"People that marry can never part:" real and romantic gothicism in Northanger Abbey

Proposal for a talk to be given in a break-out session at JASNA, Portland 2010
by Ellen Moody

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), Virgil's Tomb by Moonlight (1782)

My talk on Austen's Northanger Abbey will bring together the three themes of the conference: destructive lies, Henry Tilney, and Austen's gothic sources. Influenced by her reading in the gothic romance and the ambience of the Abbey, by General Tilney's autocratic behavior, by Eleanor's melancholy and her absence from the house at the time of her mother's funeral and burial as well as the discomfort Eleanor and Henry feel when in the General's presence, Catherine begins to suspect that Mrs Tilney is still alive. She imagines Mrs Tilney was drugged, imprisoned in her part of the house, is brought food by the General when all are sleeping, and is even now a victim of the torture of isolation and emotional and physical cruelties. It is often asserted that the sources for Catherine's imaginings are English romances: Radcliffe's The Sicilian Romance, Lewis's The Monk. Beyond these, and Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho, critics assume the sources are archetypal, Jungian.

But there are other sources Austen could equally be remembering: Stephanie-Felicity de Genlis's Histoire de la Duchesse de C*** (found in Adele et Theodore, alluded to in Emma), Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake and Celestina, and as Austen read French, equally popular autobiographical and judicial memoirs and only somewhat fictionalized novels of wife abuse and marital misery in French, e.g., the Memoires d'Hortense et de Marie Mancini, Marquise de Sade's sentimental La Marquise de Ganges, and shorter tales based ultimately on court cases of the type Charlotte Smith gathered and translated in her The Romance of Real Life. (I owe the French examples to Elizabeth Goldsmith's “Publishing the Lives of Hortense and Marie Mancini” and Mary Trouille's Wife Abuse in 18th Century France.) Austen's narrator, we recall, is unwilling to say such things do not occur outside “the midland counties of England. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, [such books] might give a faithful delineation, and Italy, Switzerland, and the South of France, might be as fruitful in horrors” (NA, Ch 25, 174).

Henry becomes intensely upset over Catherine's imaginings because (as he implicitly concedes) they bruise his sore feelings and memories: his mother had had to bear much from her husband's temper and coldness, the motives for the marriage had been pragmatic and mercenary for the husband, and as a result for the wife (insofar as her life with her husband was concerned) unhappy (NA, 24, 185-86; 30, 233). We discover it's risky to be charmed by Henry's fancifulness: Catherine's objection to his allegory of marriage as a dance is sound: people “that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together” (NA, 10, 69). She instinctively sees marriage from the vulnerable female's point of view, the person who must obey, can be legally physically chastised and will probably not be able to separate herself from her husband. The novel takes marriage, bullying and lies seriously.

Its full gothic sources and the ways they are used reveal Northanger Abbey, like other gothics, projects through its psychodramas in Bath, the Abbey and Woodston too the justifiable fears and anxieties of women in a era of no divorce and permitted physical and emotional control by husbands and families. The novel is a sanguine female gothic where all ends happily enough, but before we reach the ironic moral, we have had more than an inkling of the problems of courting patterns and irretrievable marriage. If only courting and marriage were more like a dance where (as Henry admits) “the compliance is expected from him,” and the power to refuse hers (NA, 10, 69-71).