Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey Jane Austen's Literary Predecessors

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously in 1817, at a time when the English novel was rapidly developing its possibilities. While some authors were writing sensationalized fiction featuring ruined castles, frightened heroines, and mysterious villains--a genre that would later be referred to as Gothic fiction--other authors were attempting to write in a more realistic vein. With this in mind, we may see how Northanger Abbey riffs on two competing genres: the Gothic novel and the naturalistic novel. Unlike the Gothic novel, the naturalistic novel strived to depict society as it was and typically featured common characters faced with everyday predicaments, particularly romantic entanglements. Frances Burney’s Camilla (1796) is an important novel in this genre. Significantly, Austen read that novel immediately before embarking the manuscript that would become Northanger Abbey. Like Burney’s Camilla, and Austen herself, Catherine is a clergyman’s daughter who is wooed by an eligible suitor. In fact, Austen mentions Camilla in Northanger Abbey as one of the novels that Catherine has read.

Camilla tells the story of Camilla Tyrold, her sister Eugenia, and their cousin Indiana. Camilla's suitor is named Edgar. Inspired by her tutor Dr. Marchmont's meddling, Edgar goes on a quest to detect all the deficiencies in Camilla's character. In the meantime, Camilla's father tells her to hide her love for Edgar and not appear too interested. The two lovers are eventually married after a series of misunderstandings. Eugenia, Camilla's sister, was crippled and bears the signs of small pox. She stands to inherit her uncle's fortune because he took pity on her disfigurement. Unfortunately, Eugenia falls in love with Melmond, a young man with a passion for literature, but Melmond is infatuated with the beautiful and shallow Indiana. While Camilla and Catherine share their naivete and innocence, Indiana seems to have been the inspiration for Austen's portrayal of Isabella Thorpe. Similarly, Melmond and James are both studious young men who fall in love with superficial women.

While Burney's influence on Austen should not be neglected, it is undeniable that Northanger Abbey is more concerned with interrogating the conventions of the Gothic novel. In Book II alone, Austen parodies three novels by Anne Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Sicilian Romance, Romance of the Forest. Of these three, the most important novel is obviously The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Catherine reads in Bath and discusses with both Isabella and Henry. The Mysteries of Udolpho tells the story of Emily St. Aubert, who is orphaned and sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a remote Italian castle named Udolpho. Emily is in love with a young man named Valancourt, but her scheming uncle wants her to marry his friend Count Morano. Emily refuses, and she is eventually reunited with Valancourt. Before their reunion, however, Emily encounters many frightening relics in the castle's hidden chambers and discovers that there was a prisoner at Udolpho named Du Pont, a man who became her secret admirer and helped her escape from the confinements of her uncle's castle.

From this brief summary, we may see how Austen's plot in Northanger Abbey is also influenced by Radcliffe's. Much like Emily, Catherine has two suitors, the greedy John and the noble Henry. And like Emily, Catherine finds herself in an unfamiliar setting when she visits the historical Northanger Abbey. Of course, Austen reminds us that Catherine inhabits a more realistic fictional world by framing her Gothic fantasy about Mrs. Tilney as a delusion. Nonetheless, Radcliffe exerted a noticeable influence on Austen's writing style in the Gothic-tinged sections of Northanger Abbey.