Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Regina Maria Roche's "Horrid" Novel: Echoes of Clermont in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Regina Maria Roche's "Horrid" Novel: Echoes of Clermont in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Article excerpt

"[W]hen 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?"

"... 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."

"Yes, ... but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?"

"Yes, quite sure." (NA 40)

DURING THIS CONVERSATION WITH ISABELLA THORPE, Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, reveals her intense infatuation with Gothic novels and suggests their ability to instill horror in the reader. Despite Catherine's palpable enthusiasm for these "horrid" novels, for many years readers believed that Isabella Thorpe's list was a mere product of Jane Austen's vivid imagination. In 1901, however, John Louis Haney informed the editors of Modern Language Notes that while "[i]t might be supposed that Miss Austen, in her evident satire of the Udolpho class of fiction, invented the above suggestive titles, ... [a]s a matter of fact, they were all actual romances which appeared at London between 1793-1798" (446). This revelation should have been the catalyst for countless studies regarding these novels' connections to and influences on Northanger Abbey, but they remained largely overlooked, fading into the shadows of literature.

Perhaps due to limited availability, these "horrid" novels languished in relative obscurity until Michael Sadleir presented "The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen" to the English Association in Westminster School Hall in 1927. Sadleir addressed Austen's motives for choosing these specific novels for her Gothic tale:

   it seems probable that the spinster-genius had ... actually more
   pleasure and even profit from the Gothic romance.... [C]ertainly
   a woman of her sympathy and perception--however ready she
   may have been publicly to make fun of the excesses of a prevailing
   chic--would in her heart have given to that chic as much credit for
   its qualities as mockery for its absurdities. (3)

He concluded that Northanger Abbey parodied the Gothic genre but also subtly acknowledged its tropes and gave tribute to the talents of its writers, and he proposed Austen's selection "of Gothic novels was rather deliberate than random, [and] was made for the stories' rather than for their titles' sake" (9). For, as Haney's 1901 letter also noted, "the lists of New Publications, printed by several of the reviews about the end of the eighteenth century, will verify the fact that Jane Austen could have made her satirical array of titles even more ridiculous without drawing upon the imagination" (447). While the titles of these seven novels may have added some sense of foreboding to the effect Austen attempted to create, her selection was certainly not the most terrifying compendium. One must conclude, therefore, that Austen had another purpose for selecting these particular novels from the vast array available to her.

Sadleir's "Footnote" offers one possible explanation for Austen's choices. He noted that "within the limits of that brief selection are found three or four distinct 'make-ups,' assumed by novelists of the day for the greater popularity of their work": sensibility romances, pseudo-German terror novels, and mock-autobiographies (9). As Austen's personal correspondence reveals, she was a "great novel-reader[]" (18 December 1798); hence, she would have been familiar with the various types of novels "with which the press now groans" (NA 37). Perhaps she simply wished to acknowledge the diverse categories into which this genre was divided, and her brief list provides an excellent sampling of the novels available to her contemporaries. After examining each of the novels, Sadleir concluded that "the fortunate variety of the Northanger Novels . …

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