Thursday, 1 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic Does World Book Day Part One

For World Book Day 2018, we decided it was a good time to celebrate two of our favourite books here at Sheffield Gothic: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As both books are seminal Gothic texts and both celebrate their 200th anniversary this year (technically Northanger Abbey was published late December 1817 but the frontispiece declares 1818, so let us have this one okay?) it seemed like the ideal time. Today, Sheffield Gothic co-organizer Lauren Nixon delves into her Northanger Abbey, and watch out tomorrow for a post on Frankenstein by our other co-organizer, Mary Going. 

Northanger Abbey

My love for Northanger Abbey is no secret; it’s the novel that took me to Bath as undergraduate and pushed me towards the weird wonders of the Gothic. Since reading it for the first time in my early teens Northanger Abbey, with its sharp witty prose, its naive heroine and ever charming, Radcliffe reading hero, has had a special place in my heart.

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman with an appetite for novels but whose ‘situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against’ her ever becoming a heroine. Catherine, enamoured with the works of Sheffield Gothic’s own beloved Ann Radcliffe and desirous of adventure, sets off to Bath in the company of family friends to make her first entry into town society.

Though written sometime in the 1790’s - around the same time as early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice - Northanger Abbey wasn’t published after Austen’s death, packaged together with Persuasion and a biographical note from Henry Austen acknowledging his sister’s identity as the popular author of her four previous novels. Northanger Abbey has often since been published alongside Persuasion, as Austen’s two ‘Bath’ novels, but the two novels hardly sit well together; written in the final months of her life Persuasion is Austen’s most mature, reflective and moving work, a world away from Northanger Abbey.

In fact, Northanger Abbey was almost Austen’s first published work. In 1803, Henry Austen helped his sister sell the novel, then called Susan, for £10 to Richard Crosby. The family eagerly awaited the publication; it never came – though Austen wrote an excellent, biting letter to the publisher in 1809 signed ‘Mrs Ashton Dennis’(MAD) to demand it be returned to her. Some edits to the manuscript must have been made by Austen – such as the updates to the setting and the change of the heroine’s name to Catherine – but many critics have noted that the tone and style of the novel speak more to that of Austen’s juvenilia than her later novels.

Northanger Abbey is often thought of as a parody of the wildly popular Gothic novels of the 1790’s. Its narrative beats playfully mimic that of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho¸ though I’ve always felt the novel’s satire focus more on the ‘misreading’ of the Gothic rather than the form itself. Henry Tilney, the charming man who reads novels and knows his muslin, after all admonishes Catherine not for reading novels but for the assumptions about the world she has made from reading them. Catherine when we first meet her lacks both experience and sensibility and reads Radcliffe’s work not as a masterful, powerful analogy for contemporary anxieties but as a racy, wild romance.

(One of my many bookcases)
I’ve always found much to adore in Northanger Abbey: the humour, the pace, the liveliness. The slyness of Isabella Thrope and Austen’s ridiculing of John Thorpe’s boastful hypermasculinity.  The innocence and sweetness of Catherine, her growth and development over the course of the novel. Everything about Henry Tilney. But it’s also the novel that features Austen’s excellent, impassioned defence of the novel as works ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.’

Over the years I’ve collected a number of different editions of the novel, including an old Folio Society edition that’s among my most prized possessions. However, despite the many, many bookcases in my house I *still* don’t have the space to display my full Austen collection.

Some of my favourite covers however, include this absolutely marvellous, over the top cover from (I believe) a 70’s edition of the novel published by the Paperback Library:

Though I’m fond of these simple, but lovely Penguin covers:

I also loved Marvel’s 2011 Northanger Abbey by Nancy Butler and Janet Lee:

But I think my favourite will always be the watercolour illustrations by CE Brock, from a 1907 edition of the novel.

Lauren Nixon is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield specialising in masculinity in the Gothic, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic and the Reimagining the Gothic project. She only brings up Jane Austen when it is absolutely relevant, which is apparently three to four time a day. 

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