Northanger Abbey is generally perceived to be a Neo-classical parody of Gothic fiction. In order to understand how Austen satirises Gothic fiction it is necessary to understand what is meant by the term Gothic and why Austen is seemingly attacking this genre. The Gothic novel, it is said, came into existence with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto although some trace it back to the supernatural events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth. The term Gothic is taken from a highly decorative, and some would say excessive, form of Architecture. The central themes of Gothic novels are their excessiveness and their inexplicable and convoluted plot lines.
They tend to be extremely formulaic with castles, chains, ghouls and the ever present heroine of questionable bloodlines. The Gothic Novel is also extreme with extremes of situation, language and feeling. This is in marked contrast with the Neo-classical mistrust of emotion. The Neo-classical age is also known as ” The Age of Reason “. The Eighteenth Century saw many leaps forward in the fields of Medicine, Science and Industry. The whole era is characterised by its reason and judgement, its clearheaded pragmatism and a dislike of the superstition of the earlier periods.
Those who embraced this new age felt they could achieve excellence in all fields by emulating the Classical age of the Greeks and the Romans. The Neo-classical writers were of course a reflection of this age. Not for them the excess and frivolity of the Gothic writers rather they promoted reason,balance and decorum. For many Neo-classical writers the extremes of emotion displayed in the Gothic Novel could in fact undermine society. The basis of society, they felt, must be moderation and rationality. This was the age into which Jane Austen was born and the atmosphere into which Northanger Abbey was introduced.
Austen as a Neo-classical writer is aware of the perils of Gothic values and so sets out to attack them. The methods she uses are satire and irony. Straight away in Chapter One she attacks telling us that her Heroine, Catherine Morland, is very ordinary and from an ordinary family. Her Father is ” Not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters,” a typical Gothic trait in a Father. We are introduced to Catherine’s Mother as a ” woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper. ” these are standard Neo-classical traits. Austen, sarcastically, tells us that ” instead of dying … s anyone might expect,” she ” lived to have six children more. ”
A Gothic heroines mother would have died giving birth to her thus leaving her at the mercy of a cruel father or worse still an orphan. Not Catherine her life is as uneventful as she is ordinary and as normal as she is plain. Catherine’s entrance in to social life, a trip to Bath, is again no dazzling affair. Her family far from imploring her to beware of ” the violence of such Noblemen and Baronets as delight in forcing young ladies to some remote farmhouse. ” instead advise her to wrap up warmly.
Austen again mocks the Gothic genre by contrasting the excess of emotion with the practicalities of everyday life. In a brilliant summing up of Neo-classical values we are told that all things relating to the journey were done “with a degree of moderation and composure, which seemed rather consistent with the common feeling of common life. ” Catherine’s chaperone on this journey to Bath, Mrs Allen, is we are told a gentle woman with ” a great deal of quiet good temper. ” totally opposite to what one might expect in a Gothic novel. One would expect a chaperone who will ” probably contribute to reduce poor Catherine to … esperate wretchedness. ” note the sarcastic ” probably”. When first we encounter Henry Tilney, the Neo-classical hero, Austen immediately persuades us to look upon him positively. The descriptions such as ” rather tall … pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and if not quite handsome, was very near it. ” are very revealing. A Gothic hero would be visually striking but Henry, like Catherine is fairly ordinary.
There is no explosion of sexual chemistry when first they meet just a little teasing and then as Henry Tilney puts it we may be rational again. ” Rationality the mark of a true hero. We are told that Henry also helps his sister to choose gowns and hopes that he is a great comfort to her. A Gothic character would probably sell his sister as a slave. Isabella Thorpe is introduced by her Mother as finer than her other sisters and Austen wastes no time in influencing our opinions of her. Isabella’s insincerity is apparent almost immediately ” her frequent expressions of delight on this acquaintance with her so held down every feeling of awe and left nothing but tender affection. Austen is clever in using Isabella to embody many Gothic values such as exaggeration as when telling Catherine, for whom she has waited for five minutes that ” I have been waiting for you an age. ”
Catherine obviously replies with total honesty as befits a Neo-classical heroine. Isabella uses words such as ” Betray ” and ” Distress ” when talking about things so mundane that it startles Catherine. Very early in the book Catherine is confused about Isabella. The overpowering nature of Isabella’s personality is enough to quell this confusion, for a time.
When introduced to the brother Thorpe and Morland we see similar characteristics. James Morland embodies typical Neo-classical values ” being of amiable disposition and sincerely attached. ” Whilst John Thorpe is introduced unflatteringly as ” a stout young man of middling height … with a plain face and ungraceful form. ” Thorpe is boasting, Overbearing and will not listen to reason as when, despite the fact that James Morland cites scientific proof as to the distance they have travelled, Thorpe disregards him saying ” I defy any man in England to make my horse go less than ten miles an hour in harness. Thorpe is also fond of swearing. There is a marked contrast between Henry Tilney and Thorpes relationships with their families. Tilney as we have seen earlier is helpful and respectful towards his sister whereas Thorpe insults his Mothers hat and observes that his Sisters ” both looked very ugly. ”
Despite Catherine’s reservations about Thorpes behaviour and manners she is flattered by his attention and seduced by the fact that he is Isabella’s Brother whose spell she has fallen under. So much so that when James Morland asks what she thinks of Thorpe she replies ” I like him very much, he seems very agreeable. Austen uses the contrasts between the various characters to show the difference between Gothic and Neo-classical values. When Catherine sees Henry Tilney talking to ” a pleasing young woman who leant on his arm. ” Catherine immediately assumes, quite correctly, that it is his Sister, “Guided only by what was simple and probable it never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married. ” One can only imagine what Isabella’s reaction would have been in such circumstances. When introducing us to the Sister in question Austen again leaves the reader in no doubt about which values Eleanor Tilney represents.
She ” had a good figure and a very agreeable countenance … her manners shewed good sense and good breeding. ” then in a direct attack on Isabella, Austen goes on to say ” She seemed capable of being young, attractive and at a ball without wanting to fix the attention of every young man near her. ” Austen then goes further and overtly attacks Gothic values in general telling us that Miss Tilney is ” without exaggerated feelings of ecstatic delight or inconceivable vexation at every little trifling occurrence. ”
The difference between the values of the Thorpes and those of Catherine Morland are brought into sharp focus on numerous occasions such as the time when John Thorpe is boasting to Catherine about his Horse and Cart and telling her how unsafe her Brothers rig is. Catherine like any well brought up young girl takes him at his word ” Then pray let us turn back; They will certainly meet with an accident if we go on. ” Thorpe then does a complete about turn telling her ” I would undertake for five pounds to drive to York and back with out losing a nail. Catherine cannot understand this ” She knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing,” because ” Her family were plain matter of fact people. ” who were ” not in the habit of telling lies to increase importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next. ” Catherine is beginning to feel uneasy around Thorpe.
This is the beginning of a process of Catherine questioning his values and eventually those of Isabella ” She could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether completely agreeable. A later episode in the novel illustrates Catherine standing firm in the battle of values with the Thorpes. Having earlier been forced to break a promise to the Tilneys because of John Thorpe’s deceit, she is determined not to let it happen again. Catherine has promised the Tilneys to go out walking but Isabella, John Thorpe and James Morland have other plans. ” Her agreement was demanded; but instead of gay acquiescence expected by Isabella, Catherine looked grave, was very sorry, but could not go.
Then begins a tempting of Catherine by the Thorpes ” It would be so easy to tell Miss Tilney that you had only just been reminded of a prior engagement. ” Catherine with typical Neo-classical honesty replies ” No it would not be easy. I could not do it. There has been no prior engagement. ” Despite Isabella imploring her and bidding to seduce her ” addressing her by the most endearing names. ” Catherine holds firm. Neo-classical protocol will not allow her to break her promise. ”
Catherine felt herself to be in the right. As for the seduction and the emotional blackmail she ” could not allow it to influence her. ” Having earlier questioned John Thorpe’s values Catherine begins to question Isabella’s ” Isabella appeared to be ungenerous and selfish, regardless of everything but her own gratification. ” Despite Catherine remaining resolute James Morland is seduced and we are told that he openly sides against her. This episode in the novel is a pivotal one. Despite the fact that Catherine has been flattered by Isabella and that she has been reading Gothic novels, Austen is telling us that she has not adopted these values.
When put in a difficult position she will do the right thing. The episode also illustrates the beginnings of a schism between the two heroines and the loss of James Morland to Gothic values, which has a disastrous effect on him. When we are first introduced at some length to General Tilney we find him to be something of a tyrant, straight out of the pages of a Gothic novel. Catherine, her mind still filled with Udolpho, imagines weird and wonderful things when she is invited to Northanger abbey. Her imagination is not tempered by Henry Tilney’s teasing.
The Abbey is, of course, not some crumbling ruin with creaking doors and tiny windows but airy, light filled,clean and modern and this goes some way to dispelling her romantic Gothic notions. Her imagination is further dented when she finds concealed rolls of parchment to not contain strange texts but a laundry list. The demeanour of the General and his wife’s unexplained death prompt Catherine to imagine foul deeds. When the General prevents Eleanor from showing Catherine his wife’s room the matter is settled.
With shades of Isabella’s character she concludes that because of the ” Generals evident desire of preventing such an examination … something was certainly to be concealed . ” When Catherine enters the dead womans bedchamber she is confronted with a clean, bright modern apartment most unlike the one to which she had given ” a date so ancient; a position so awful. ” Catherines gothic imaginings give way to a reasoned neo-classical reality and then ” a shortly succeeding ray of common sense added some bitter emotions of shame. ”
Henry is appalled to learn that Catherine suspects his father of murdering his mother and delivers as neat a summary of Neo-classical reason as one could hope for, ” What have you been judging from? remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable … Does our Education prepare us for such atrocities. ” This is the end of Catherines flirtation with Gothicism. The rest of the Novel bears testimony to the perils of adopting Gothic values and the benefits of living a reasoned, moderate and rational life.
It is interesting to note the fate of Isabella in contrast to that of Catherine. Isabella is a victim of her own duplicity. In dropping James Morland in favour of Captin Tilney she becomes a victim of someone as vain and decietful as herself, a case of 18th century karma. The fate of James Morland, as someone who is seduced by Gothic values is also an unhappy one. Those in the Novel who have adaopted Neo-classical values have all triumped, Eleanor gets her rich Viscount and Henry and Catherine marry despite the tyrannical General and even manage to come into a small fortune.
The message from Austen could scarcely be clearer, as Glenda Leeming summarises ” Although credulous enough to be strongly affected by both the inscincere Isabella Thorpe and the improbabilities of the horror novel, Catherines real generosity, good principles and her own open scincerity preserve her from their influence. ” In the battle between the two sets of values form Catherine, it could be said, she was never in any real danger of being lost.