Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 1 - 3

To Janeites

April 5, 1999

Re: NA, Ch 1: What is the Gothic, Strong Affection for Catherine & Names

Nancy asks what image comes to mind when we think "Gothic."

When I think 18th century Gothic, it's a Radcliffe landscape originally, and then deepened by Byron and the romantics to have all sorts of interesting uses, sexual, political, imaginative. Gothic today for me is probably a compound of ghost stories, Dracula, and some internalisation of the gothic that figures forth the irrational in our minds and all that means for good and bad. A. S. Byatt uses some powerful Gothic veins in her Babel Tower; Anne Rice plays on the gothic vampire; don't underestimate the power of a good ghost story to awaken your ability to respond to the uncanny.

Austen's NA comes at the beginning of this trajectory.

Anne points out that Catherine is not conventionally virtuous and Nancy that Catherine is a normal young girl. I'd like to add another thought: Austen is at great pains in Chapter 1 and 2 to tell us explicitly that Catherine is morally sound. She is not anywhere as naive as Marianne Dashwood. From the very beginning of the book, she seems when pressed to know what is the morally right thing to do even if she is swayed away from it. She has tact, innate understanding which has to be tapped, but it's there. Things that count about her the gothics she reads have not touched. Consider the carefully tucked-in passage beginning with "she had. . . ":

"What a strange, unaccountable character!--for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny" (Chapman, I:1)

And then again very strong chord at the opening of Chapter 2:

"it may be stated, for the reader's more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be, that her heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind, -- her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty--and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is"

Both passages are brief and embedded in ironic jokes so we won't feel something important has been pointed out to us too strongly, but it has. Catherine is shown to be modest, to have not had her head turned as a girl (despite her great training as a heroine), she had sensible parents; no conceit, no affectation. Affectionate, cheerful, open, good heart, good temper, not stubborn, hardly ever quarrels, most of the time remarkably kind, all things considered . . . "

This is important for what is to come. Austen puts it there because she has two purposes: gothic and parody of gothic, but, just as important, a novel about a young girl's growth and development, one we are to identify with and quietly love.

Ah, I said my younger daughter, Isabel liked the book as a teenage girl might. Well, we are told Catherine's sister, Sally has changed her name to Sarah -- "(for what young lady of common gentility will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?)". My Isabel was born Isobel. I spelt it with an "o" to be pronounced as the "o" in hot; my husband is British and he wanted a British spelling. (We named her after the heroine in A Dance to the Music of Time). By 8 she was Isabel; then she was Isabelle; now she's Isabella except when she's Izzy. I admit when I was 11 I spelt my name Ellyn for a few months.


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