Enjoy a Spoof of Gothic Tropes with Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'

Enjoy a Spoof of Gothic Tropes with Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'

Thursday, 4 November, 2021

The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.

This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.


We’re currently in the midst of a gleefully dreadful resurgence of Gothic horror novels. ‘There’s this fantastic description of the gothic – that it is not a genre at all, but a virus that attaches itself to genres and infects texts, and also morphs through time and adapts as needed,’ British-American author Catriona Ward told The Guardian. In times like these, when real life can be genuinely harrowing, tingly feelings of dread on the page can be paradoxically comforting.

Diehard Jane Austen fans will warn that Northanger Abbey, this Gothic-inspired, coming-of-age story, is an atypical novel for the beloved author. But that’s one of the reasons we love it; it’s so delectably off-brand. That it features a bookish heroine with moxie, lots of delightful miscommunications, and two vividly rendered locations — Bath, England, and the titular family estate — make it all the more delightful.

Dear Jane herself was a fan of Gothic novels, including Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, a sprawling tale about a young woman locked away in an Italian castle by a ne’er-do-well brigand.

With this book, Austen lovingly satirizes the tropes of the Gothic frenzy of the time while also giving us an indelible character in Catherine Morland: devoted reader, sweet-tempered naïf, and possessor of a dangerously vivid imagination.

Her story begins in Bath, where she muddles through the de rigeur social scene and bumbles into a potentially romantic situation with Henry, scion of the dignified Tilney family. Austen brings the snarkiness of the Bath social scene to vivid life; you can feel the ennui-inducing grind of the sameness of the days. So it’s no wonder Catherine wants to disappear into a sensationalist novel.

When Henry invites Catherine to visit his family’s estate of Northanger Abbey, her imagination runs amok, and she halfway hopes that all of her shadowy Gothic dreams are about to come true. The abbey — complete with library, drawing room, and a dining room staffed by footmen — is just what she’d hoped.

But as Catherine soon learns, while it may be true that ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,’ it’s necessary to keep one’s book-inspired fantasy life in check.

The lock yielded to her hand, and luckily with no sullen sound that could alarm a human being. On tip-toe she entered; the room was before her; but it was some minutes before she could advance another step. She beheld what fixed her to the spot, and agitated every feature. She saw a large well-proportioned apartment, a handsome dimity bed, unoccupied, arranged with a housemaid’s care, a bright Bath stove, mahogany wardrobes, and neatly painted chairs, on which the warm beams of a western sun gaily poured through two sash-windows. Catherine had expected to have her feelings worked, and worked they were. Astonishment and doubt first seized them, and a shortly succeeding ray of common sense added some bitter emotions of shame… She was sick of exploring, and desired but to be safe in her own room with her own heart only privy to its folly. — Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey

by Jane Austen, Barbara M. Benedict

This Austen classic (354 pages) was published in October of 2006 by Cambridge University Press. The book takes you to Regency England. Melissa read Northanger Abbey and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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Northanger Abbey


Top image courtesy of Alexey Fedorenko/Shutterstock.

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