In Austen’s youth, sentimental romances and sensational Gothic novels full of dramatized heroines, dark towers and dungeons, and dangerous male villains became popular. These included novels like Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (1788), which some believe is echoed in Austen’s early writings, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which Austen later referenced in Northanger Abbey in its famous discussion of novels.
These sensationalized novels were widely scorned by polite society and considered indecent because they were thought to promote sinful thoughts and immoral behavior. Lord Francis Jeffrey is quoted as saying the following about British fiction during the mid to late eighteenth century:
A greater mass of trash and rubbish never disgraced the press of any country than the ordinary novels that filled and supported the circulating library down nearly to the time of Miss Edgeworth’s first appearance… There had been Miss Burney’s Evelina and Cecilia…But the staple of our novel market was beyond imagination despicable, and had consequently sunk and degraded the whole department of literature of which it had usurped the name.
-Lord Francis Jeffrey, Essays, 1853.
Indeed, much of the British literary world agreed. Samuel Johnson commented on the moral obligation of fiction writers to instruct the minds of young readers: “These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life” (Johnson, Rambler No. 4).
Are They All Horrid?
So just what were these novels – this “greater mass of trash and rubbish” – that were so degrading to the public? In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe—a character we quickly learn is not the best guide or role model for any young person—lists them right out for us!
Isabella: “Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Catherine: “Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”
Isabella: “I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
Catherine: “Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
Isabella: “Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”
Yes, that’s right. Austen gives us, her readers, the exact names of these “horrid” novels that we should definitely
read avoid. But what exactly made the books on Isabella’s must-read list so deliciously “horrid”? Let’s find out!
Each of these books is now widely available online as e-texts, on e-readers, and even in print. Thanks to publishers such as Valencourt Books, we have access to these “scandalous” novels, giving them—and their genre—a proper place in the literary canon (and allowing us to more fully understand Austen’s work on Northanger Abbey).
The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) by Eliza Parsons
The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons (1793) is the novel that has been printed and reprinted the most, as it is now considered an important literary work from Austen’s day and a “highly readable” Gothic novel of its time.
No longer to be regarded as a footnote to the literary history of Jane Austen’s Northanger septet, Eliza Parsons’s Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) now secures its proper place as both a work of historical importance and a highly readable Gothic novel in its own right with this fine edition. Diane Long Hoeveler’s thoughtful introduction opens new perspectives on Parsons’s achievement in the field of what might be called “international” Gothic in her creation of an “ideologically bifurcated female Gothic, part liberal and part conservative” in its political outlook. This new edition both supplants earlier editions of this pivotal Gothic and tells us much about how the Gothic novel evolved in the late 1790s as an historical reflector of the fears, beliefs, and prejudices of a revolutionary, yet reactionary, era.
-Frederick S. Frank, Professor Emeritus of English, Allegheny College, and author of The First Gothics, Valancourtbooks.com
Book Description: Matilda Weimar flees her lecherous and incestuous uncle and seeks refuge in the ancient Castle of Wolfenbach. Among the castle’s abandoned chambers, Matilda will discover the horrifying mystery of the missing Countess of Wolfenbach. But when her uncle tracks her down, can she escape his despicable intentions?
One of the seven “horrid novels” named in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, The Castle of Wolfenbach is perhaps the most important of the early Gothic novels, predating both The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk.
Clermont (1798) by Regina Maria Roche
Book Description: Clermont is the story of Madeline, a porcelain doll of a Gothic heroine, who lives in seclusion from society with her father, Clermont, whose past is shrouded in mystery. One stormy night, their solitude is interrupted by a benighted traveller, a Countess who turns out to be a friend from Clermont’s past.
Madeline goes to live with the Countess to receive her education, but her new idyllic life soon turns into a shocking nightmare. Ruffians attack the gentle Countess, and Madeline is assaulted in a gloomy crypt. And to make matters worse, a sinister stranger appears, threatening to reveal the bloody truth of Clermont’s past unless Madeline marries him. Can she avoid the snares of her wily pursuers, solve the mystery of her father’s past, and win the love of her dear De Sevignie?
The Mysterious Warning (1796) by Eliza Parsons
Book Description: The good old Count Renaud is dead, and his will makes the degenerate Rhodophil his heir, disinheriting his other son Ferdinand, who has married against his father’s wishes. Rhodophil promises to share his new riches with his younger brother and his wife Claudina, but Ferdinand hears a mysterious voice from beyond the grave, warning him to flee his brother and his wife to save himself from sin and death!
Ferdinand obeys the supernatural warning and sets out to find fortune and adventure. In the course of his quest he will encounter a recluse in a ruined castle with a horrible secret, find himself captured and imprisoned by the Turkish army, and encounter one of Gothic literature’s most depraved female characters, the monstrous Fatima. And if he survives all these dangers, Ferdinand must return to Renaud Castle to solve the mystery of the ghostly voice and uncover the terrible truth about his wife and his brother!
The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by Lawrence Flammenberg
Book Description: “The hurricane was howling, the hailstones beating against windows, the hoarse croaking of the raven bidding adieu to autumn, and the weather-cock’s dismal creaking joined with the mournful dirge of the solitary owl…”
The Necromancer consists of a series of interconnected stories, all centering on the enigmatic figure of Volkert the Necromancer. Filled with murder, ghosts, and dark magic, and featuring a delirious and dizzying plot that almost defies comprehension, The Necromancer is one of the strangest horror novels ever written.
One of the earliest Gothic bestsellers, The Necromancer was first published in 1794, and after more than two centuries still retains the power to thrill and fascinate readers.
The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) by Eleanor Sleath
Book Description: Seduced and betrayed by a rake, Julie de Rubine lives in seclusion with her infant son, Enrîco. One day, their calm retirement is interrupted by the Marchese de Montferrat, who promises to provide for Julie and her son if she agrees to care for an unfortunate orphan, Laurette, whose origin is shrouded in mystery. Under the assumed name of Madame Chamont, Julie raises the two children, whose youthful friendship eventually blossoms into love.
As Laurette matures, she resolves to learn the identity of her real parents. Her only clues are a painted miniature of a beautiful lady and the whisperings of a sinister monk, who warns her to avoid the Marchese de Montferrat. But when Julie is kidnapped by banditti and Laurette is taken to the gloomy castle of the lascivious Marchese, will she be able to uncover the truth and marry her beloved Enrîco, or will she fall victim to the lustful Montferrat?
The rarest of the seven “horrid novels,” Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) is indebted to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1796) but possesses a charm and fascination all its own.
Horrid Mysteries (1796) by Carl Grosse
Book description: A bizarre work whose labyrinthine plot defies summary, Horrid Mysteries (1796) recounts the experiences of Don Carlos and his friend, the Marquis of G******, who become entangled in the web of a secret society bent on world domination. As the heroes flee from place to place across Europe, the agents of this dark confederacy, seemingly possessed of supernatural powers, are always at their heels—and death lies around every corner!
Unavailable for nearly 50 years, this unabashedly lurid Gothic novel written by an enigmatic German who styled himself the “Marquis of Grosse” and “Marquis of Pharnusia” returns to print at last as the seventh and final reissue in Valancourt’s series of the rare Gothic novels mentioned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Gothic Novels and Jane Austen
For more on this topic, our own Tony Grant has also written about Austen’s influences and her work on Northanger Abbey in his article, Netley Abbey and the Gothic. In his article, Tony also references an article by John Mullan on the fascinating topic of Gothic literature that is well worth your time: The Origins of the Gothic.
In his Rambler No. 4, Johnson said that the “task” of “present writers” is to write books that “serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life” so that “nothing indecent” should be set in front of the eyes of young men and women.
As sensational, Gothic novels were being written, other authors were at the same time attempting to raise the bar and write novels that were both entertaining and instructive. Many of the books in each of these genres are novels with which Austen herself was familiar or, in many cases, would have read. Next month, I’ll be talking about didactic fiction—writing that was meant to provide positive role models and good morals—and the influence it had on Austen’s writing.