Austen, Jane (1775 - 1817)

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(1775 - 1817)

English novelist.

Originally written between 1798 and 1799, but not published until 1818, Northanger Abbey is considered Jane Austen's first significant work of fiction, and is her only work to be widely studied as part of the Gothic literary tradition. The novel is in part a burlesque of the Gothic and sentimental fiction that was popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries particularly of Ann Radcliffe's novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. In addition to its parodic elements, Northanger Abbey also follows the maturation of Catherine Morland, a naive eighteen-year-old, ignorant of the workings of English society and prone to self-deception. Influenced by her reading of novels rife with the overblown qualities of horror fiction, Catherine concocts a skewed version of reality by infusing real people, things, and events with terrible significance. However, Catherine's impressions, though clouded by Gothic sentiment, often hint at an insightful, if unconscious, judgment of character that cuts through the social pretensions of those around her. In this respect Austen's novel carries on an ironic discourse which makes it not only a satire, but also a sophisticated novel of social education.


Austen began writing while she was still living at her childhood home at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England. Her life at Steventon, though sheltered from the world at large, gave her an intimate knowledge of a segment of English society—the landed gentry—that was to provide the material for most of her fiction, and by 1787 Austen had already begun to produce stories, dramas, and short novels. In 1795 she commenced writing Elinor and Marianne, an early version of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). One year later, she started First Impressions, the work that eventually evolved into Pride and Prejudice (1813). When Austen finished First Impressions in 1797, her father submitted it to a London publisher. Although rejected, the story remained a popular favorite among the circle of relations and acquaintances with whom Austen shared her writings. In 1798 and 1799 Austen wrote most of a novel that was later revised, bought by the publisher Richard Crosby, and advertised in 1803 as "In the Press, SUSAN; a novel, in 2 vols." It remained unpublished, however, and was later revised again and published in 1818, after Austen's death, as Northanger Abbey, along with the novel Persuasion.


Austen's career is generally divided into an early and a late period, the former encompassing the juvenilia, as well as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, the latter including Emma (1816), Mansfield Park (1814), and Persuasion. They are separated by a hiatus of eight years. There is a remarkable consistency in the work of the early and late periods, marked by a certain mellowing of tone in the later works. The plots of Austen's novels revolve around the intricacies of courtship and marriage between members of the upper class. Austen's detractors in more egalitarian eras find fault with what they perceive to be a rigid adherence to a repressive class system. Also, in commenting on the narrowness of her literary world and vision, some critics wonder if novels of such small scope can truly reflect the human condition. However, Austen's talents are uniquely suited to her chosen subject. Her realm is comedy, and her sense of the comedic in human nature informs her technique, which is judged as superb for its delineation of character, control of point of view, and ironic tone. Although Austen chose as her subject the people she knew best, she illuminated in their characters the follies and failings of men and women of all times and classes.

While ostensibly a burlesque of the conventional modes of Gothic horror fiction, Northanger Abbey is also a novel of education that focuses on the theme of self-deception. Austen portrays Catherine as an inversion of the typical Gothic heroine, making her neither beautiful, talented, nor particularly intelligent, but rather ordinary in most respects. In contrast, several other characters in the novel are presented as pastiches of stock Gothic characters—Isabella and General Tilney, for example, are parodies of the damsel and the domestic tyrant. These individuals seem to fit into Catherine's deluded perspective of the world which, in the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, leaves her unable to distinguish between reality and the romanticized version of life she finds in popular novels. Other characters in the novel serve to balance the work. Henry Tilney is often regarded by critics as Austen's mouthpiece—though he, too, is occasionally an object of irony and ridicule. For example, he fails to realize that Catherine's delusions, though excessive, hint at the true nature of people and events. Thus, Catherine is the first to understand that General Tilney, although not a murderer, is cruel and mercenary. This ironic aspect of the novel alludes to a larger theme in the work, that of the moral significance of social conventions and conduct—a subject that Austen explored in greater detail in later novels.

Catherine's introduction into society begins when Mr. and Mrs. Allen, her neighbors in Fullerton, invite her to vacation with them in the English town of Bath. There she meets the somewhat pedantic clergyman Henry Tilney and the dramatic Isabella Thorpe, who encourages Catherine in her reading of Gothic fiction. Her circle of acquaintances widens with the arrival of James Morland, Catherine's brother and a love interest for Isabella, and John Thorpe, Isabella's rude, conniving brother. The setting shifts from Bath to Northanger Abbey, the ancestral home of the Tilneys, when John deceives General Tilney, Henry's father, into believing that Catherine is an heiress. Austen's satire of Gothic horror novel conventions begins as Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey and the former plays on the heroine's romantic expectations of the estate. When Catherine reaches her destination she is disappointed to find a thoroughly modern building, completely lacking in hidden passageways, concealed dungeons, and the like. Later, Austen allows Catherine's imagination to run amok, only to reveal the objects of her fears as ordinary and mundane. At the climax of the novel, General Tilney—whom Catherine suspects of having murdered or shut up his wife somewhere in the abbey—turns the heroine out after learning that she does not come from a wealthy family. At the close of the novel, the outraged Henry proposes marriage to Catherine, now divested of her delusions by Henry and his sister Eleanor. General Tilney, who proves to be not a murderer, but rather an individual of questionable moral and social character, eventually gives his consent to the marriage after learning that his daughter Eleanor is also engaged—to a wealthy Viscount.


Critics have generally regarded Northanger Abbey to be of lesser literary quality than Austen's other mature works. Some scholars have observed occasional lapses in her narrative technique of a sort that do not appear in later novels. By far the greatest debate surrounding Northanger Abbey, however, is the question of its aesthetic unity. Critics have traditionally seen the work as part novel of society, part satire of popular Gothic fiction, and therefore not a coherent whole. Detractors, focusing on the work as a parody, have found its plot weak, its characters unimaginative and superficial, and its comedy anticlimactic due to its reliance on an outmoded style of fiction. Others, while conceding the lack of an easily discernible organizing principle, argue that the work is unified on the thematic level as not merely a satire of popular fiction, but also an ironic presentation of a self-deceived imagination that is quixotically wrong about reality but right about human morality. In addition, critics have considered Northanger Abbey a transitional work, one that moves away from the burlesque mode of juvenilia and toward the stylistic control of such masterpieces as Mansfield Park and Emma.


Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1811
Pride and Prejudice (novel) 1813
Mansfield Park (novel) 1814
Emma (novel) 1816
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 4 vols. (novels) 1818
Lady Susan (novel) 1871
The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871
Love and Friendship and Other Early Works (juvenilia) 1922
[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925
Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others (letters) 1932
Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933
Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951
Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963



SOURCE: Austen, Jane. "Chapter 14." In Northanger Abbey. 1818. Reprint edition, pp. 107-16. New York: Signet, 1996.

In the following excerpt from Northanger Abbey, first published in 1818, Catherine discusses the pleasure she derives from reading Gothic fiction—Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, in particular—versus what she perceives as the drudgery of reading nonfiction works, such as histories.

The next morning was fair, and Catherine almost expected another attack from the assembled party. With Mr. Allen to support her, she felt no dread of the event: but she would gladly be spared a contest, where victory itself was painful, and was heartily rejoiced therefore at neither seeing nor hearing anything of them. The Tilneys called for her at the appointed time; and no new difficulty arising, no sudden recollection, no unexpected summons, no impertinent intrusion to disconcert their measures, my heroine was most unnaturally able to fulfil her engagement, though it was made with the hero himself. They determined on walking around Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.

"I never look at it," said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, "without thinking of the south of France."

"You have been abroad then?" said Henry, a little surprised.

"Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?"

"Why not?"

"Because they are not clever enough for you—gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time."

"Yes," added Miss Tilney, "and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it."

"Thank you, Eleanor—a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion."

"I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly."

"It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do—for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of 'Have you read this?' and 'Have you read that?' I shall soon leave you as far behind me as—what shall I say?—I want an appropriate simile.—as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!"

"Not very good, I am afraid. But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?"

"The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding."

"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word 'nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?"

"Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word."

"While, in fact," cried his sister, "it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best. It is a most interesting work. You are fond of that kind of reading?"

"To say the truth, I do not much like any other."


"That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?"

"Yes, I am fond of history."

"I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome; and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books."

"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history—and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made—and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great."

"You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it."

"That little boys and girls should be tormented," said Henry, "is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb 'to torment,' as I observed to be your own method, instead of 'to instruct,' supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous."

"You think me foolish to call instruction a torment, but if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that 'to torment' and 'to instruct' might sometimes be used as synonymous words."

"Very probably. But historians are not accountable for the difficulty of learning to read; and even you yourself, who do not altogether seem particularly friendly to very severe, very intense application, may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worth-while to be tormented for two or three years of one's life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it. Consider—if reading had not been taught, Mrs. Radcliffe would have written in vain—or perhaps might not have written at all."

Catherine assented—and a very warm panegyric from her on that lady's merits closed the subject. The Tilneys were soon engaged in another on which she had nothing to say. They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing—nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance. But Catherine did not know her own advantages—did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence. The general pause which succeeded his short disquisition on the state of the nation was put an end to by Catherine, who, in rather a solemn tone of voice, uttered these words, "I have heard that something very shocking indeed will soon come out in London."

Miss Tilney, to whom this was chiefly addressed, was startled, and hastily replied, "Indeed! And of what nature?"

"That I do not know, nor who is the author. I have only heard that it is to be more horrible than anything we have met with yet."

"Good heaven! Where could you hear of such a thing?"

"A particular friend of mine had an account of it in a letter from London yesterday. It is to be uncommonly dreadful. I shall expect murder and everything of the kind."

"You speak with astonishing composure! But I hope your friend's accounts have been exaggerated; and if such a design is known beforehand, proper measures will undoubtedly be taken by government to prevent its coming to effect."

"Government," said Henry, endeavouring not to smile, "neither desires nor dares to interfere in such matters. There must be murder; and government cares not how much."

The ladies stared. He laughed, and added, "Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No—I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours. Perhaps the abilities of women are neither sound nor acute—neither vigorous nor keen. Perhaps they may want observation, discernment, judgment, fire, genius, and wit."

"Miss Morland, do not mind what he says; but have the goodness to satisfy me as to this dreadful riot."

"Riot! What riot?"

"My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland has been talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern—do you understand? And you, Miss Morland—my stupid sister has mistaken all your clearest expressions. You talked of expected horrors in London—and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George's Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window. Forgive her stupidity. The fears of the sister have added to the weakness of the woman; but she is by no means a simpleton in general."

Catherine looked grave. "And now, Henry," said Miss Tilney, "that you have made us understand each other, you may as well make Miss Morland understand yourself—unless you mean to have her think you intolerably rude to your sister, and a great brute in your opinion of women in general. Miss Morland is not used to your odd ways."

"I shall be most happy to make her better acquainted with them."

"No doubt; but that is no explanation of the present."

"What am I to do?"

"You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women."

"Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world—especially of those—whoever they may be—with whom I happen to be in company."

"That is not enough. Be more serious."

"Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half."

"We shall get nothing more serious from him now, Miss Morland. He is not in a sober mood. But I do assure you that he must be entirely misunderstood, if he can ever appear to say an unjust thing of any woman at all, or an unkind one of me."

It was no effect to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just: and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did. The whole walk was delightful, and though it ended too soon, its conclusion was delightful too; her friends attended her into the house, and Miss Tilney, before they parted, addressing herself with respectful form, as much to Mrs. Allen as to Catherine, petitioned for the pleasure of her company to dinner on the day after the next. No difficulty was made on Mrs. Allen's side, and the only difficulty on Catherine's was in concealing the excess of her pleasure.

The morning had passed away so charmingly as to banish all her friendship and natural affection, for no thought of Isabella or James had crossed her during their walk. When the Tilneys were gone, she became amiable again, but she was amiable for some time to little effect; Mrs. Allen had no intelligence to give that could relieve her anxiety; she had heard nothing of any of them. Towards the end of the morning, however, Catherine, having occasion for some indispensable yard of ribbon which must be bought without a moment's delay, walked out into the town, and in Bond Street overtook the second Miss Thorpe as she was loitering towards Edgar's Buildings between two of the sweetest girls in the world, who had been her dear friends all the morning. From her, she soon learned that the party to Clifton had taken place. "They set off at eight this morning," said Miss Anne, "and I am sure I do not envy them their drive. I think you and I are very well off to be out of the scrape. It must be the dullest thing in the world, for there is not a soul at Clifton at this time of year. Belle went with your brother, and John drove Maria."

Catherine spoke the pleasure she really felt on hearing this part of the arrangement.

"Oh! yes," rejoined the other, "Maria is gone. She was quite wild to go. She thought it would be something very fine. I cannot say I admire her taste; and for my part, I was determined from the first not to go, if they pressed me ever so much."

Catherine, a little doubtful of this, could not help answering, "I wish you could have gone too. It is a pity you could not go all go."

"Thank you; but it is quite a matter of indifference to me. Indeed, I would not have gone on any account. I was saying so to Emily and Sophia when you overtook us."

Catherine was still unconvinced; but glad that Anne should have the friendship of an Emily and a Sophia to console her, she bade her adieu without much uneasiness, and returned home, pleased that the party had not been prevented by her refusing to join it, and very heartily wishing that it might be too pleasant to allow either James or Isabella to resent her resistance any longer.


Northanger Abbey

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SOURCE: Conger, Syndy McMillen. "Austen's Sense and Radcliffe's Sensibility." Gothic, n.s., 2 (1987): 16-24.

In the following essay, Conger argues that rather than denouncing Ann Radcliffe's Gothic "sensibility" inNorthanger Abbey, Austen affirms its essence and expands upon its utility as both a heroic virtue and a means of achieving growth.

The intrinsic value of Northanger Abbey is still disputed, but its significance in literary history generally is not: it is viewed as a key moment in the history of the novel. Here Ann Radcliffe's Female Gothic, the last representative of a century of literary emotionalism, is parodied to death by the novel of social realism: here Louis Bredvold's "natural history of sensibility"1 comes to an end. Recent revisionists2 see Austen as more indebted to her predecessor but still believe that she resists Radcliffe's endorsement of the heart. Marilyn Butler insists that Austen's heroines "are rebuked for letting interiority guide them" (140, 145), and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar also argue that Catherine Morland, foreshadowing Austen's later heroines, must "relinquish" her "subjectivity" to save herself (121, 129, 144).3 This vision of Austen sacrificing Radcliffe's subjectivity on the altar of realism or propriety or common sense wants some revision itself, for it rests on cursory assumptions about Radcliffe's achievement. The two authors are not poles apart at all on the question of sensibility; they are, on the contrary, two of the most prominent of many women writers involved in a late-century enterprise best briefly described as "saving sensibility."4

By the time Radcliffe completed The Italian, she had also reformed the English Gothic novel, divorcing it from sensation and wedding it to sentiment. She focuses her fictions not on the supernatural and irrational forces that drive forward Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto but rather on the sensitive human psyche responding to such forces; and the effect is to establish that special form of eighteenth-century sensitivity, sensibility, as the behavioral norm. In Radcliffe's world sensibility is not confined to a few amiable eccentrics: all her good characters have it; conversely, all her wicked characters are without it, are, instead, slaves to the brute passions. Yet she never recommends sensibility blindly. First she reconstructs it,5 then tests it for viability in the laboratory of Gothic terrors.

This rehabilitation of sensibility6 was no small undertaking. A cult term that emerged midcentury but eluded precise definition, at first it referred to a bundle of loosely compatible but positive ideas: "delicate sensitiveness of taste" or "the capacity for refined emotion"; most specifically the "readiness to feel compassion for suffering," to forgive, and to be charitable (OED, cf. Hagstrum 5-9). Especially after the appearance of The Sorrows of Young Werter in England in 1779, however, it began to seem suspect, to raise a number of troubling questions. Was its cultivation more apt to lead to emotional refinement or excess, sensitivity to others or egotism, morality or pathological behavior? It declined in status, mocked and abandoned by leading authors and rendered lugubrious by minor ones. Radcliffe's guarded endorsement of it in The Mysteries of Udolpho suggests that she was well aware of this tarnished reputation.

Mr. St. Aubert, the heroine's father, is willing to defend sensibility only as the lesser of two evils: "Whatever may be the evils resulting from a too susceptible heart, nothing can be hoped from an insensible one" (1.20). For St. Aubert, sensibility is a central, even an indispensable human attribute, but not a sufficient virtue unto itself. "Sentiment is a disgrace," says the dying man to his daughter, "instead of an ornament, unless it lead us to good actions" (1.80). Since it too easily invites self-indulgence or "the pride of fine feeling" (1.79), both of these being obstacles to fellow-feeling, its necessary companions are self-control and moderation: "I would not annihilate your feelings, my child, I would only teach you to command them"; "All excess is vicious" (1.20). Actually, his praise of sensibility, when compared to the successes of its avatars in Udolpho and The Italian, is unnecessarily faint. These characters do occasionally succumb to excessive emotionality; but, more often, the special gifts of sensibility serve them well, helping them to survive in a hostile world.

First, they are acutely perceptive. They use their senses: visual, common, moral. They combine an awareness of their own hearts with a scrutiny of others' faces to gain an intuitive knowledge or "emotional consciousness" (OED) of their situations. When left alone, they tend to scan their minds, sorting out and, if necessary, challenging their feelings or their ideas; they tend to set their inner lives in order. At other times, the same sensitivity and capacity for fine discernment turns outward—they are all skilled physiognomists: they scan eyes, study gestures, and draw accurate inferences about the emotional or moral state of persons around them (Ellena de Rosalba's study of her jailor Spalatro's face, for instance, saves her life). This special consciousness of inside and outside, coupled with their capacity for intense concentration, often grants them the advantage in self-control.7 They are conversant with their own hearts and this habitual rational attention to emotion sets them free from passion's tyranny. Under stress their minds are nearly always clear, agile and strong. Witness Emily talking to Count Morano just as he has decided to abduct her by force: "Calm, Intreat you, these transports, and listen to reason, if you will not to pity. You have equally misplaced your love, and your hatred" (2.264).

These characters of sensibility are clearly designed to be stronger than the creations of mid-century ironists Mackenzie and Sterne, Harleys and Yoricks who were frequently immobilized by their own or others' emotions. Radcliffe's sensibility is much more than passive capacity for refined emotions, even for compassion. It energizes the whole mind, heightening its ordinary powers of perception, communication, concentration, and self-control. It is a new normative, moderate, rational subjectivity; and it is worth saving because it is a saving grace. The startling fact about recent Radcliffe criticism, seen in this light, is that it sees her fictions as hypocritical and deeply subjective. Radcliffe indulges in "every excess of sensibility which she explicitly warns against" (Kahane 52); her fictions "might virtuously proclaim the merits of self-control," but what they show is a "world governed by subjectivity." They are pure "exploration of her heroines' inner state of being at various levels of consciousness," one such level being "'inner rage and unspecified … guilt'" (Butler 133).

This preoccupation with Radcliffe's supposed covert message at the expense of her overt one focuses attention on a single but essential fact about Gothic fiction, one amply discussed by students of the genre from Eino Railo to Tzvetan Todorov—its subrational appeal. But Gothic fiction appeals to us, such students are quick to add, because it brings some order to the chaotic subrational realm.8 The Gothic objectifies fears and desires in specific events, characters, and objects and then rationalizes them, making the latent manifest and, at the same time, usually less threatening. This objectifying process leads Todorov to suggest that Gothic fiction is ersatz psychoanalysis; and recent studies of the Female Gothic support his claim. Tania Modleski argues that the Female Gothic enables women readers to "work through profound psychic conflicts," that it legitimizes a temporary paranoia in readers by allowing them to identify with guiltless heroines placed in a hostile environment (83). These fictions give vent to terror and hostility but without finally recommending such attitudes (Fleenor 17).

Political persuasion may determine whether critics view this textual doubleness as therapeutic or repressive, but I doubt if it justifies their refusing to see the doubleness at all, of insisting that Radcliffe, for Austen saw that doubleness, even if she responded to it with characteristic tact. She worried about Radcliffe's affective appeal but without condemning it; and she did not let it undermine her admiration for the ethic of sensibility that Radcliffe's texts manifestly defend. In fact, Northanger Abbey moves towards a subtle endorsement of that ethic, while Catherine acts out a confrontation with the problem of the Gothic's special subjective appeal.


The meaning of Catherine's adventures, including her Gothic aberrations at Northanger, is indissolubly a part of the formal structure of the novel. Without the dual form in which pairs of opposites are dramatically illustrated, especially the contrast between reason and imagination, the growth of wisdom and experience in Catherine Morland would be not only incomplete but also formally chaotic and therefore aesthetically meaningless. In the penultimate chapter, where the contrast between romance and common life is repeated from Chapter ii (Vol. I), Jane Austen achieves a resolution of the antithes is between Gothic romance and the reality of everyday life in the achievement of her own novel: Gothic extravagance does have a place in literature if it serves an aesthetic rather than an empirical function. She seems to banish romantic material from the novel in the comic finality of Catherine's humiliation, but ironically allows it a legitimate existence by the formal success with which she has employed the Gothic episode.

SOURCE: Glock, Waldo S. "Catherine Morland's Gothic Delusions: A Defense of Northanger Abbey." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, no. 32 (1978): 33-46.

Catherine's misreadings and misadventures have been much discussed, but a few points need to be made about them for present purposes. Catherine is a naive reader, consuming Udolpho without ever activating her analytical faculty: she reads for plot and for thrills (1.25). Moreover, she allows Mrs. Radcliffe to activate her dream-making process; and that leads her to confuse fiction and reality as had her cervantick predecessor and, also as he had, to imitate the heroines of her idol. In this case, by practicing physiognomy, by reading a man's character in his face: General Tilney's "silent thoughtfulness," "downcast eyes," and "contracted brow" add up in her roused imagination to the "air and attitude of a Montoni!" (2.150).

Catherine's muddle reflects clear recognition on Austen's part of the danger of Gothic fiction—its activation of passive-agressive fantasies and volatile emotions; but her response to that danger is neither to condemn the reader nor the author, but simply to insist on the separateness of fiction and reality (Glock 44-45) and, even more important, on the inapplicability of emotions depicted and elicited in fiction to life. As Catherine sadly notes to herself after Henry's astonished lecture—"Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" (2.159)—we had best confine our "craving to be frightened" (2.160) to the aesthetic realm.

Northanger Abbey does not limit its evaluation of Radcliffe's subjective appeal, however, to these few negative moments. On the contrary, it contains many suggestions that Udolpho presents Catherine with psychological benefits as well as dangers. It may not enhance her power of selfcontrol, but it nevertheless does increase her abilities to see and to converse. While she views Bath from the hills with the Tilneys, Catherine is able to compare the new scene to Radcliffe's "the south of France" and to chat, as a result, more easily with Henry; and if it guides her aesthetic appreciation of landscape in Bath, it intensifies her moral awareness at the Abbey. On the one hand, this results in a mistaken inference about the General, but, on the other, it also provides a helpful bridge in Catherine's education between the moral idyll of her childhood and the crasser actual world outside her home.

Catherine notices herself that she feels somehow protected by Udolpho—a neglected insight of hers that anticipates Modleski's thesis by 200 years: "While I have Udolpho to read," she assures Isabella Thorpe, "I feel as if nobody could make me miserable" (1.25). The reviewers of Austen's day might have insisted that such an attitude endangered Catherine's virtue; Austen's text, however, demonstrates that Catherine is right, that Udolpho shields her from graver actual dangers, a delightful reversal of the reviewers' favorite cliche. At the Allens', Catherine's "raised, restless, and frightened imagination" busies itself with Udolpho while her adult chaperone worries about dressmakers (1.34). In town Catherine ponders the mystery of the black veil whenever Isabella chatters to her mindlessly about clothes or men or her brother John rattles about carriages and women's faces (1.22-23). Upon arrival at the Tilney abbey, Catherine views the spotless well-lit, modernized interior with the eye of a disappointed Gothic addict, oblivious to the General's struggle to impress her with his riches (1.128). Udolpho may burden Catherine temporarily with a few embarrassing fantasies, but it is often the best of the offered leisure pursuits and a positive preventive to vanity, frivolity, or materialism—a position on novel reading, incidentally, also taken by Mr. Rambler and another of his admirers, Mary Wollstonecraft.9

Implicit in Catherine's story is at least one other tribute to Udolpho: a subtle endorsement of Radcliffe's ethic of sensibility. Those who persist in seeing Catherine as progressing away from such an ethic may be dazzled by the parody into believing that its presence somehow magically banishes everything Radcliffe stood for from Austen's fictive world. If Northanger Abbey moves its heroine away from one kind of subjectivity, however, it is only to move her towards another. It is not so much a progress as a process of refinement, one in which the heroine is gradually divested (Moler 36) of certain excessive traits and certain false friends until she stands before us, at the end, as an approximation of Radcliffe's ideal (granted, that in Austen's fiction there are only approximations of ideals) of rational sensibility (Duckworth 8).

Catherine begins her story as a tomboy, a reluctant scholar, and a naif, still "ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is" (1.5). She is also burdened, however, by excessive sensibility; she is indiscriminately goodnatured and the difficulties she has at Bath stem as much from her "too susceptible heart" as they do from her inexperience. She thinks well of nearly everyone, and refuses to pass judgment on her brother James's new friends, the Thorpes. It seems harsh to infer from this, however, as Stuart Tave has done, that Catherine is an "amiable idiot" (60); for even in the brisk round of mindless activity she is caught up in at Bath, she shows signs of awakening sensitivity, discernment, and self-control. She doubts Henry's playful assertions, she worries about the impropriety of riding in carriages and missing appointments, and she finally sees that she must, for the sake of her own and her friends' feelings, sometimes say no to the whims of others. Her sensibility, even if it renders her gullible, at the same time makes her teachable and flexible, two valuable assets in the complex moral world of Austen's novels.

Isabella presents a particular danger to Catherine in her still malleable condition, that of tempting her to become a heroine of false sensibility. Isabella's mode of discourse, which Catherine begins to echo during her Bath period, is exaggerated and insincere, the vocabulary of sentiment without the substance to back it up that St. Aubert deplores. The Tilneys are a better influence on Catherine. Eleanor Tilney is presented as Isabella's foil, the genuine version of what Isabella professes to be: all decorum, sensitivity, and fellow-feeling. She is very much like her analogue Emily St. Aubert, but with one important exception: she does not wear her heart on her face. Her sensibility is concealed by a quiet reserve (1.38).

In contrast, Henry enters the novel in the role of a talkative antic commentator. He mocks the Bath society's attention to surfaces so much that Catherine concludes, shortly after meeting him, that he indulges "himself a little too much with the foibles of others" (1.15). Gilbert and Gubar agree, pegging him as "his father's son," opinionated, condescending, even insensitive and misogynistic to a degree (140); but the fact remains that he is by far the more sympathetic of Catherine's two suitors. John Thorpe's remarks begina and end with himself and his own concerns; he remains blind to his weaknesses and essentially unaware of the needs of others. In contrast, Henry, even if his discerning mind is sometimes "more nice than wise" (1.84), knows himself and attends to others. He is his sister's counterpart: a complete man of sensibility disguised in motley. He has moral sense, common sense, a keen capacity for empathy, acuteness of apprehension, refined taste, and a capacity for forgiveness too, even of a young woman who sees his father as a murderer! Henry generally keeps this sensibility under cover of his wit; but when he is pressed by his father to abandon Catherine and to consider a financially more advantageous marriage, his sentimental values emerge. He rejects the advice of his father and hastens to Catherine's house to bring about a visibly sentimental unraveling: "He felt hemself bound as much in honour as in affection to Miss Morland" (2.202).10

At Northanger Abbey, then, Catherine is taught to distinguish sentimental fiction from reality, but, as might be surmised by the company she keeps, she is not stripped of her sensibility. Her abbey experiences rather refine her character than revolutionize it. Much that is affected and adolescent falls away at the abbey—the extravagance of diction, imagination, and curiosity. What remains is essentially Radcliffe's ideal: the well-regulated, yet sensitive and charitable, mind. After the General has peremptorily ordered Catherine to leave, even though she is stunned and deeply shamed, she checks her own grief to minister to Eleanor's. When Eleanor begs her, with a "look of sorrow," to write her despite her father's interdict, Catherine's pride melts "in a moment" and she instantly says "Oh, Eleanor, I will write to you indeed" (2.185). Eleanor is equally generous in these last moments, pressing her pocket money on Catherine for the unexpected journey. Not just their tears and words on this occasion, but their acute consciousness of the moral and emotional dimensions of the crisis, their giving and forgiving natures, and their self-control for each others' sakes, mark them as heroines of sensibility in Radcliffe's sense.

Radcliffe's special subjectivity does not seem to me to be sacrificed in this scene or elsewhere in Northanger Abbey. What has been sacrificed, if anything, is the assumption that sensibility is necessarily on the face or in the self-consciousness of the characters. Sensibility here and elsewhere in Austen's works has become so quiet that it is often overlooked. It has no unmistakable surface characteristics.11 It can underlie Henry's teasing conversation as well as the sweet, serious discourse of his sister; Mrs. Allen's absent-minded permissiveness but also Mrs. Morland's gentle scrutiny and periodic lectures. In this context, it should be fairly obvious why Austen seems skeptical of the Gothic frame that Radcliffe had given to sensibility. Austen needed to divest it of the Gothic atmosphere of exaggeration to save it for her own more subtle fictional reality, one where faces more often serve as masks than as windows to the heart.

One can only be sure that someone else has sensibility in an Austen novel after a lapse of time and events: only if a professed concern for others has been translated, as St. Aubert recommends, into actions, tested by adversity, and remains unshaken, is it true sensibility. Three characters in Northanger Abbey clearly fail this test of time, even though they imagine themselves in firm possession of aesthetic and moral sense: both the Thorpes' and the General's attentiveness to Cathe-rine melt away with their misconceptions of the Morland fortune. In contrast, there is no special awareness in Eleanor, Henry, Mrs. Morland, or Catherine that their actions can be identified with a code called sensibility, yet they obviously can. It is as if, to survive, sensibility has gone underground. Radcliffe had declared it to be normative; Austen rather clearly but unobtrusively assumes it to be, mentioning it less often than Radcliffe but nevertheless granting it a central position in Northanger Abbey that it never after relinquishes. People with it in her novels—Catherine, Marianne Dashwood, Colonel Brandon, Anne Elliott, and Fanny Price—need never be given up for lost; and those without it (just as St. Aubert had assured Emily)—the Thorpes, the Misses Steele or Bertram—are seldom to be saved. For Austen not only is sensibility, as it is for Radcliffe, a measure of moral excellence and the key to true propriety; it has also become the leaven for growth, the secret ingredient of her Bildungsroman. Clearly, Northanger Abbey does not mark the death of Radcliffe's sensibility but rather its fruitful transfiguration.


1. Stuart M. Tave argues persuasively for this keen distinction between Radcliffe and Austen. Others who do so include Frank W. Bradbrook, Waldo S. Glock, Kenneth Moler, and Mary Lascelles.

2. They base their arguments on Harold Bloom's assumptions about authors and their predecessors and the "anxiety of influence." Judith Wilt offers a similar reading but her focus is not so conspicuously feminist. My own revisionist reading is closest to Jean Hagstrum's, who sees Austen's novels as contemplative reconsiderations of the values of sensibility. I draw on Hans-Robert Jauss's reception theory; particularly, on his convictions that texts are best considered in contexts, in relationship to analagous works in their time (synchronic study) and in the past (diachronic study), and that these relationships are nearly always complex ones.

3. Cf. the similar readings of David Levine, of Judith Wilt, who sees Austen's heroines trying to "cut … destructive emotion down to size" (135), and of Coral Ann Howells, who emphasizes Austen's greater atten tion to "balance" in matters of feeling.

4. Katharine Rogers has suggested that eighteenth-century English women writers felt, to some degree, liberated by the literary mode of sensibility, even though they were often ambivalent about it. It authorized the expression of emotions which the culture-at-large (and their conduct books) did not. Sensibility may have appealed to women on a number of other levels as well: linguistic, social, ethical. Women at the time were encouraged to be silent, or if allowed to speak, were untrained to speak the language of pure logic. Sensibility valued the non-verbal forms of communication fostered by silence—sympathy, facial expression, gesture—and it spoke characteristically in a language that was alogical, that blended together thought and emotion. They faced poverty, even disgrace, if they were ever judged harshly by parents or husbands. The literature of sensibility emphasized suitors, husbands, and fathers who forgave. The fascination of women writers and readers of fiction with sensibility in the eighteenth century received attention early in our century from J. M. S. Tompkins. More recently, their interest in foreign literature of sensibility has been under investigation by Grieder and Conger.

5. Gary Kelly (51) sees the importance of sensibility for Radcliffe but believes that reason constitutes for her an opposing set of values. Howells does, too, discussing feeling in various Gothic novelists, including Rad cliffe, in a much more general sense.

6. Useful critics on sensibility besides Louis Bredvold are Ronald S. Crane, Jean Hagstrum, John K. Sheriff, and Ian Watt. For special attention to women, see also Carol Gilligan, Katharine Rogers, and Patricia M. Spacks.

7. Nina da Vinci Nichols (205) has recently made an important distinction between Radcliffe's and Matthew G. Lewis's Gothic fiction. Radcliffe's characters are concerned about identity and "power over the self"; Lewis's Ambrosio is motivated by a desire for "power over others."

8. Theodore Ziolkowski reiterates the necessity of reason in the making of Gothic literature in Disenchanted Images.

9. See Samuel Johnson's Rambler No. 4 and Mary Wollstoncraft's Vindication (18.2). See also the works by Robert Scholes on Johnson and Austen and by Lloyd W. Brown and Margaret Kirkham on Austen and Feminism.

10. The conclusion of Northanger Abbey is a visibly sentimental unraveling. Radcliffe could hardly have done better. The heroine sits over her needlework, "sunk again, without knowing it herself, into languor and listlessness." The hero suddenly arrives and is introduced by a "conscious daughter" to her mother; and he is doing his best to apologize for the lack of propriety in his sudden appearance "with the embarrassment of real sensibility." The mother, too, manages a good-natured response: "He did not address himself to an uncandid judge or a resentful heart. Far from comprehending him or his sister in their father's misconduct, Mrs. Morland … received him with the simple professions of unaffected benevolence … (2.196).

11. Spacks sheds valuable light on Austen's interest in concealment.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey Ed. John Davie. New York: Oxford UP, 1980.

Bloom Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Bradbrook, Frank W. Jane Austen and Her Predecessors. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Bredvold, Louis I. The Natural History of Sensibility. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1962.

Brown, Lloyd W. "Jane Austen and the Feminist Tradition." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 28 (1973): 321-38.

Butler, Marilyn. "The Woman at the Window: Ann Radcliffe in the Novels of Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen." Women and Literature 1 (1980): 128-48.

Conger, Syndy M. "Fellow Travellers: Englishwomen and German Literature." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 14 (1984): 143-71.

Crane, Ronald S. "Suggestions towards a Genealogy of the 'Man of Feeling.'" English Literary History 1 (1934): 205-30.

Duckworth, Alistair. The Improvement of the Estate. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.

Fleenor, Julian E. Ed. "Introduction," The Female Gothic. Montreal, Quebec: Eden, 1983. 3-28.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Glock, Waldo. "Catherine Morland's Gothic Illusions: A Defense of Northanger Abbey." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 32.1 (1978): 33-46.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werter: A German Story. Trans. Richard Graves. London: Dodsley, 1779.

Grieder, Josephine. Translations of French Sentimental Prose Fiction in Late Eighteenth-Century England: The History of a Literary Vogue. Durham: Duke UP, 1975.

Hagstrum, Jean. Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone, 1978.

Jauss, Hans-Robert. Literaturgeschichte Als Provokation Der Literaturwissenschaft. Muenchen (Munich): Wilhelm Fink, 1979.

Kahane, Claire. "Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity." The Centennial Review (Winter 1980): 43-64.

Kelly, Gary. "'The Constant Vicissitude of Interesting Passions' Ann Radcliffe's Perplexed Narratives." Ariel-E 10 (1979): 45-64.

Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1983.

Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1939.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1982.

Moler, Kenneth. Jane Austen's Art of Allusion. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.

Nichols, Nina da Vinci. "Place and Eros in Radcliffe, Lewis, and Brontë." In The Female Gothic see under Fleenor).

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. Ed. Frederick Garber. London: Oxford UP, 1968. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed. Bonomy Dobree. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Railo, Eino. The Haunted Castle. New York: Humanities, 1964.

Rogers, Katharine M. "The Liberating Effect of Sentimentalism." Ch. 4 in Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1982.

Scholes, Robert. "Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen." Philological Quarterly 54 (1975): 380-90.

Sheriff, John K. The Good-Natured Man: The Evolution of a Moral Ideal, 1660–1800. University: U of Alabama P, 1982.

Spacks, Patricia M. "Taking Care." Ch. 3 of The Female Imagination. London: Allen and Unwin, 1976.

Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1973.

Tompkins, J.M.S. The Popular Novel in England, 1770–1800. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1961.

Watt, Ian. "Sense Triumphantly Introduced to Sensibility." In Jane Austen: "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Mansfield Park": A Casebook. Ed. B. C. Southam. New York: Macmillan, 1976. 119-29.

Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Ed. Charles W. Hagelman, Jr. New York: Norton, 1967.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Disenchanted Images: A Literary Iconology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.


SOURCE: Lamont, Claire. "Jane Austen's Gothic Architecture." In Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Developments in the Gothic Tradition, edited by Valeria Tinkler-Villani, Peter Davidson, and Jane Stevenson, pp. 107-15. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

In the following essay, Lamont discusses the significance and symbolic use of Gothic architecture in Northanger Abbey.

When Catherine Morland is invited to visit the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey these are her reflections:

She was to be their chosen visitor, she was to be for weeks under the same roof with the person whose society she mostly prized—and, in addition to all the rest, this roof was to be the roof of an abbey!—Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney—and castles and abbies made usually the charm of those reveries which his image did not fill. To see and explore either the ramparts and keep of the one, or the cloisters of the other, had been for many weeks a darling wish, though to be more than the visitor of an hour, had seemed too nearly impossible for desire. And yet, this was to happen. With all the chances against her of house, hall, place, park, court, and cottage, Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun.1

This paper is about Jane Austen's Gothic architecture. I have started with a quotation which expresses Catherine Morland's view of Gothic architecture, that it is a matter of "castles and abbies". The Gothic novels of the late-eighteenth century make frequent use of these two types of medieval building, the castle and the monastery, both of which had a domestic function but were not primarily defined by that function. As these two settings figure repeatedly in Gothic novels they come to take on features of two opposing signifying systems. The castle is associated with aggression, extroversion and the male; it dominates its landscape. The monastery is associated with repression, introversion and the female, and lies half-hidden in a valley. It is typical of early Gothic novels to be set in remote parts of continental Europe, and in an earlier century. However vestigial the historical sense of the novelists they set their novels in some sort of medieval world. In Northanger Abbey, however, the setting is in the south-west of England in Jane Austen's present, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Medieval castles and monasteries were visible in her world but both would have lost their raison d'être, military or spiritual. They would be visible as ruined, restored or imitated.

In Northanger Abbey the heroine makes her first visit from home to Bath, apparently one of the least Gothic of settings. Having been originally a Roman settlement, it was rebuilt in the eighteenth century with neo-classical architecture as the medicinal properties of its waters were exploited. From Bath Catherine Morland makes two Gothic excursions. The first is the abortive trip to Blaize Castle; the second is the visit to Northanger Abbey. Catherine imagines Blaize Castle to be "an edifice like Udolpho" (102), and before agreeing to go on the trip asks "may we go all over it? may we go up every staircase, and into every suite of rooms?" (102) She anticipates "the happiness of a progress through a long suite of lofty rooms" or "along narrow, winding vaults" (104). The party never reaches Blaize Castle, and it is never actually pointed out in the novel that it was it was not, as John Thorpe had asserted, an old castle, "the oldest in the kingdom" (101), but an eighteenth-century Gothic imitation.2

There is no doubt about the age of Northanger Abbey. Catherine learns its history from Eleanor Tilney:

Many were the inquiries she was eager to make of Miss Tilney; but so active were her thoughts, that when these inquiries were answered, she was hardly more assured than before, of Northanger Abbey having been a richly-endowed convent at the time of the Reformation, of its having fallen into the hands of an ancestor of the Tilneys on its dissolution, of a large portion of the ancient building still making a part of the present dwelling although the rest was decayed, or of its standing low in a valley, sheltered from the north and east by rising woods of oak.

Critics of the Gothic motif of the monastery usually stress imprisonment rather than the spiritual role of such a building. A monastic building in the Gothic novel is a place where someone is kept either against their will or at least in denial of the full range of their passions. Catherine Morland shares this view; she expects to find evidence of "an injured and ill-fated nun" (150). Eleanor Tilney's account of the history of Northanger Abbey, however, does not appear to invite that interpretation. Northanger had been "a well-endowed convent at the Reformation" which had "fallen into the hands of an ancestor of the Tilneys on its dissolution" ("fallen" implies either coming down, or chance). The word "convent" was in the late eighteenth century just acquiring its specific modern meaning of a religious house3 We may read the convent as a safe and spiritual retreat for women, which has now become the personal property of one man. What was endowed as a convent has become a private house where women are oppressed by one man, and a man significantly called General Tilney. His name indicates that he would be more at home in a castle. Catherine Morland, who is not interested in history, and particularly not the "quarrels of popes and kings" (123), does not meditate on this paradox. For her a castle or an abbey would do. She does not detect that although castles may have lost their original purpose with the cessation of fighting, it is a question whether the same can be said of a convent. One thing that the English Reformation has achieved is to give the powerful male, whose attributes are reflected in the castle, ownership also of the convent.

General Tilney exercises his ownership of Northanger Abbey in a way that no other man does in Jane Austen's novels. In her other novels a woman is mistress of the house and is in charge of the domestic arrangements. This is still the case when the mistress is not a wife but an unmarried daughter. Even Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion does not deny his daughter her rights as mistress of the house. General Tilney issues invitations on behalf of his daughter and orders meals, overriding his daughter in each case (148, 171, 186). Catherine expects the domestic arrangements at Northanger to be in Eleanor's hands: after Henry Tilney's frightening account of a Gothic bedroom she takes comfort from the belief that "Miss Tilney, she was sure, would never put her into such a chamber as he had described!" (167) (She does not say that the Abbey would not have such a chamber.)

Jane Austen's norm of village Anglicanism does not imply that society is any the better for the dissolution of a convent. Catherine Morland's progress in the novel is from her parsonage home at Fullerton to the vicarage she will share with Henry Tilney at Woodston. Between these two havens of integrity she visits Bath and Northanger. Both of these, built as places of healing, have lost their proper function and are now given over to fashion and materialism.

Catherine's Gothic reveries are filled with "castles and abbies": "To see and explore either the ramparts and keep of the one, or the cloisters of the other, had been for many weeks a darling wish …" (150). For Catherine a Gothic castle should contain, besides its defining architectural features of ramparts and keep, towers and long galleries, suites of lofty rooms, many staircases, and narrow, winding vaults (101-102, 104). An abbey should have cloisters, long, damp passages, narrow cells and a ruined chapel (150). That much she has gathered from her reading of Gothic novels, before her conversation with Henry Tilney in the curricle on the way to Northanger. He confirms her view that a Gothic house has staircases, gloomy passages and lofty rooms, not to mention "a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St Anthony, scarcely two miles off" (164, 166).

How are these expectations fulfilled at Northanger Abbey? Jane Austen does not usually spend much time describing a house from the outside. She is more interested in a house as a living space, and with its interior dynamics. However, the approach to a Gothic building is an important descriptive moment in the Gothic novel, and Catherine's first sight of Northanger Abbey cannot be passed over:

every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney.


In the Gothic that draws on architecture the façade is frequently presented as the face in front of the labyrinthine brain behind (Poe's House of Usher is perhaps the most famous example). Northanger Abbey will not be read from the outside, and the heroine enters with no guidance.4

Once inside, Catherine is first shown into "the common drawing-room". The architectural feature mentioned in that room is the Gothic window:

The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the General talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure the pointed arch was preserved—the form of them was Gothic—they might be even casements—but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.


Catherine is obviously in a house which has undergone modern restoration. The General has preserved the pointed arches of the windows, but has made a compromise with history in not restoring painted glass, small divisions in the panes, dirt, and cobwebs. He has picked on a characteristic feature, the pointed arch, for preservation and discreetly modernized the rest. The Gothic here appears to be optional; it is not structurally necessary. Catherine may criticize this compromise, but then she has no clear sense of the implications of what she is asking for. She wants not only the original windows, but also the dirt derived, presumably, from many years of subsequent neglect. As her mother was to remark of her, "Catherine would make a sad heedless young house-keeper to be sure …" (245).

Of all Jane Austen's novels, Northanger Abbey gives the most detailed description of a domestic interior. It is the only one of her novels to make serious use of architecture in its plot. The Gothic house with its complicated interior, its subterranean vaults, or, especially in later novels, its attics, lends itself to interpretation which sees these architectural features as representing aspects of life which have been frustrated or repressed. For all Henry Tilney's terrifying description of the subterranean passage that leads from the heroine's bedroom to the ruined chapel of St Anthony (166) Northanger Abbey is not described as having any subterranean passages, not even a decent cellar. Nor is it described as having an attic. The architecture, and any psychological reading of it, is not based on a vertical view of the house with "normal life" on one or two floors and the suppressed abnormal in basement or attic below or above. The important architectural feature of Northanger Abbey is not its vertical dimensions, but its horizontal ones. Catherine expected an abbey to have cloisters; Northanger Abbey does; it is based on a quadrangle.

On her first evening Catherine sees that the house is built on a quadrangle (168). The next day she is given a tour. The house surrounds a court (181), and it has two floors. On the ground floor are the public rooms and offices, and on the upper floor the bedrooms. The rooms on the ground floor are tall, which is why the "broad staircase of shining oak" required "many flights and many landing-places" to reach the upper floor (168). Catherine is first taken round the building on the ground floor. She is taken through a suite of rooms: the "common drawing-room", which led into "a useless anti-chamber" which led in turn into "the real-drawing-room" which led into the library (186). Catherine had expected a Gothic building to offer "suites of rooms", that is rooms leading off each other, rather than each going off a hall or corridor. Northanger Abbey offers such a suite, though not quite up to Catherine's wishes (186). As she is taken round the quadrangle she is told that three sides retain the original Gothic architecture, and that of these one was more Gothic than the other two in that it retained elements of its convent origin in the remains of a cloister and cells (187). The fourth side of the building was modern. After being shown round the ground floor, Catherine is taken upstairs. There, the organization of the rooms was different. The rooms did not open off one another in a suite, but there was on the inner side of the quadrangle a corridor or gallery, whose windows looked across the quadrangle, and off this gallery were the bedrooms whose windows therefore looked outwards (168). Eleanor Tilney shows Catherine round the upper floor, but she is twice interrupted by an imperious request from her father before they can get right round. On both occasions they are stopped at a folding door, on the far side of which is the room which Eleanor's mother had occupied (189, 194). The consequence is that Catherine has been taken round the house on the ground floor; but only round part of it on the upper floor.

Catherine had glimpsed beyond the folding door on the upper floor "a narrower passage, more numerous openings, and symptoms of a winding stair-case" (189). She deduced that this was the side of the house where the remains of the original abbey were most preserved (191). She had seen that it had a staircase, and her Gothic imagination had speculated that Mrs Tilney could have been taken down it "in a state of well-prepared insensibility" (191). On the third attempt to see Mrs Tilney's room Catherine goes alone.5 She walks round the gallery, through the folding door, and enters Mrs Tilney's room (196). She is disappointed. It is a pleasant modern room, with sash windows, through which the western sun was shining. Gothic rooms, as had been established earlier, have casement windows (168). It was usually the east wing in a Gothic novel that was the most ruinous.6 Catherine had wanted to visit a Gothic house; she has done so, and has been muddled by its architecture. She realizes her mistake in interpreting the upper floor of Northanger Abbey in terms of her Gothic expectations rather than in the light of her knowledge of the ground floor. She knew that the fourth side of the quadrangle was modern; but she had not supposed Mrs Tilney's room to be at one end of that side (196).

I have suggested that an important feature of the Gothic interior is the suite of rooms, one room leading off another. In the Gothic building the room does not have have certain bounds. This is true on the ground floor of Northanger Abbey, where one room leads off another in wealthy show. It is of more threatening significance in the Gothic bedroom. As Henry Tilney points out, a Gothic heroine hoping to have safety at last in a bedroom finds that the room has no lock, or that some hidden door opens off it (165-66). The Gothic bedroom is not a place of security because its bounds are not secure; there might be a hidden opening within it leading to a succession of vaulted chambers containing who knows what horrors, most of which are not at first noticed.7 This is the parodic version of the splendid suite of rooms. The two versions of the suite of rooms may be thought of as representing public show and private neurosis. At Northanger Abbey Catherine was relieved to find that her room was decorated with wallpaper (169). The Gothic bedroom would be hung with tapestry, and there would be no knowing, until some storm of wind revealed an irregularity in the wall behind, what sort of hidden entrance it might conceal. It is an indication of the all-revealing nature of modern architecture, and the speedy collapse of her Gothic fantasies, that Catherine was so sure that the doors that she observed in Mrs Tilney's modern room led only to dressing-closets that she did not even bother to check that that was so: "she had no inclination to open either" (196).

It is a feature of recent criticism of Northanger Abbey to acknowledge but not stress Catherine's Gothic disappointments. Feminist critics in particular have drawn attention to the fact that while Catherine may have been mistaken in thinking that Mrs Tilney had been either murdered or imprisoned, no one believes that she had been a happy woman. The patriarchal power of General Tilney over the women in his household is the modern equivalent of the authoritarian power of the Gothic hero.8 The fact that Catherine's three disappointments (over the chest, the ebony cabinet and Mrs Tilney's room) all involve her expectations of Gothic evidence being followed by an extremely domestic reality (the folded counterpane, the laundry list, and the well-kept bedroom) can be read as a reproof to Catherine for her failure to realize the progress of society which has allowed a comfortable home to supersede the discomforts of the Gothic. Or, following Katherine Ferguson Ellis, her discoveries can be read as representing the tyranny of the home-as-haven ideal on the woman who inhabits it.9 In such readings Northanger Abbey is a Gothic novel in spite of itself.

Northanger Abbey is a Gothic novel which uses architecture as a way of exploring unacknowledged areas of human psychology. If one such area is patriarchal power, another is the nature of the attraction which Catherine feels for Henry Tilney. Repeatedly, Catherine's interest in Gothic architecture is matched by her interest in Henry Tilney: "Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney" (149). On the way to Blaize Castle she had "meditated, by turns, on broken promises and broken arches, phaetons and false hangings, Tilneys and trapdoors" (103). On the road to Northanger she had "an abbey before, and a curricle behind" (162). In deciding to explore Mrs Tilney's room on her own she chooses a day when Henry Tilney is away. But he returns before he is expected. Catherine has just let herself out of the bedroom and closed the door:

At that instant a door underneath was hastily opened; some one seemed with swift steps to ascend the stairs, by the head of which she had yet to pass before she could gain the gallery. She had no power to move. With a feeling of terror not very definable, she fixed her eyes on the staircase, and in a few moments it gave Henry to her view.

"Mr Tilney!" she exclaimed in a voice of more than common astonishment. He looked astonished too. "Good God!" she continued, not attending to his address, "how came you here?—how came you up that staircase?"

"How came I up that staircase!" he replied, greatly surprised. "Because it is my nearest way from the stable-yard to my own chamber; and why should I not come up it?"


Catherine had not experienced Gothic terror in the bedroom; she was feeling it now. Catherine knew that Gothic buildings had staircases, and she knew of the existence of this one. She is surprised because the only function she had had for that staircase was for Mrs Tilney to be brought down it "in a state of well-prepared insensibility". The staircase had not delivered an unconscious woman, however, but a lover come back before he was expected.

Northanger Abbey is the only novel by Jane Austen in which the heroine goes to stay in the hero's home, and there is sexual tension in her use of its architecture. Catherine's love of Henry Tilney and her love of the Gothic had always been confused. In her search for Mrs Tilney's room she manages to put herself in the direct route between the stables and Henry's bedroom. As Henry points out where she stands is in his space rather than in hers:

"This passage is at least as extraordinary a road from the breakfast-parlour to your apartment, as that staircase can be from the stables to mine."


There seems to be sexual adventure in Catherine's Gothic enquiries. Her conscious mind is exploring a Gothic bedroom; but in so doing she is suppressing knowledge she had about the house. Henry Tilney rushing up the staircase while she is frozen at the top of it is a powerful image. Her astonished question, "how came you here?" is a statement of her failure to understand the architecture which had so engrossed her imagination.


1. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), ed. Anne Henry Ehrenpreis, Penguin, 1972, 149-50.

2. Andor Gomme, Michael Jenner and Bryan Little, Bristol: An Architectural History, London, 1979, 174-75.

3. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn, 1989, convent, sb., 6.

4. In contrast, Emma remarks of the other abbey in Jane Austen's novels, Donwell Abbey, home of Mr Knightley, "It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was" (Emma [1816], ed. Ronald Blythe, Penguin, 1966, 353).

5. Catherine's solitary exploration of Northanger may draw on Blanche's exploration of Chateau-le-Blanc in Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), ed. Bonamy Dobrée, Oxford, 1966, 479-80.

6. For instance in The Mysteries of Udolpho, 377. This detail was picked up by Walter Scott in a humorous account of the types of novel popular in his day, "… must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited …" (Waverley [1814], ed. Claire Lamont, Oxford, 1981, 3).

7. This is true of Emily's bedroom at Udolpho (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 235) and Adeline's in Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest (1791), ed. Chloe Chard, Oxford, 1986, 144.

8. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven and London, 1979, 135.

9. Kate Ferguson Ellis, The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology, 1989, x-xii.



Handley, Graham. Jane Austen: A Guide Through the Critical Maze. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 139 p.

Provides a guide to Austen criticism from early reviews through the 1980s.

Roth, Barry. An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1984–94, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996, 438 p.

Offers a bibliography of studies on Jane Austen.


Austen-Leigh, James. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: R. Bentley, 1870, 364 p.

Presents an affectionate biography of Austen by her nephew.

Chapman, R. W. Jane Austen: Facts and Problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948, 224 p.

Provides an early biography by one of Austen's twentieth-century critics.

Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, 399 p.

Links Austen's life to her works.

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A Biography. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1948, 286 p.

Offers a detailed treatment of Austen's life and works.

Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997, 512 p.

Attempts to correct the portrait of the sweet maiden aunt painted by Austen's family; considered by critics to be somewhat speculative in its alternative interpretation of Austen's life.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997, 352 p.

Offers a popular biography focusing on Austen's family.


Auerbach, Nina. "Jane Austen and Romantic Imprisonment." In Jane Austen in a Social Context, edited by David Monaghan, pp. 9-27. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Discusses tone, satire, and Gothic elements in Northanger Abbey.

Clarke, Stephen. "Abbeys Real and Imagined: Northanger, Fonthill, and Aspects of the Gothic Revival." Persuasions 20 (1998): 93-105.

Compares Austen's depiction of Gothic architecture and the monastery to Gothic conventions, within the context of Gothic Revival architecture.

Derry, Stephen. "Freud, the Gothic, and Coat Symbolism in Northanger Abbey." Persuasions 18 (December 1996): 49-53.

Theories of Sigmund Freud inform this assessment of the use of the coat as a symbol of Catherine Morland's sexuality in Northanger Abbey.

Dussinger, John A. "Parents against Children: General Tilney as Gothic Monster." Persuasions 20 (1998): 165-74.

Explores Austen's gothicism in her representation of General Tilney as an example of cruelty in parent-child relations in Northanger Abbey.

Gay, Penny. "In the Gothic Theatre." Persuasions 20 (1998): 175-84.

Offers parallels between the handling of anxiety and fear in Northanger Abbey and in Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest.

Hermansson, Casie. "Neither Northanger Abbey: The Reader Presupposes." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 36, no. 4 (fall 2000): 337-56.

Assesses Northanger Abbey as a parody of a Gothic novel.

Hoeveler, Diane. "Vindicating Northanger Abbey: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Gothic Feminism." In Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, edited by Devoney Looser, pp. 117-35. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Studies correlations between the feminist ideals expressed in Northanger Abbey and in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Jerinic, Maria. "In Defense of the Gothic: Rereading Northanger Abbey." In Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, edited by Devoney Looser, pp. 137-49. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Rejects the classification of Northanger Abbey as a parody of the Gothic novel and argues that it is "an imitation, and not a complete rejection, of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho."

Levine, George. "Translating the Monstrous: Northanger Abbey." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 30, no. 3 (December 1975): 335-50.

Maintains that General Tilney's "monstrousness is part of Jane Austen's literary imagination," and argues that the fact that Northanger Abbey is "to a certain extent trapped by the materials of literary gimmickry it rejects" is an intentional, integral part of parodic style and is evocative of Austen's later novels.

Mudrick, Marvin. "The Literary Pretext Continued: Irony versus Gothicism: Northanger Abbey." In Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, pp. 37-49. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Regards Austen's juxtaposition of the "Gothic and bourgeois worlds" in "ironic contrast" in Northanger Abbey as the author's method of "invalidat[ing]" the Gothic narrative form.

Roberts, Bette B. "The Horrid Novels: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey." In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited and with an afterword by Kenneth W. Graham, pp. 89-111. New York: AMS, 1989.

Compares Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho to Northanger Abbey, identifying elements in the latter work as parody of the former.

Sears, Albert C. "Male Novel Reading of the 1790s, Gothic Literature and Northanger Abbey." Persuasions 21 (1999): 106-12.

Views Northanger Abbey in terms of its perspective on male readers of Gothic fiction at the end of the eighteenth century.

Tandrup, Birthe. "Free Indirect Style and the Critique of the Gothic in Northanger Abbey." In Romantic Heritage: A Collection of Critical Essays, pp. 81-92. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1983.

Highlights Austen's use of free indirect discourse to denounce Gothic literature in Northanger Abbey.

Wallace, Tara Ghoshal. "Northanger Abbey and the Limits of Parody." Studies in the Novel 20 (1988): 262-73.

Remarks on the roles of the narrator and the reader in the parodic discourse in Northanger Abbey.

Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980, 307 p.

Full-length analysis of gothicism in the works of Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence.


Additional coverage of Austen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; British Writers, Vol. 4; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789–1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 116; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Modules, Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 13, 19, 33, 51, 81, 95, 119, 150; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 14, 18, 20; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Vol. 1.

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Austen, Jane (1775 - 1817)

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