Northanger Abbey: Volume II, Chapters 5 - 6 (20 - 21)

To Austen-L

December 1, 1997

Re: NA, Ch 21 (II:6): The Girl Sleuth

While we were reading Mansfield Park I brought up Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames because in it she describes the attic as "an important motif in girls' fiction." My idea was to set Fanny's cold attic, her "nest of comforts" in the full context or tradition of attics from that of Jo March who scribbles away in her to Maggie Tulliver who tortures her poor doll, to that of modern detective heroines like Nancy Drew. Another aspect of the detective girl fiction which I didn't emphasize at the time (because it wasn't closely relevant to Mansfield Park) is its continual use of gothic motifs and rather shallow playing with the mood of gothic romance. Another aspect of the detective girl fiction which I didn't emphasize at the time (because it wasn't closely relevant to Mansfield Park) is its continual use of gothic motifs and rather shallow playing with the mood of gothic romance. This aspect relates directly to NA, and there are a number of passages in The Girl Sleuth which either explicate or parody the five chapters head of us, and I here bring up one in which there are several of the same motifs we find in Chapter 21.

It's amusing to read Bobbie Ann Mason's real life acting out of a scene very like Catherine Morland's as imagined first by Henry and then by her own imagination. Mason then quotes a passage from a Nancy Drew novel, which passage reveals that Henry's parodic use of the merely banal hoard of unimportant diamonds and Catherine's fumbling with double-locks (by mistake) are still tucked away in the romances of our own period.

Bobbie Ann Mason's imitation of her favorite gothic and detective heroine's adventures began when she moved "to an old farmhouse with a mysterious attic" and remembered how whenever the girl sleuth finds herself in an old house and goes up to the attic she finds "old trunks full of old photo albums, costumes, and clues:"

"While my consicous mind... informed me that the family who lived here for generations was so poor that lost treasures in hidey holes are unlikely, I have not been able to stop snooping. And, sure enough, underneath a floorboard in the attic I found a surprise. Resting in the hollow between the beams was a dusty cloth bundle, about the size of a hobo's baggage. My old sleuthing instincts surfaced, but with them came a feeling of dread. I expected the bundle to contain a dead baby, someting Nancy Drew never thought of. If it wasn't a dead baby, then it was arsenic somebody couldn't get rid of--even while the girl sleuth in me hoped for a gold doubloon. I took the bundle outside and cut it apart carefully, shaking off the dust. It was a collection of little rags wound tightly together and stuffed in an old stocking, knotted at the opening. I took it apart, rag by rag, and there was nothing. It was a granny-bundle, a little old lady's ragbag. The real mystery was why somebody tied up some rages so sweetly and tucked them under the floorboard, but that wasn't the way it would have happened in a Nancy Drew story.

'Nancy took the knife and pried off two tiny screws. The face then dropped down into her hands.

'Oh!' she cried. 'The secret compartment! I've found it!'

She had expected to view the 'works of the clock, but instead beheld a round metal box which fit snugly into the wall. The clock was only a clever sham. To her delight, she found that the metal box could be removed from the wall...

She fumbled with the catch on the box, and lifted the lid. There bofore her was an array of jewels such as she had never viewed before in her life. Brilliant diamonds mounted in old-fashioned rings and quaint bracelets. Pendants of rubies and brooches of sapphires. For a moment, Nancy Drew was so dazzled by the display that she could only stare open mouthed [The Mystery at Lilac Inn, pp 188-9]

Even Judy Bolton finds a lovely vase "hidden between the beams" of the attic she explores, one in the "shape of a tree" with a "beautiful woman leaning against its trunk," whose drapery "taped upward as thought blown by the wind and above her head Judy saw the pink of apple blossoms" [The Invisible Chimes, p 153].

Mason realizes the reason for the rags under the floorboard is as "low" or unromantic as a laundry bill--the people who lived in the house were fighting drafts (The Girl Sleuth, 1995 University of Georgia Pr paperback, pp. 78-80).

Another perhaps more serious similarity between Mason's dreams and Catherine which differentiates them from the frivolous shallow "mind" of Nancy Drew (who is essentially a noun accompanied by a series of verbs) is the eruption in their minds of a fear that someone has been murdered, hurt, harmed, something really dreadful. Monk Lewis uses the dead baby of the nun seriously (he is just too crude in language to pull it off). But people are capable of doing terrible things to one another, and the gothic romance plays upon our understanding of this truth.

Ellen Moody

Date: Tue, 2 Dec 1997
Sender: Jane Austen List
From: Edith Lank
Subject: gothic discoveries

I bought a little cobblestone schoolhouse (built 1843) some years ago, and exploring the attic crawl space, found a fine large serrated butcher knife.

Thought about having it analyzed for bloodstains; my husband took one look and said "someone must have been installing insulation up there."

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
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