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Northanger Abbey’s Context

Victoria Elliott | Wednesday May 16, 2012


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The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

An influential and immensely popular Gothic novel published in 1794, The Mysteries of Udolpho is specifically and repeatedly referenced in Northanger Abbey as one of the main influences on Catherine Morland’s impressionable imagination. The Mysteries of Udolpho features an orphan who is imprisoned by her guardian aunt’s husband, an Italian pirate, in an attempt to force her to marry his friend, rather than the hero she fell in love with at the beginning of the book. Udolpho (as is it often known) is of the type of Gothic novel where all the apparently supernatural events can in fact be explained by natural, if unlikely circumstances (pirates, not ghosts).

Radcliffe is sometimes credited with making the Gothic respectable by following this path. Northanger Abbey falls into the same category. Many of Catherine’s ‘Gothic’ experiences are as a result of her reading of Udolpho and mis-interpreting ordinary events. However, in Northanger Abbey Austen takes it one step further (not pirates, but laundry lists) to further satirise the Gothic genre – and its excitable readers. Henry Tilney makes reference to Udolpho and several other Gothic novels in his invented story for Catherine on the carriage ride from Bath to the Abbey. Austen expected her readers to be familiar with the genre, and the allusions she made.

Editor’s Note on AO3 and AO4

Very many students lose marks each year by “bolting on? explanations of historical or cultural context to their essays, e.g. ‘In the early nineteenth century women knew their place…’. Such broad generalisations can never add anything useful to the debate that is at the heart of the essay and rightly loses marks – and yet, as Examiners’ Reports attest each year, they are a genuine commonplace in students’ essays.

The context that matters and which will...

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