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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jane Austen's Celebration and Extension of the Female Gothic Novel

The other day, I had an interesting exchange with Christy Somer in Austen-L, about Jane Austen's attitude toward the female Gothic novel, in particular those by the most famous author of female Gothic novels, Ann Radcliffe, in particular The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is given a great deal of attention in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

More specifically, when I argued that Jane Austen celebrated and extended the female Gothic genre, Christy responded, in part, as follows:

"Now that I’ve spent some significant time reading Ann Radcliffe, my growing understanding of JA does not bring me any closer to considering that she secretly admired and embedded the sensibilities and intelligences from the worlds of AR into her work. These ‘connections’ you claim to be there, Arnie -excepting as to how they might fit into JA’s ironic humors and parodic varieties, are not what I sense at all. In fact, I seriously question whether JA ever really bothered to differentiate much between the differences existing within the quality of AR’s creations, and those belonging to the many copy-cats which came after.
According to some learned thinking, ‘The Children of the Abbey’ by Regina Maria Roche is a rather poor imitation in the Radcliffean style. I will be reading this story eventually. However, as I consider how these two novels were presented in ‘Emma’, I’m inclined to think that JA was certainly not differentiating between the quality of these two. Actually I’m finding myself more inclined to consider that JA did not see much of a difference when it came to the world of the gothic story. She may have found them entertaining and useful for her parodies and irony, yet, I believe she generally mocked and de-valued these particular worlds - whether they came from the novels of Ann Radcliffe, Roche, or anyone else’s."

I then responded to her as follows:

Christy, you've gone off on a tangent entirely of your own invention, having nothing to do with what I actually wrote, which is the following:

"....JA was only pretending to mock Udolpho and the female gothic, whereas in the anti-parody that NA really was, JA was both celebrating and _extending_ the female gothic that Radcliffe so masterfully created into theretofore unreached heights of genius."

Let me elaborate on what I meant by this. First, I see JA as celebrating the core idea and function of the many forms of female gothic which could be found in circulating libraries during JA's lifetime, and that was as a kind of female fairy tale, a mythology for women, a way of symbolically representing and expressing female perspectives on the predation, oppression, confinement, and even "murder" of women in _ordinary_ English family life. Mrs. Tilney is the perfect symbol of the married English gentlewoman, Jane Fairfax is the perfect symbol of the single Englishwoman, each of them subject to their own particular dangers, most of them having to do with female sexuality and reproduction.

You've made a big deal about the varying levels of quality of female gothic literature, referring to writing of high literary quality (such as Radcliffe's, and I would add Sophia Lee's, among others) and also to the many lesser and inferior imitators who attempted to satisfy the vast reading market for same. I think that JA was perfectly capable of distinguishing good writing from bad, but her overarching goal was the celebrate it all, both the cream and the trash of the circulating library, because it all addressed the huge need that Englishwomen felt for some outlet, some safe place where they could vent their fears and dreams, safe from prying and disapproving male eyes. That is why all these female gothic tales take place "far away" on the Continent, in castles and abbeys, where men with foreign names like Montoni do very bad things.

But even though, superficially, the female gothic might have seemed far removed from ordinary English life, I am sure you are aware that English men nonetheless felt very threatened by the very idea of women doing a lot of reading of this sort. Many a sexist English father, husband or brother must have felt nervous about these gothic novels their women were reading--Henry Tilney was actually the best of these worried Englishmen, because at least he read and enjoyed Radcliffe.

So, the conventional view of JA as someone who concurred with the English patriarchal notion that it was dangerous for women to read this sort of writing, is, to my mind, completely preposterous. Which is one of the many reasons why I find the standard interpretation of Northanger Abbey, as a satire of weak-minded women letting their imagination run away with them, also completely preposterous.

What JA was mocking was the _mockers_! Read properly, Northanger Abbey is a satire of Henry Tilney's pompous, self-important, paranoid fear of Catherine's clever and quick imagination--which is why he puts her down every chance he gets. He knows there is something of great value in the female gothic, but he does not quite realize what it is, till Catherine (unwittingly) opens his eyes.

So, to think that JA supported sexist male dismissal of the female gothic is.....completely preposterous!

And I conclude by explaining what I mean by JA's _extending_ the female gothic---by this I mean that JA invented her own unique way of representing and expressing female perspectives and female feelings in a gothicized manner---being the great literary genius that she was, she was not going to copy Radcliffe, instead she invented her own seamless blend of the realistic with the gothic, leaving the latter almost entirely subliminal. She found a better mousetrap, literarily speaking--a gothic hiding within a realistic novel.

I will of course make that argument in much greater detail in my book, but that is the gist of what I am claiming.

So....your above-quoted comments are irrelevant to my actual claims, I am curious to hear your thoughts about what I was actually claiming.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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