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GOTHIC FICTION

Introduction

by Peter Otto

5 - The Northanger Novels

"Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you".

"Have you, indeed! How glad I am! – What are they all?"

"I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time."
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

A useful overview of the Gothic as it emerged in the 1790s is provided by Isabella Thorpe's list of "horrid novels", mentioned earlier as the chief support and object of Sadleir's biblio-mania: Eliza Parson's Castle of Wolfenbach (London: Minerva, 1793); Regina Maria Roche's Clermont. A Tale (London: Minerva, 1798); Parsons' The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale (London: Minerva, 1796); The Necromancer; or, The tale of the Black Forest. Founded on facts, translated by Peter Teuthold from the German of Karl Friedrich Kahlert (London: Minerva, 1794); Francis Lathom's The Midnight Bell, a German story, founded on incidents in real life (London: H.D. Symonds, 1798); Eleanor Sleath's The Orphan of the Rhine. A Romance (London: Minerva, 1798); and Horrid Mysteries. A Story, translated from the German of the Marquis of Grosse by Peter Will (London: Minerva, 1796).

The earliest of the novels on Isabella's list were published in 1793 and 1794; two appeared in 1796; and the remainder in 1798. The first group appeared, therefore, during the height of the Terror in France, and during the first phase of the Gothic craze of the 1790s, that began with Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) and The Romance of the Forest (1792) and entered its second, still more popular phase in 1794, with the publication of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. The second group of texts on Isabella's list were published in the same year as Matthew Lewis' The Monk, the text that established the most important alternative to Radcliffe's gothic. Given that Northanger Abbey was in large part written in 1798, one might suggest that the last group of texts signals for Austen the genre's contemporaneity and its still rapidly increasing popularity.

The vexed question of the relation between (popular) literature and history, fantasy and actuality, is implied in the subtitles of Isabella's "horrid novels": "A Tale", "A Story", "A Romance"; "a German tale", a "tale ... Founded on facts", and "a German story, founded on incidents in real life". This is, as I have suggested, one of the key concerns of Austen's Northanger Abbey, evident in chapter fourteen for example, in the ambiguity which allows Eleanor Tilney to believe that her friend, Catherine Moreland, is speaking of social rather than literary revolution:

“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 any thing 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 every thing of the kind”.

The "proper" relation between fiction and reality is on this occasion introduced by Henry Tilney who, speaking with a more than mildly paternal tone, offers to "make" Eleanor and Catherine "understand each other". In this context, it is important to note that four of the novels on Isabella's list are by women, and that female authors account for four of the five titles written in England. At the same time, all but one of the "horrid novels" were published by William Lane's Minerva Press.


For Sadleir, Clermont and Horrid Mysteries represent opposing poles of the Gothic. Where the former is by an English author, the latter is a sometimes awkward translation by Peter Will, minister of the Lutheran Chapel in Savoy, of a German Schauerroman. Clermont is a novel of (relatively) mild terrors, the explained supernatural, (rational) sensibility and tender love-scenes. Horrid Mysteries is a Teutonic shocker that focuses on the barbaric rituals and "international intrigues of the sect of Illuminati", deals "unashamedly in the supernatural" and contains "love scenes" which suggest an "enraptured fleshliness". Indeed, Varma claims that it was the "voluptuous scenes" of this book in particular that tarnished the reputation of the Minerva Press, "a charge which became universal against the entire gothic school". Sadleir locates the other "horrid novels" at various points between these two poles, between the English and Teutonic, orthodox and transgressive, rational and superstitious extremes of the genre.

In Sadleir's view, readers attracted to Clermont were hoping to escape the real. The book obliges by translating them "to a vanished paradise of cultured pleasure-seeking where, to those fortunate enough to have been born to wealth and education, all is ease and peace and gaiety". In contrast to Roche's "florid unreality" and "dream of security", Grosse's novel is judged "the most potent Schauerroman ... [and] the most defiantly fantastic of any novel of the period", while its focus on "the sect of Illuminati" gives it "a strong actuality of interest".

The feminist criticism of the seventies and eighties inverts this valuation. Roberts, for example, writes that Horrid Mysteries and The Necromancer are typical of Gothic novels, often written by men, that foreground "a male protagonist or villain hero over a heroine and her love story". Their sensational fiction has, Roberts implies, less "actuality of interest" than the "horrid novels" written by women which, despite their failures and contradictions, provide a genre in which women could "triumph over their male pursuers, while at the same time maintaining the admired female traits of passivity, propriety, and domestic virtue". For Roberts, “The Midnight Bell stands apart from both groups, distinguished by Lathom's (slightly) less stereotypical characterisation of his heroine and hero.”

Despite their disagreements, the primary categories deployed by Sadleir and Roberts recall the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century view that there were two primary kinds of Gothic fiction, namely horror and terror fiction (to use Radcliffe's terms), that had been established by the work of, respectively, Lewis and Radcliffe. The fault line commonly thought to divide these writers structures both the genre and the first sections of this microfilm collection. We must therefore map it in a little more detail.

6 - Radcliffe and her Imitators

7 - Lewis and her Followers

8 - Terror and Horror Gothic

9 - Gothic Echoes / Gothic Labyrinths

 

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