If you were recently introduced to Northanger Abbey through the ITV film, or if you’ve already read the book, you may be curious to know more about the Gothic novels Catherine and Isabella planned to read together.
The Castle of Wolfenbach was written by Eliza Parsons and published in 1793. Our heroine is a “wretched Matilda” as per Henry Tilney’s Gothic pastiche, and we meet her in flight from her lecherous uncle, seeking refuge in the suitably ancient and haunted Castle of Wolfenbach.
As in Northanger Abbey, Matilda explores a forbidden wing of the castle, and makes the very discovery Catherine Morland had hoped for: the horrifying mystery of the missing Countess of Wolfenbach. But when Matilda’s uncle tracks her down, can she escape his despicable intentions? Will she ever discover the secret of her parentage? And what must and will happen to throw a suitable hero in her way? Other Northanger touches include Mademoiselle de Fontelle and the young widow Mrs. Courtney, who feign friendship with Matilda while slandering her and poaching her beau – these two could be older sisters of Isabella Thorpe. Matilda’s true friend, Adelaide de Bouville, is a modest and cultivated young lady (not unlike Eleanor Tilney) who just happens to have an unmarried older brother. And our valiant hero, Count de Bouville, makes a desperate port-to-port chase around the Mediterranean in pursuit of Matilda, who is imprisoned on a Turkish pirate ship (!). Henry Tilney got off easy: he only had to ride as far as Fullerton.
The Castle of Wolfenbach is much shorter than Ann Radcliffe’s novels, and does not indulge in the lengthy descriptions of the picturesque which may make The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian slow reading. Melodramatic plot and characters and the heavy-handed anti-French, pro-Protestant English propaganda make Radcliffe seem moderate by comparison, but these excesses provide a lively (and snark-worthy) read: for example, Matilda spends the book alternating between fainting and crying, and when reunited with her long-lost mother, they simultaneously sob and swoon. (The apple didn’t fall far from that tree.) It’s easy to imagine Jane Austen, who warned against fainting fits in Love and Freindship, having a laugh over this overly sentimental scene.
Valancourt Books, an independent press based in Chicago, is in the process of publishing a complete set of the “horrid” novels on Isabella Thorpe’s list. Many of these books have been out of print for several years, and until they were described in Michael Sadleir’s 1927 essay, The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen, there was some question whether Jane Austen had simply made up the titles. Now a few editions can be found with some detective work, but Valancourt’s series is readily available and especially useful to Jane Austen fans: I’m in the process of reading Valancourt’s “Northanger Novels” and have found the editor’s notes very interesting and useful. Notes typically include the author’s background, discussion of each novel’s contribution to Gothicism, and how it applies to Northanger Abbey.
To date, Valancourt Books has published The Italian, Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, and the most recently published Necromancer of the Black Forest. Also available: The Veiled Picture by Ann Radcliffe, a chapbook reduction of The Mysteries of Udolpho for those who are wild to know what lurks behind the black veil, but perhaps are put off by the length of the original. Valancourt Books is a treasure trove of rare and previously out-of-print Gothic goodies, and their web site is well worth a look.
Northanger Abbey is a lively, entertaining novel in its own right; knowledge of the Gothic tradition is not at all necessary to enjoy it. As I work my way through Isabella’s list, my appreciation grows: I admire Jane Austen’s ability to pack so many rich, clever references into such a concise and elegant package.
Yo realicé una traducción al español de la novela de Mrs. Parsons, aunque nunca la publiqué. La tengo guardada 😁.