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Catherine Morland: A Failed Gothic Novel Heroine?

Catherine Morland - Failed Gothic Heroine?

Catherine Morland: A Failed Gothic Novel Heroine? – A guest essay by Lucie Rivet

Jane Austen is famed for creating literary characters who feel real to the reader. Perhaps for this reason, even two hundred years after her death, film adaptations, sequels and fan fictions are still being created based upon her work, and Jane Austen has never before been read by so many people in so many countries around the world.

Austen was from a family of opinionated readers, and had very little patience with some literary trends that she found ridiculous, and with readers who couldn’t tell reality from fiction. One of her most interesting literary characters is Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, which was the first novel that Jane Austen completed, even though it was only published after her death. Catherine Morland’s story is inspired by these strong beliefs concerning novels, readers, and literature.

At the beginning of the book, Catherine Morland is introduced as an anti-heroine, being really quite plain, and having nothing interesting in her family history, nor in her character. Hence, the famous first sentences of the novel: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”

As a teenager, Catherine becomes a little bit more “accomplished – but she mainly spends her time reading gothic novels, that were fashionable among young girls of the Gentry, Aristocracy and rising Bourgeoisie at the time.

Catherine is then invited in Bath, where she meets the Tilney family. During a walk, Catherine and her new friends talk about novels. Henry Tilney shows he can enjoy a good gothic novel, or any novel, without ever mistaking it for reality, whereas Catherine shows that she is somewhat confused with this distinction.

Jane Austen will amplify this aspect of Catherine when she is invited to stay at Northanger Abbey, the Tilney family’s home. Her imagination is unleashed, in a place that looks so much like the castles of her gothic novels.

She thinks she is going to find suspicious parchments in the chest of her room. She interprets what people tell her as if they were characters of a gothic novels. She even goes as far as sneaking into Henry’s late mother’s room in the hope of finding something that could confirm that she was killed by Henry’s father. Catherine has indeed grown convinced that Henry’s father is in fact as terrible as the villains of her gothic novels.

Henry surprises her in his mother’s room, and is shocked and disappointed that she has thought his father capable of murder. His shock helps Catherine to understand the difference between novels and reality, as Henry is both quite harsh and also understanding. From this moment, Catherine is no longer a character who is only a confused reader: she is going to become a real-life, well-rounded character who will experience real life tribulations (as both herself and her brother are victims of manipulative people’s schemes) before ending up as a perfect Jane Austen heroine: marrying a man that she loves and who loves her too. So, she has failed to metamorphose into a Gothic novel heroine, but she has succeeded in her own real life. Isn’t that a better way to live?

Northanger Abbey is sometimes considered a parody of Gothic novels, and it is, in some places. However it is, above all, a defence of good novels and good readers, who are able to read with amusement, without expecting their lives to look like one of the stories they read. Northanger Abbey is far from discrediting reading novels (by the way, the only character in the book who does not read is John Thorpe – the real villain of the story). Through Henry and Catherine’s characters, Austen draws a very skillful portrait of what a good reader is, and what a foolish and ridiculous reader is.

So, in this coming-of-age novel, Jane Austen tells the story of a character who starts as a plain child, who then turns into a teenager with admirable qualities. The teenager is a poor reader and lacks common sense and real life experience, but she will then bloom into a real woman and heroine of her own life – empowered and intelligent, able to make wiser choices and to be as free. At least, as free as was possible in the English society of Austen’s time.

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Ann Radcliffe: Mother of the Gothic Novel

Ann Radcliffe was an English author, a pioneer of the gothic novel. She was born Ann Ward in Holborn, July 9, 1764. Her father was William Ward, a haberdasher; her mother was Ann Oates. At the age of 22, she married journalist William Radcliffe, owner and editor of the English Chronicle, in Bath in 1788. The marriage was childless and, to amuse herself, she began to write fiction, which her husband encouraged.

She published The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne in 1789. It set the tone for the majority of her work, which tended to involve innocent, but heroic young women who find themselves in gloomy, mysterious castles ruled by even more mysterious barons with dark pasts.

Her works were extremely popular among the upper class and the growing middle class, especially among young women. In time, they included A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, beloved by Emma’s Harriet Smith, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian. She published a travelogue, A Journey Through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany in 1795.

The success of The Romance of the Forest established Radcliffe as the leading exponent of the historical Gothic romance. Her later novels met with even greater attention, and produced many imitators, and famously, Jane Austen’s burlesque of The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, as well as influencing the works of Sir Walter Scott.

They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”

“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.

“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Stylistically, Radcliffe was noted for her vivid descriptions of exotic and sinister locales, though in reality the author had rarely or never visited the actual locations. Shy by nature, she did not encourage her fame and abandoned literature as a pursuit.

She died on February 7, 1823 from respiratory problems probably caused by pneumonia. She was buried in Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square in London.

After her death it was written of her that, “She never appeared in public, nor mingled in private society, but kept herself apart, like the sweet bird that sings its solitary notes, shrouded and unseen…She was more than repaid by the enjoyments which were fostered in the shade; and perhaps few distinguished authors have passed a life so blameless and so happy…her countenance indicated melancholy. She had been, doubtless, in her youth, beautiful.”

In the film Becoming Jane, she is portrayed by Helen McCrory, in a scene where she meets Jane Austen and encourages her to embark on a writing career (there is no historical evidence of such a meeting, though as noted Radcliffe’s works had clearly influenced Austen’s).

This information was supplied by Wikipedia.
Further information about the life of Ms. Radcliffe and her impact on literature can be found at The City University of New York.