Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

From Sublime Abbey to Picturesque Parsonage: The Aesthetics of Northanger Abbey and the Mysteries of Udolpho

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

From Sublime Abbey to Picturesque Parsonage: The Aesthetics of Northanger Abbey and the Mysteries of Udolpho

Article excerpt

SHOULD ONE RELY on a brother, however devoted, to uncover a writer's major source of inspiration? Henry Austen, in his "Biographical Sketch of the Author," published posthumously alongside Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), informed readers that William Gilpin had formed his sister's tastes (7), and critics have seen no reason to doubt his word since the scenery in Austen's novels seems aptly to reflect the reverend's aesthetic preferences. However, a reader of novels might question the extent of Gilpin's influence on Austen's creativity, given that the work of the two authors displays different strengths and priorities. Austen is a virtual master of character portraiture, to which natural beauty and sublimity form a mere backdrop, while Gilpin focuses on picturesque settings and only provides brief sketches of their emotional effects on the onlooker. By contrast, Austen is able to spin entire psychological narratives out of personal responses to a painterly bit of countryside, as is evident from the excursion to Beechen Cliff undertaken by Catherine Morland in the company of Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Since Austen in this work pays a smiling tribute to the (gothic) novels of the eighteenth century, in which issues of identity formation similarly take precedence over the depiction of nature, it might be more conclusive to look at the writings of these peers, rather than at those of Gilpin, when exploring the ways in which the aesthetics of landscape inform Austen's stories of personal development and maturation. (1)

The Hollywood biopic Becoming Jane (2007) invents a scene from Austen's life in which she visits Ann Radcliffe to ask the bestselling author to share the reason for her success. While in reality no such encounter took place, one could speculate whether Austen might indeed have had respect for the older woman's popularity, even though she elected to lampoon Radcliffe's oeuvre in Northanger Abbey. There can be no doubt that the plots of Austen's novels emulate those of her gothic forebears. Like Radcliffe's, Austen's stories revolve around the Bildung of a female protagonist, told by means of her passage through various architectural structures, culminating in the discovery of a secret, the revelation of which teaches her an important lesson in self-understanding. In Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (1995), Anne Williams suggests that the gothic genre partakes in the philosophical achievements of the Romantic movement in that its authors created a system of codification enabling their heroines, in the device of uncovering a hidden truth, to experiment with various epistemological options and to achieve a sense of selfhood (1-24). Austen realized ahead of Williams that the gothic blueprint could successfully be applied to the novel of growth so as to lay out the progress of a female protagonist's passage into self-awareness. As a child of the Enlightenment, Austen naturally eschewed the practice of disclosing the mystery at the heart of the story of self-realization as supernatural. Rather, the secrets in Austen's books are of the social and moral variety: a seduction ending in extramarital pregnancy and a marriage made for financial gain (Sense and Sensibility), an elopement with a girl beneath the age of consent (Pride and Prejudice), an affair with a married woman (Mansfield Park), a clandestine engagement (Emma), or a change of heart and situation (Persuasion).

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In The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Radcliffe anticipates Austen in that her novels lift the veil of narrative enchantment to supply natural explanations for seemingly metaphysical events. Radcliffe's books, on the whole, bridge the gap between the "traditional" gothic, which maintains the inscrutability of the occult mystery at the center of its plot, and an "enlightened" gothic, which insists on a logical elucidation of such a phenomenon. Despite the major differences between Radcliffe and Austen--Radcliffe's geography is exotic and continental, Austen's, familiar and English; Radcliffe's plots are complicated and contrived, Austen's, simple and realistic; and the same applies to their respective narrative styles--the two authors have in common a rational perspective. …

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