Monday, 11 May 2015

The Austen Connection: Or, how misreading Northanger Abbey as a teenager ruined my life

I never intended to be a Gothicist. Which might be stating the obvious, because I doubt many small children look off wistfully into the distance about their dream to become an academic specialising in the Gothic. When we started discussing re-launching this blog, it made me think about how I ended up not only part of, but organising Sheffield Gothic. (And writing my thesis about Gothic literature, but that’s a minor detail)

Like I said, I never intended to be a Gothicist. My intended life trajectory was all thrown off by one slim 1818 novel and my fatal misreading of it: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I had no idea what the ‘the horrid novels’ were, or who Mrs Radcliffe was but I’d always enjoyed the novel. I related to Austen’s naïve young heroine, Catherine Morland, as she fumbled her way through society. Somehow, however, I failed completely to internalise the very obvious message about not relying on novels to shape your life expectations. I mean, I got it. But the novel’s Catherine was reading were ‘horrid’. I was reading Austen. So, based almost solely on my adoration for Austen and completely missing the point, I moved south to study English Literature at Bath Spa University.

Pictured: Life expectations spiraling out of control

It was this fateful move that first bought me into contact with the Gothic, in a lecture about our second year module options. I’ll confess I wasn't entirely listening, but William Hughes caught my attention when he mentioned Northanger Abbey. He also had a jacket on with elbow pads, which I was quite impressed by. Anyway, by this point you probably know where this is going: I signed up to the module because it had Northanger Abbey on it. Oh Jane. If only I had understood you better, I may have been happily teaching Pride and Prejudice to disinterested teenagers.

But at least this was a Gothic origins module, I told myself, as I read The Italian for the first time in complete bemusement. (How is this scary? I wondered. Is it meant to be funny? Is there incest in this?!) Oh, how naïve I was. Little did I know I had begun down a path that would destroy everything I’d ever hoped for. By the time we reached Collins’ Woman in White, I had been sucked in completely. Come the third year, I found myself choosing the Modern Gothic module. I was reading Radcliffe out of choice. I wrote an essay about for my American Lit. module considering Sophie’s Choice as a gothic text. I was discussing PhD proposals on Gothic heroines.
Without realising it, I had become… a Gothicist.

(That’s my dramatic ending, just in case you couldn't tell)

Awestruck by the dramatic ending

Warning: Emulating Catherine Morland will not lead you to a handsome, metropolitan Mr Tilney. 

However, you will still end up in a bonnet. Even if it is the 21st century….

Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher studying women readers and the Gothic at the University of Sheffield.  She's totally a heroine, even when she's not wearing her bonnet.

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