Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Adventure classics -- Love letter, but no requiem, to gothics

Northanger Abbey

by Jane Austen


“But are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?” Catherine Morland asks her new acquaintance, Isabella Thorpe concerning the gruesome delights of the gothic novels she has recently discovered.

“Yes, quite sure,” Isabella replies, in perhaps the only true words she will utter for the entire length of Jane Austen’s earliest novel, Northanger Abbey.

Austen’s sister Cassandra stated in her own Memorandum that the book was written when Jane was in her early twenties, with 17-year-old Catherine as one of Austen’s younger protagonists. And although Austen revised the book a few years later in hopes of publication (which actually didn’t take place until after her death in 1817) , it still reads as a youthful tribute to her love affair with the gothic novels that were the best sellers of their day.

But we can trust Jane Austen not to blindly mimic such delights of her girlhood as Castle of Wolfenbach, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries, titles once thought to be products of Austen’s imagination but now known to be real, if deservedly forgotten, books.

“Austen herself must have loved these books, in a perverse, guilty-pleasure sort of way,” former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz writes in A Jane Austen Education. “She could never have lampooned them as brilliantly as she did if she hadn’t been reading them by the bucketful--and you don’t keep reading what you simply despise. But the joke on Catherine was that she believed what she read.”

Catherine Morland, like all good Austen heroines, has made a pilgrimage from her home village to Bath, plunging into its social scene with the aid of new acquaintances like Isabella Thorp. Reassured by Isabella’s recommendation, Catherine plunges into an orgy
of horror reading that, combined with the machinations of her supposed friend, leaves the naïve heroine unable to distinguish reality from imagination for most of the remainder of Austen’s tale.

Both the humor and suspense of Northanger Abbey depend on having Catherine terrify herself with the horror story clichés of her imagination while remaining unaware, in another tradition of the genre, of the actual dangers surrounding her -- an attempted abduction by Isabella’s brother, the pressure of another suitor’s father to make what he believes to be a wealthy marriage, even the liaison of Isabella with the brother of Catherine’s true love in waiting, Henry Tilney.

“What have you been judging from?“ Henry finally asks, calming Catherine’s fears that a murderous mystery lurks in his family’s ancestral home of Northanger Abbey. “Can (atrocities) be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this. . . Where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?”

And although a malice greater but more merely human than either Henry or Catherine can imagine still awaits them, Catherine for the moment renounces her fearful imaginings.

Fortunately for lovers of horror, not every Englishwoman was so easily soothed. The year after Northanger Abbey’s appearance in print saw the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In following generations, Emily and Charlotte Bronte would regenerate such horror themes as “a young man whose origin was unknown” and “a wife not beloved.” And so on through Daphne DuMaurier, Ruth Rendell, and a swarm of vampires, zombies, and ax-wielding killers surpassing all the horrors of Austen’s day. Sane Jane would, no doubt, have reveled in them.

(Next Wednesday, Texan Robert E. Howard’s take on the zombie legend and an African-American folk tale, “Pigeons from Hell.”)

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