‘I should like to spend my whole life in reading it’: the resurrection of the Northanger ‘horrid’ novels

Posted by maxfincher on March 22, 2011 in Dr Max Fincher, Guest Blog tagged with

Perhaps like many lovers of the Gothic, the first time I came across the Gothic novel was by reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as a teenager. Against my better judgment, I found myself attracted to the character of the risqué and socially gregarious Isabella Thorpe rather than to the naive Catherine Moorland whom Isabella ‘corrupts’ in Bath by introducing her to the pleasure of reading Gothic fiction and men. I read The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe and then The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. But the reading list of novels that Isabella recommends to Catherine, I could not find in my local library. Before the days of the Internet, I had no hope of realistically discovering how or even if these books existed to enjoy. Isabella’s enthusiasm was tantalizing, suggesting that these novels might be an exciting read.

Arriving at University, I discovered among the shelves, a mysterious collection of seven black hard-back books, reprinted by the Folio press in the late 1960s, but without any introductions or helpful notes. I had found the novels that Isabella tells Catherine she must read: The Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, The Necroromancer of the Black Forest, The Midnight Bell, The Orphan of the Rhine and Horrid Mysteries. I couldn’t believe my luck. I borrowed one or two of the titles to read in the holidays.  I then came across a work by the feminist critic and historian Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel: one hundred good women writers before Jane Austen, before discovering the exhaustive bibliography of eighteenth and nineteenth century titles catalogued by the bibliophile Montague Summers, The Gothic Quest (1938). I realized then that the Northanger novels (as they were dubbed) represented merely just a few tombstones in a vast cemetery of Gothic novels. Like the addicted Catherine and Isabella, I wanted to read as many as I could lay my hands on,  perhaps in the hope of discovering a story which had been forgotten, even hidden from history.

Originally, it was believed that Austen had invented the list of titles because of the scarcity of the copies available. As it transpired, they were all real, and, as with so much popular fiction of the day, particularly from the publisher William Lane (Minerva Press) in London, they had been printed so rapidly and cheaply that many copies simply crumbled away to pieces. In some instances, there are only one or two surviving copies left. Another interesting aspect to the novels, is that they were all thought to be translations from German writers of the influential ‘Schauerroman’ school (literally ‘shudder-novel’). Along with the translation of German ballads like Gottfried’s Burger’s ‘Leonore’ by Williams Taylor in 1790, and popular German terror ballads like Goethe’s ‘ErlKonig’  (‘The Erl King’) by Matthew Lewis in Tales of Wonder (1801), there was a distinctive association between ‘German’ literature and the gothic novel in the public’s mind. However, with the exception of Karl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries and The Necroromancer (1794) by Karl Friedrich Kahlhert, the other novels are by British writers that, despite their predominantly German settings (the Rhine, the Black Forest), reflect the social and political preoccupations of 1790s Britain. As Diane Long Hoeveler points out in her analysis of the female gothic of The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) by Eliza Parsons, through its depiction of French women, the novel reveals an anti-cosmopolitan, anti-revolutionary bias characteristic of conservative sympathies in 1790s Britain ‘no one could doubt that the novel was written by an English woman of the middle class. A clear British nationalistic agenda suffuses the scenes set in England’ (p.xiii).

Valancourt Books, an independent US publisher, has now published five of the Northanger novels and at last count, some 33 other gothic titles, including Ann Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826). Each edition offers re-readings of the novels in the light of both theoretical developments in criticism like feminism and queer theory, and advances in our socio-political knowledge of the 1790s. In particular, the writer Francis Lathom, author of The Midnight Bell (1798) is a welcome return. Lathom wrote successful plays for the Norwich theatre in the late 1790s, but suddenly moved to a remote part of Aberdeenshire in Scotland in 1800 where he lived with another man and set up an acting school for the locals. Speculation over whether Lathom was queer is to a large extent influenced by the fact that so many of his novels contain many of the tropes associated with underground same-sex desires and practices in the eighteenth-century, particularly secrecy, cross-dressing and concerns to do with identity. And at least one of his later novels, The One Pound Note (1820) is perhaps the most explicit, and earliest novel to overtly describe love, if not how desire works between men. As David Punter asks in his edition to The Midnight Bell (1798), Lathom’s second Gothic novel, ‘is there a queer writing?’ Undoubtedly there is. Lathom, although by no means in the first rank of historical or gothic writers,  may well be the first novelist to be queering history with his portrait of Richard I in The Fatal Vow (1807) a novel that might be termed ‘historical-gothic’. Lathom, influenced by the historical-gothic novel of Sophia Lee, The Recess (1783-85) offer a rather different version to Sir Walter’s Scott’s ‘lionhearted emblem of bravery. The Talisman (1825). Powerless and imprisoned in Duke Leopold’s gothic fortress in the Austrian mountains, Richard weeps over his fate like one of Radcliffe’s heroines. He is seduced and ‘charmed’ by the voice of a ‘male’ minstrel, Blondel, who sings underneath his window, and whose voice reminds him of a nun (Christabelle) he fell in love with: ‘The voice by which it was now singing appeared to him not less similar to hers than was the resemblance of the song itself’. Richard, effeminized in the manner of Vivaldi in Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) is rescued by a woman dressed as a soldier.

In a celebrated passage from Northanger Abbey, in which Austen defends the art of the novelist, particular that of the women novelist, against the attacks of her critics, the narrator observes:

‘Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body’ (p.21)

Thankfully, such ‘trash’ has not been consigned to the dustbin of literary history, nor deserted, due in no small part to the continued success of independent presses such as Valancourt Books, Udolpho Books and Zittaw Press, many of these titles are now being reappraised. Resources such as the Sadlier-Black Collection of gothic fiction at the University of Virginia and the Corvey Microfiche Edition (at both Cardiff and Sheffield Hallam universities) offer a wealth of research possibilities. Our perspective of the Gothic genre, literary history, and the social and political dimensions of the Romantic period are, excitingly, being reshaped and expanded by the republication of these novels. A new generation of readers and scholars have now the opportunity to experience an even greater variety of fiction that continues to push forward our sense and challenge our expectations of what the Gothic novel can achieve.

Primary References:

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon edited by John Davie with an introduction by Terry Castle (Oxford: OUP, 1990)

Francis Lathom, The Fatal Vow edited by Max Fincher (Kansas: Valancourt Books, 2011)

Francis Lathom, The Midnight Bell edited by David Punter (Kansas: Valancourt Books, 2007)

Regina Maria Roche, Clermont edited by Natalie Schroeder (Chicago: Valancourt Books, 2005)

Eliza Parsons, The Castle of Wolfenbach edited by Diane Long Hoeveler (Chicago: Valancourt Books, 2006)

Eliza Parsons, The Mysterious Warning edited by Karen Morton (Kansas: Valancourt Books, 2007)

Ann Radcliffe, Gaston de Blondeville edited by Frances Chiu (Kansas: Valancourt Books, 2006)

Secondary References:

Natalie Neill, ‘The trash with which the press now groans’: Northanger Abbey and the Gothic Best Sellers of the 1790s’, The Eighteenth-Century Novel 4 (2004) 163-192

Michael Sadlier, “The Northanger Novels: a footnote to Jane Austen”, The English Association Pamphlet 68 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927).

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen (London: Pandora, 1986)

Montague Summers, A Gothic Bibliography (London: Fortune Press, 1941)

Douglass H. Thomson and Fred Frank, ‘Jane Austen and the Northanger Novelists’ in Gothic Writers: a critical and bibliographic guide ed. by Douglass Thomson et. al. (Westport: Greenwood, 2002)

J.M.S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 (London: Constable, 1932)


The Corvey Project: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/encap/journals/corvey/welcome/index.html and http://extra.shu.ac.uk/corvey/

Frederick S. Frank, ‘Gothic Gold: The Sadlier-Black Gothic Collection’ www.2.lib.virginia.edu/small/…/gold.html



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