JANE AUSTEN (1775 - 1817)
Originally written between 1798 and 1799, but not published until 1818, Northanger Abbey is considered Jane Austen's first significant work of fiction, and is her only work to be widely studied as part of the Gothic literary tradition. The novel is in part a burlesque of the Gothic and sentimental fiction that was popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries particularly of Ann Radcliffe's novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. In addition to its parodic elements, Northanger Abbey also follows the maturation of Catherine Morland, a naive eighteen-year-old, ignorant of the workings of English society and prone to self-deception. Influenced by her reading of novels rife with the overblown qualities of horror fiction, Catherine concocts a skewed version of reality by infusing real people, things, and events with terrible significance. However, Catherine's impressions, though clouded by Gothic sentiment, often hint at an insightful, if unconscious, judgment of character that cuts through the social pretensions of those around her. In this respect Austen's novel carries on an ironic discourse which makes it not only a satire, but also a sophisticated novel of social education.
Austen began writing while she was still living at her childhood home at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England. Her life at Steventon, though sheltered from the world at large, gave her an intimate knowledge of a segment of English society—the landed gentry—that was to provide the material for most of her fiction, and by 1787 Austen had already begun to produce stories, dramas, and short novels. In 1795 she commenced writing Elinor and Marianne, an early version of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). One year later, she started First Impressions, the work that eventually evolved into Pride and Prejudice (1813). When Austen finished First Impressions in 1797, her father submitted it to a London publisher. Although rejected, the story remained a popular favorite among the circle of relations and acquaintances with whom Austen shared her writings. In 1798 and 1799 Austen wrote most of a novel that was later revised, bought by the publisher Richard Crosby, and advertised in 1803 as "In the Press, SUSAN; a novel, in 2 vols." It remained unpublished, however, and was later revised again and published in 1818, after Austen's death, as Northanger Abbey, along with the novel Persuasion.
Austen's career is generally divided into an early and a late period, the former encompassing the juvenilia, as well as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, the latter including Emma (1816), Mansfield Park (1814), and Persuasion. They are separated by a hiatus of eight years. There is a remarkable consistency in the work of the early and late periods, marked by a certain mellowing of tone in the later works. The plots of Austen's novels revolve around the intricacies of courtship and marriage between members of the upper class. Austen's detractors in more egalitarian eras find fault with what they perceive to be a rigid adherence to a repressive class system. Also, in commenting on the narrowness of her literary world and vision, some critics wonder if novels of such small scope can truly reflect the human condition. However, Austen's talents are uniquely suited to her chosen subject. Her realm is comedy, and her sense of the comedic in human nature informs her technique, which is judged as superb for its delineation of character, control of point of view, and ironic tone. Although Austen chose as her subject the people she knew best, she illuminated in their characters the follies and failings of men and women of all times and classes.
While ostensibly a burlesque of the conventional modes of Gothic horror fiction, Northanger Abbey is also a novel of education that focuses on the theme of self-deception. Austen portrays Catherine as an inversion of the typical...
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