Although the reader is informed of Catherine’s reading of Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Austen alludes more liberally to the gothic conventions presented in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest when Henry refers to Radcliffe’s passage: ‘We shall not have to explore our way into a hall dimly lighted by the expiring embers of a wood fire – nor be obliged to spread our beds on the floor of a room without windows, doors or furniture’ (p. 114).
Henry’s reference ridicules Catherine’s indulgence of gothic reading and foreshadows how she will fictionally position herself as the gothic heroine during her visit. Even though the reader would suspect that Henry’s comparison would trigger Catherine’s realisation, her curiosity of the manuscript echoes similarities of the discoveries made by Adeline in The Romance of the Forest: ‘Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled and her cheeks grew pale. She seized, with an unsteady hand, the precious manuscript, for half a glance sufficed to ascertain written characters’ (p. 23). Radcliffe’s use of emotion also shares similarities: ‘She attempted to read it, but the part of the manuscript she looked at was so much obliterated that she found this difficult, though what few words were legible impressed her with curiosity and terror’ (Radcliffe 1835: 149). To Catherine’s dismay, she discovers that the manuscript is a receipt: ‘An inventory of linen’ (p. 125). Although the narrator’s language is humorous, the reader cannot help but feel sympathetic towards Catherine’s disappointment.
From this point, Austen presents Catherine’s progression towards reality: ‘Nothing could now be clearer than the absurdity of her recent fantasies’ (p. 125). Simpson (1870: 63) argues that the main theme underpinning the gothic is that ‘Northanger Abbey exhibits the unreality of the notions of life which might be picked out of Radcliffe’s novels’. However, although to an extent this proposal is true, it is also evident that Austen suggests an element of truth behind the gothic, as Skinner (2013: 229) states ‘[Austen’s] use of gothic language [… suggests the function of the surreal in revealing the darker side of reality’. In relation to Wollstonecraft’s explanation of women’s ‘state of perpetual childhood’, Catherine’s dismissal of her initial judgement of the receipt symbolises her oppression. Adams, Buchanan and Gesch (2008: 87) argue that the receipt is significant in the politicising of gothic tradition as it symbolises women’s domestic imprisonment. Therefore, through this symbolism, Austen explores the issue of women’s oppression which ironically Catherine is passive to.
This relates to the emphasis on sexual oppression represented in Radcliffe’s novels of’Female Gothic’, as McCalman (1999: 669) explains ‘In this genre, the greatest evil that women must fear comes [… ] from the forces inside the supposedly ‘safe haven’ of the aristocratic home’. Additionally, the truth of the gothic is represented by Austen’s characterisation of General Tilney, as Skinner (2013: 229) notes, ‘Critics have recognised the gothic undertones in General Tilney’s cruelty toward protagonist Catherine Morland’.
As the novel progresses, Austen presents the villainous traits of General Tilney’s character. General Tilney proclaims that ‘he only valued money as it allowed him to promote the happiness of his children’ (p. 150). However, General Tilney’s later actions contradict his proclamation when he banishes Catherine from the abbey. Armstrong (2012: 230) states that General Tilney’s behaviour’puts us in a world where behaviour is not regulated by decorum’ where women are exchanged for materialistic worth rather than the bond between Catherine and Henry.
A key issue during this period was society’s tendency to value women through financial ranking which ultimately Austen criticises. Although Austen presents the dangers of gothic fantasy, she also conveys how the gothic can benefit human experience. Catherine’s gothic readings allow her imagination to go beyond the limits of reality and extend her judgement. Even though Catherine interprets General Tilney’s crime wrongly, the gothic enables Catherine to discover truth and provides her with a template she can apply to her own experience (Cordon 2011: 51).
This benefits Catherine when investigating the true nature of General Tilney’s personality: ‘in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty’ (p. 181). Despite Catherine’s gothic fantasies, her imagination allows her to accept the darker realities of life, and prepares her for the inherent cruelties therein.
This is evident when Catherine is banished from the abbey: ‘The journey in itself had no terrors for her; and she began it without either dreading its length, or feeling its solitariness’ (p. 67). In comparison to her previous carriage rides with Thorpe, Catherine no longer possesses feelings of worry as her experience of cruelty has enabled her to escape the tyrannies of oppression. The benefits of the gothic to the human experience is also presented through Henry’s characterisation. Henry’s gothic readings enable him to sympathise with women’s hardships.
Through Henry’s ability to sympathise, Austen epitomises the importance of the imagination: “Mr Henry Tilney” [… ] began to apologise for his appearance there [… stating his impatience to be assured of Miss Morland’s having reached her home in safety’ (p. 176). Henry’s sympathetic concerns reflect Adam Smith’s notion of the impartial spectator which is construed by a process of internalisation of such outer people, using them as mirrors to reflect ourselves as we seek images of the proper actions to take’ (Broadie 2006: 182). Therefore, through Henry’s reflection of his father’s actions towards Catherine, he was able to identify the severity of Catherine’s hardships and reject his father’s ways.
However, the novel also illuminates the faults of Henry’s disbelief of gothic imagination which restricted him from predicting his father’s cruelty. Henry’s disbelief of the gothic relates to Coleridge’s notion of the imagination regarding the supernatural. In the Lyrical Ballards, Coleridge emphasised that his use of the supernatural was aimed towards those who were willing to explore the ‘shadows of their imagination’ therefore portraying a ‘willing suspension of disbelief (Coleridge 1834: 174) to explore the possibilities of the unknown.
Similarly, this relates to Austen’s concept of the imagination in Northanger Abbey. Through the power of the imagination, Catherine was able to reveal the truth behind her gothic beliefs which Henry ultimately rejected. However, through Catherine and Henry’s opposite perspectives of the gothic, Austen presents how the gothic brings them together and how they benefit from each other’s experiences. Although Austen’s representation of reading highlights the dangers of excessive gothic fantasies, Austen also refashions gothic conventions to emphasise its metaphorical truth.
Austen’s use of the gothic provides the reader with an insight into how the gothic can both benefit and distort our interpretation of life’s realities. Through Catherine’s passivity, Austen expresses her concerns over women’s oppression and vulnerability through identifying and misinterpreting the gothic. However, although Austen represents the dangers of the gothic, it is evident that Austen symbolises the truth behind the gothic and conveys how the gothic can benefit human experience.
Through Catherine’s ability to access the imagination, her association of the gothic enables her to go beyond the limits of reality and extend her judgement. Conversely, although the gothic enables Henry to be sympathetic towards women’s oppressions, his dismissal of the gothic ultimately narrows his judgements such as his father’s cruelty. All things considered, Austen’s representation of reading not only emphasises the risks of the excesses of the gothic, but also the extent to which the gothic can also benefit the imagination in revealing the darker realities of life.