‘But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.’
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen began writing her first book at the age of 23. This book was Northanger Abbey, a parody of the Gothic genre, which had steadily been gaining popularity since its inception in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.
Northanger Abbey is sometimes mistakenly labelled a gothic romance, but it is, in fact, a gothic parody because, in it, Jane Austen satirises the conventions of the gothic novels that were popular during the time. In particular, Austen is said to have targeted Anne Radcliffe, the author of gothic novels such as A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791), and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Catherine reads Udolpho during her time at Bath, and it is implied that she has read similar novels before. Isabella has a whole library of gothic novels that the women plan to read together once Catherine has finished Udolpho.
Gothic novels and their conventions are a recurring theme throughout the novel. On the ride from Bath to Northanger Abbey, Henry invents a humorous hypothetical story about Catherine’s first night in Bath, making subtle references to several different gothic novels, most of which were well-known at the time.
Two other sequences in the book poke fun at the genre. In one, Catherine unlocks a mysterious cabinet, expecting it to contain something horrible, only to find laundry bills. In another, Catherine imagines that the General is a wife-murderer and goes to investigate the late Mrs Tilney’s bedroom. When Henry catches her at this task and scolds her, it is not as amusing as Catherine’s discovery of the laundry bills. Catherine is terribly embarrassed in front of Henry. In the scenes leading up to this confrontation, it is almost disturbing to read of Catherine’s paranoid assumptions that everything the General does stems from a guilty conscience. Catherine becomes almost unhinged by her own imagination. Although the actual crime turns out to be non-existent, Austen captures some of the psychological tension typical of gothic novels by chronicling Catherine’s delusional state. So, although she parodies the gothic genre, Austen also makes clever use of some of its techniques.