; vol. 4. ch. 17). Further, we are told Catherine “had read too much not to be perfectly aware of the ease with which a waxen figure might be introduced” (Austen 480; ch. 24), and Emily had also seen a “figure…formed of wax” (Radcliffe 291; vol. 4. ch. 17).

Certain characters in Northanger Abbey other than the heroine also figure as stereotypes of gothic novel characters. For example, General Tilney serves as a counterpart of the gothic villain—Catherine believes that his “silent thoughtfulness, “downcast eyes” and “contracted brow” all clearly showed “the air and attitude of a Montoni” (Austen 476; ch. 23). Another typical figure is that of John Thorpe, who is the second, and unwanted, suitor of the heroine, who is even willing to take her with him against her will.

This is similar to Count Morano’s attempt to abduct Emily in Volume II, Ch VI of Udolpho. Austen also mocks the excessive use of superlatives that were a special feature of gothic novels. While discussing Udolpho, Henry Tilney (in Chapter 14) makes fun of the use of the words ‘amazingly’, ‘nice’, and ‘tormenting’, suggesting that such cliched words were often used in gothic novels. Words such as “horrid”, “awful”, “horrible”, “terrible”, “dreadful”, as well as “exquisite”, “majestic” occur frequently throughout Udolpho.

Similar to this use of superlatives is the excessive nature of the descriptions of landscapes in Udolpho. Austen mocks such a practice in Northanger Abbey, and this again, suggests how frequently such descriptions occur in gothic novels. Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey aptly represents the gothic novel, so much so, that by parodying it, she gives a clear idea of what to expect from it, if someone has not read a gothic novel. However, by parodying, Jane Austen is not demeaning the gothic novels.

To the contrary, she defends novels and appreciates the pleasure they can give to their readers. The wisdom lies, however, in being able to distinguish fact from fiction. A gothic novel is purely fiction, Jane Austen would say, and she proves it.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey in The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey. Ed. Andrew Wright. New York: Rinehart, 1963. 295-543. Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho in The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey. Ed. Andrew Wright. New York: Rinehart, 1963. 117-294.

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