You know Jane Austen, right? Writing in the late 18th and early 19th century, her books largely focus on young ladies wanting or needing to get married. Sometimes praised for her biting wit and social commentary, sometimes dismissed as ‘chick lit’, everyone’s at least heard of her.
The first novel she wrote, although one of the last to be published, was Northanger Abbey. It’s about a seventeen-year-old girl who falls in love with a gentleman from a much richer family than her own. So far, so Austen.
But quite a lot of the book is a parody of Gothic novels, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho.
For example, when they are riding from Bath to Northanger Abbey, Catherine (the heroine) is being teased by Henry (the chap she wants to marry) about what she’ll find:
In repassing through the small vaulted room, however, your eyes will be attracted towards a large old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold, which, though narrowly examining the furniture before, you had passed unnoticed. Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer, but for some time without discovering anything of importance, perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner apartment will open, a roll of paper appears, you seize it—it contains many sheets of manuscript; you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher, “Oh, thou, whomsoever thou mayest be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall,” when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness.
Catherine is almost disappointed when she arrives at Northanger Abbey and sees the relatively modern design. But that night when the fire has gone out and she’s heading to bed, she spots an old-fashioned black cabinet that she hadn’t noticed before – what a remarkable coincidence!
She takes her candle and goes for a closer look. She opens it after some difficulty and searches through the drawers. In the last place she looks, she finds a roll of papers – how thrilling!
But in her excitement, she snuffs out the candle and can’t read the papers until the morning. How can she wait until then? The night is full of terrors.
Morning comes at last so she can finally read the papers. What news of wretched Matilda?
Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand. She seized another sheet, and saw the same articles with little variation; a third, a fourth, and a fifth presented nothing new. Shirts, stockings, cravats, and waistcoats faced her in each.
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3 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Gothic Parody”
I loved Northanger Abbey and it also put me onto The Mysteries of Udolpho although the two are quite different as your post suggests.
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I think Northanger Abbey is her best novel – I find it so strange that it was her first but one of the last to be published!
I read The Mysteries of Udolpho because I needed a book about the Venice carnival. Thanks to Northanger Abbey, I was convinced it’d be beyond stupid, but I loved it. I love Henry Tilney too. Mr Darcy may be very attractive but he’d probably be hard work to live with, Edmund Bertram’s a bit boring, Mr Knightley’s a bit bossy and Edward Ferrars is a bit of a prat … Henry Tilney or Captain Wentworth would be the best ones to live with!
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