This is about as much of a Gothic novel as ‘Airplane’ is a disaster movie – it’s just that it’s also far too good to leave out…
Jane Austen parodied the genre to such effect that this book was taken hostage by her publishers until after her death, by which point they clearly realised that she was a big enough name to cover any potential losses in the Gothic-lit market. I admire their faith in parody to change fashion, but they weren’t far off in spotting her tone. What’s most engaging about this book is the disingenuous tone used throughout. Austen clearly revelled in the gothic genre (and of fiction in general) and refuses to undermine its appeal even while she lampoons all of its components. Yes she’s mocking it, but she is also laughing at its critics and those who admire non-fiction journals or reviews:
“I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work 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. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
To get the most out of ‘Northanger Abbey’ you need to read it alongside Ann Radcliff, or any other contemporary Gothic novel. Austen calmly dismantles the terror, the tricks and the tropes of the Gothic until even her novel-loving heroine has to realise that
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 delineation; 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 of 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, from 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.
All of the best characters in ‘Northanger Abbey’ read and appreciate fiction. Austen shows that very silly novels can be consumed and enjoyed and I ask for no higher authority as I prepare to move into the Victorian Gothic.