I am currently enrolled in a course that is covering Jane Austen’s novels. We will read all six by the end of the semester–an ambitious but exciting endeavor. I finished Northanger Abbey today, her earliest written work that was published last.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen uses the Gothic novel to move past the gothic novel. At the time it was popular to digest in unhealthy amounts the horrors and terrors of such novels. She does this in order to convey this relationship between the imaginary and the real.
Catherine Morland, the heroine of the novel, spends time with the coquettish Isabella reading gothic novels, mainly Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho. These gothic novels affect the way that Catherine sees the world around her. The fictitious seeps into her real life and causes her desires to navigate her being.
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 delineations; and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, form every druggist.Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad. (pp. 160-161)
In this passage, we see a more developed Catherine. She has now experienced within herself a suspicion that General Tilney is a murderer, as well as the indictment of her future husband: “Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” (p. 159).
Catherine now realizes her previous mistake. She has craved the excitement of terror to the point where it seems as if she would rather a character like General Tilney be a murderer than not. She desires the fantastic because she cannot appreciate the real. Now, after Catherine’s “beloved object” has rebuked her youthful desires, she now turns from these ignorant ways of wanting the gothic to be real.
That room, in which her disturbed imagination had tormented her on her first arrival, was again the scene of agitated spirits and unquiet slumbers. Yet how different now the source of her inquietude from what it had been then–mournfully superior in reality and substance! Her anxiety had foundation in fact, her fears in probability; and with a mind so occupied in the contemplation of actual and natural evil, the solitude of her situation, the darkness of her chamber, the antiquity of the building were felt and considered without the smallest emotion; and though the wind was high, and often produced strange and sudden noises throughout the house, she heard it all as she lay awake, hour after hour, without curiosity or terror. (pp. 183-184).
This section directly follows the General essentially banishes Catherine from the abbey. She meets this blunt terror of reality, that she may never see her friend, Eleanor Tilney, and her desired husband, Henry Tilney, ever again. The terrors of reality replace these minor terrors of ghosts, murderers, and catacombs. These anxieties she possesses at the current moment has “foundation in fact.” Her mind is even in “contemplation of actual and natural evils.” Not only is she now grounded in reality, but she is in contemplation. She finally reflects, thinks. She stops allowing her desires guide her. Instead, Catherine has undergone a “revolution in her ideas” (p. 171); she now reflects upon the things of reality and imagination.