Northanger Abbey – A Novel about Novels

In true Gothic fashion, the original manuscript for Northanger Abbey was held hostage by an evil publishing house until it was freed by the hand of its creator… duhn, duhn, duhn…

Northanger Abbey started life as a manuscript named Susan, which found itself moldering away in a forgotten closet somewhere in her publisher’s offices.  It was drafted around 1798 and was purchased by Richard Crosby sometime before the spring of 1803.  While a publisher’s purchase of a manuscript is typically its first step to publication, Susan remained locked away in a London publishing house for years to come.

Given what we know about Jane Austen’s personality, it’s no surprise that she fired off some angry correspondence to her publisher about his failure to publish the manuscript (even if the letter was sent from a Mrs. Ashton Dennis – M.A.D.).  After six years, she was offered the opportunity to buy the book back at the price he paid for it – 10 pounds (roughly 20% of her entire expenditure in 1807).  In 1816, Austen finally purchased her book; however, it remained unpublished until after her death. In 1817 (Nineteen years after its composition) her brother, Henry Austen, finally managed to get the novel publishedIronically, Northanger Abbey and its usage of the Gothic form (even if it was satirical) languished away (possibly in a dark, antique cabinet with a tricky lock) for nearly twenty years before it and its unconventional heroine saw the light of day (Adams, Buchanan, and Gesch 82-83 and Hannon 68-69).

This is a novel about novels and reading novels where the author provides herself a platform from which to tout her views on her own art form, views which include the scolding of persons who were critical of novels as unintelligent or inappropriate sources of the enjoyment of women.  She speaks of novels as being works of “genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”  She further makes her case for novels when she proclaims “the greatest powers of mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

While this defense might seem self-serving, the validity of the novel was certainly in question:  “ ‘And what are you reading, Miss – ?’ ‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ ” replies the young lady in a moment of shame…  However, even in the defense of her art form, she doesn’t miss the opportunity to take some jabs at the Gothic formula with its mysterious old buildings, secret hiding places, suddenly extinguished lights, night terrors, indecipherable messages, rumors of suspicious deaths, and powerful, menacing men (Tomalin 166).  She clearly satirizes all the “silliness” to be found in these novels.  However, as in all things Austen, nothing is as clear cut and simple as it may seem.  In an interesting twist, Austen uses this novel to both criticize a love of Gothic novels and acknowledge their value for pure reading pleasure.

Her criticism of the Gothic novel as youthful and ignorant is evident in Catherine’s foolish penchant to confuse characters who are “unnatural and overdrawn” and the ridiculous plot elements of Gothic novels with the people and behaviors which exist in the real world.  However, Austen also takes the opportunity to address their value for pure pleasure through Henry Tilney’s assessment of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; – I remember finishing it in two days – my hair standing on end the whole time.”  Henry speaks for Austen in his acknowledgement of the enjoyment of the Gothic form without allowing it to overtake his common sense.  He is the voice of reason and common sense without being a complete “Debbie-downer.”  While he does like the novels, he is quick to call Catherine’s wild imagination back to reality when she begins to imagine the supposed murder of Henry’s mother by the general.  Much to Catherine’s shame and ultimately, betterment, he promptly and succinctly puts her back on the right track by recounting the “real world” version of the events which included genuine devotion and heartfelt grief.

Back to the question of why the publisher failed to bring Susan/Northanger Abbey to press… While it may appear that the big, bad publisher was completely out of line, and devoted Janeites ask how anyone who claims to be a reader could ignore such a charming heroine?   I have a response… I’m not sure that Northanger Abbey with its Catherine Moreland would have been a money maker at the time.  Maybe the publisher just didn’t think the book would sell?  It may have been too “cutting edge” in terms of its constant reminders of the novel as an art form, or maybe its heroine was too unconventional for the tastes of the general public – “neither clever nor beautiful, and without accomplishments or admirers – an ordinary girl, one of ten children of a plain country clergyman.”  Fielding got away with both of these in Tom Jones, but he was a man and his main character was a man… Maybe if Jane had been a James, and Catherine had been a Joseph, Susan/Northanger Abbey would have been published in its infancy.

Now, that does beg the question of why Richard Crosby purchased the manuscript in the first place.  Maybe as a reader, he really loved this new type of heroine?  Maybe he hated the wildly popular Gothic novels that he felt forced to publish and enjoyed Austen’s satirizing the detested form?  Maybe he thought that as tastes changed, Susan/Catherine might be the “next thing” as far as heroines went? Maybe the first draft of Susan just sucked? We will never know (there are very few examples of any of her early manuscripts to show us what changes she might have made).  For whatever reason, Crosby purchased the book and then chose to do nothing with it.  He tucked it away in some dark, antique closet (with a very tricky lock), where it languished until its rescue by its resolute and devoted creator… duhn, duhn, duuuuhn!



Filed under Northanger Abbey

2 responses to “Northanger Abbey – A Novel about Novels

  1. I completely agree with your assessment of Austen’s mocking tone of Gothic novels but also her love of reading just for pleasure. I had;t thought about the balance that exists in NA of the love of reading and the parody of the Gothic literature at the same time – Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland’s charactrers exhibit this.

    Regarding the time between it was published and written, perhaps like you said the publisher didn;t believe it would be successful. Perhaps, it wasn’t clear that NA was a parody on Gothic literature and instead the publisher thought it was an imitation – which we know is not the case.
    Great Post!

  2. This is really great! I was not aware of all the publishing problems associated with the novel, nor the span of time between Austen’s death and the publication of NA. Also, really great pointing out the Gothic paradox in this novel. 🙂

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