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Medieval Reads: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

By Gillian Polack

We bring the Middle Ages into our lives in a number of ways. One of my favourites in my twenties was Gothic novels, especially ones written in Georgian England. I loved the hauntedness of the past and the erratic way it was presented and I adored it when mystery and shadow occupied more space than any historical knowledge. These days the nineteenth century Gothic novels I re-read are the ones that turn the genre upside down in various ways. I was torn between talking about Thomas Love Peacock’s work and Jane Austen’s work to show you what I mean by this and I let my library decide. Whichever author I found first would be the one I’d talk about today.

Northanger Abbey almost fell out of my bookshelf into my hands, because so many people around me are talking about Austen right now. I was on a panel at a Jane Austen festival just a month ago, which explains why it launched itself at me. I was checking something after I came back, when an audience member wanted us to talk about how Jane Austen was a Romance author and I kept finding reasons she was not. I only shared one of those reasons, because the others required checking. I kept wishing Austen had been a literary critic and I could hear direct opinions, but Northanger Abbey reminded me that her fiction often operates, in its way, as literary criticism. How her characters respond to the world and the contexts of their responses tell us a lot about how Austen’s healthy cynicism concerning the world around her.

Austen does a lot more than this with her writing. Northanger Abbey is rather important in showing us how people responded in the early nineteenth century (and even in the late eighteenth century) to the making of history into the mysterious and the dangerous. It shows us the mirror through which many young people viewed the Middle Ages.

Northanger Abbey directly addresses the reading patterns of young women and how they translate what they read into a way of interpreting the world around them.  Catherine Morland and her friends read novels together. They immerse themselves in those novels the way modern girls their age might immerse themselves in Netflix dramas.

Austen shows Catherine carrying the descriptions of places into the real world and tripping herself up because the two are significantly different. It’s ironic and humorous and I still see people who have read Gothic and horror works travel to the United Kingdom or France as tourists and respond to those buildings with the same thrill that Austen depicts Catherine as having.

To be honest, the Gothic novels Catherine read were not all medieval in theme. Not even half of them were. They mostly, however, took place in environments that used a particular medieval backdrop. We still use that backdrop. We take pictures of tombs and we shudder at the emptiness of a ruined church. It’s the sentiments that these locations and objects evoke that is critical in this variety of Medievalism.

The first time I read Northanger Abbey I thought its heroine was not very bright. Later, I realised that the heroine does precisely what most readers do today and that Austen is telling a story about how her contemporaries saw the Middle Ages. Catherine Morland is bright, but entirely immersed in her own culture. She develops a sense of self as the story progresses, but she begins as an intelligent young woman with a driving need to feel that gentle shudder and that soft whisper of darkness.

Austen told this personal immersion and the emergence into wider society as part of a larger story, of course, but the way the ghosts of the past are interpreted by different people precisely delineates the differences between her characters. Intelligence is part of it, but so is the affective interpretation of history.

A doorway is but a doorway unless you add the emotion captured by reading of a character fleeing through it. In the late eighteen the century and early nineteenth century Gothic, this emotion was partly carried by that doorway being Medieval. One built in 1750, say, did not have the same effect.

This is surprisingly important, for many readers still prefer an affective interpretation of the Middle Ages. When I asked a group of writers how they brought the Middle Ages to life in their fiction, emotional words and a sense of intense affiliation with a place or a time or an historical personage proved critical to the choices quite a few of them made of where they wrote and why they wrote.

It’s fascinating to re-read Northanger Abbey with this emotive link to the Middle Ages in mind. The translation of the Gothic novels Catherine read into her life experience and then the realisation that a significant part of that experience was solely within her mind is a trajectory many modern readers experience if they fall in love with the Middle Ages from that same direction. In other words, Austen was so precise in her description of Catherine Morland, that the steps she goes through emotionally in relation to the Middle Ages follow the same path that a large number of readers follow today.

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack

Click here to read more from the Medieval Reads series

Top Image: Photo by Kate Hiscock / Flickr



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