Jane Austen and the Gothic

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Jane Austen and the Gothic

Eric Eisner
George Mason University

“The storm still raged, and various were the noises, more terrific even than the wind, which struck at intervals on her startled ear. The very curtains of her bed seemed at one moment in motion, and at another the lock of her door was agitated, as if by the attempt of somebody to enter. Hollow murmurs seemed to creep along the gallery, and more than once her blood was chilled by the sound of distant moans.”

(Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, 117)

1.        So, in Northanger Abbey, Austen parodies the Gothic thrillers Catherine Morland has been reading, sends up the Gothic’s deluded and sleepless readers, and at the same time indulges in the fun. The conjunctions and disjunctions between Austen’s fiction and the machinations of the Gothic tale formed the basis of the advanced undergraduate course, “Jane Austen and the Gothic,” I designed and taught in 2008. Cross-listed in English and Women’s Studies, the course juxtaposed a selection of Austen’s novels with representative Gothic fiction of the 1780s and 90s to explore what these works might share, and what their differences could help students see about Austen’s fiction, about the Gothic, and about the various interests and pleasures of novel reading (and writing) in general. Breaking with the neat categories and sequences that often organize period surveys, the course was both challenging and exciting to teach—not least because, in ways I hadn’t anticipated at the start of the semester, I found myself making new connections along with my students, and thinking about the wider field of writing along new lines. In what follows, I outline the rationale behind the course, how I structured it, and what I learned as I taught.

2.         The idea to offer a course on Austen and the Gothic arose in part from the historicist impulse that Patricia Matthew and Miriam Wallace see motivating many courses on Romantic-era fiction (par. 1). Linking Austen with the Gothic returns her novels to important aspects of the discursive contexts in which they were produced and initially read. On one level, the course aimed to take account of the Gothic’s prominence in the literary landscape in which Austen’s habits of reading and writing took shape: if the heyday of the Gothic predates the publication of her novels, it coincides with her first forays into novel-writing in the 1790s. Helped by the work of such critics as Marilyn Butler, Mary Poovey, and Claudia Johnson, I hoped students would see that both Austen’s fiction and Gothic novels of the 1780s and 90s respond to a social world in transformation, participating in the cultural debates swirling around key institutions—marriage, the family, patriarchal authority, property transmission. [1]  Austen’s fiction and the Gothic novel alike experiment with new forms for representing subjectivity, and test the relationship of individual desire to social forms; both foreground the role of feeling in organizing or disturbing individual and social bodies. Teaching Austen with the Gothic additionally offers students a way into the era’s debates over the social role and social effects of the novel and novel-reading, and into the contest between “real life and manners” and “romance” central to the theorization of the novel underway in the period.

3.         To be sure, one might map out this shared terrain in courses configured under other rubrics: “Romantic Fiction,” or “Austen and her Contemporaries,” “Literature of Sensibility,” or even “Gothic Novels,” say. Plus or minus a novel or two, our reading list— works by Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Helen Maria Williams. along with Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion—might well have fit comfortably under any of these titles. To my mind, though, my own rubric offered two key advantages. First, I hoped the apparent opposition between Austen’s controlled realism and the Gothic’s extravagance could function as a useful heuristic to get students thinking about questions of genre and mode comparatively. Second, and more crucially, I wanted to capitalize on the recognition factor both Austen and the Gothic hold for readers (and viewers) today. [2]  Austen’s status as cultural icon and her moment as hot Hollywood property coexist with the Gothic’s continuing power as a cultural mode: the Gothic novelists of the late eighteenth century may not themselves be widely read anymore, but the sensibility and the forms they helped launch live on, and they do so as part of a self-conscious tradition. If, in one sense, my course directed students to the reading world Austen herself inhabited, then the course at the same time forced the question of how and why both Austen and the Gothic have enjoyed such different, but equally spectacular, cultural afterlives. Combining the canonical power of Austen with the frisson of the Gothic—or somewhat theatrically contrasting the two—not only turned out to be a potent draw for students (a good thing if you are under pressure to meet enrollment targets), it proved a pedagogically productive experiment as well.

4.        In our opening discussions, I was surprised to find how many of the students arrived already holding fairly firm views on what reading Austen and reading the Gothic would be like, whether or not they had actually read much of either. We had a few self-professed Janeites who’d been reading her devotedly since high school or before, and a number of these expressed serious skepticism about the Gothic. We had some fans of Gothic fiction—at least in its more recent manifestations—some of whom volunteered (eyes rolling) that they were willing to wade through some Austen if it got them to some juicy Gothic novels, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to like it. Several students announced themselves as participants in fan or fan fiction communities organized around Austen or the Gothic or both. [3]  But even those more catholic or agnostic in their tastes—including the significant number of students who had read neither a single Austen novel nor a single work of Gothic fiction—seemed puzzled by the course title, which they took as downright oxymoronic: what could the world of “ladylike” Jane Austen, which they pictured as all period dresses and clever repartee, possibly have to do with the Gothic, by which they understood (not incorrectly) sex, crime and madness? Though when I taught this course, in 2008, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) was still a year away, that title describes essentially the way my students understood my own course title: that spoof (like the whole franchise it has spawned) plays on the same sense of mashing up incongruities, mixing the decorous with the degraded, my students anticipated. [4] 

5.        I do not mean to present my students’ expectations as naïve, nor simply as misjudgments to be corrected. They gave voice to what Clara Tuite describes as Austen’s “canonicity effects,” “modes of cultural affect which serve specific functions within and investments of literary culture,” interlinking concepts of formal mastery, class privilege, English cultural heritage, and the romantic marriage plot (2). This is the “safe” Austen, as Deidre Lynch puts it, dominant in cinematic and television adaptations of the past several decades (Lynch “Introduction” 5). Austen scholarship over those same decades—especially historicist, feminist and queer readings of her fiction—suggests many avenues for challenging the straightforward identification of Austen’s fiction with these values, and this course was designed to open up such alternative ways of reading Austen. [5]  Rather than immediately dismissing my students’ received take on Austen, however, I asked them to see it as a cultural formation, and to think about what cultural needs this construction of Austen answers, whose interests it serves (Lynch “Introduction” 5). This moved our discussion to processes of reception and canon formation, and gave me an opportunity to explain (drawing on the terrific collection of essays in Lynch’s volume Janeites) that the cultural meanings of Austen have not always looked as stable and self-evident as they might now; rather, they emerged through a long, complex, and varied reception history.

6.        Still, the relationship between Austen and the Gothic articulated by my students parallels a developmental narrative often embedded in standard literary histories as well as in our syllabi, perhaps especially in survey courses. In this narrative, Austen’s writing marks the point at which the English novel straightens out and grows up. We pit Austen’s maturity against the Gothic’s adolescent acting-out, or else, somewhat contradictorily, Austen’s modernity against the Gothic’s old-fashioned weirdness, and we produce this relationship in part just by assigning Austen after the Gothic, or reading excerpts from Radcliffe as we teach Northanger Abbey, so that it appears Austen comes along to correct what comes before. [6]  This developmental narrative often describes an ethical as well technical advance, paralleled in turn by the maturation plots of her novels. According to this story, in other words, where the Gothic functions like the unconscious, Austen acts as the ego ideal: in this version of things, if the Gothic shows us who we fear we were, or are, Austen shows us who we want to become.

7.        To help imagine alternatives to such a developmental narrative and the typecast roles it assigns, my course partially dispensed with chronological sequence, instead alternating between Gothic novels and Austen’s fiction. We opened, not unconventionally, with Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), followed by Northanger Abbey (1818). But we then went back to Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798), before reading Sense and Sensibility (1811) and watching the Ang Lee film (1995). Late in the semester, we tackled Smith’s Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788), concluding with Persuasion (1818) and a final viewing session for some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the TV series whose sensibility merges dark, suburban Gothic with Austenian wit, irony and romance. While the syllabus thus exploited anachronistic conjunctions, one could argue such anachronism is built into much of Austen’s fiction already—integral to all her novels that began life in earlier versions in the 1790s, though most obvious in the case of Northanger Abbey, which is introduced in Austen’s advertisement as a text from an earlier day.

8.         I confess I walked out of that first class feeling fairly nervous about what might lie in store: would half the class just trash whatever we were reading in a given week? As the course played out, however, my students’ divided initial responses proved an excellent starting point for our discussions. What surprised me over the course of the semester was not just the richness of the connections students were able to draw on their own across the texts we read (e.g., in linking and comparing heroines—The Italian’s Ellena, Catherine Morland, Wollstonecraft’s Maria, Marianne Dashwood, Emmeline, Anne Elliot—or male leads—Henry Tilney, Maria’s Darnford, Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, Emmeline’s suitors Delamere and Godolphin, William Elliot, Frederick Wentworth, and so on), but also how our sustained experience with the Gothic shifted what we looked for in Austen, and how we saw it. Juxtaposed as they were, Austen and the Gothic could, in a sense, read one another. Repeatedly turning to Austen from the Gothic brought into sharper relief the unease and instability troubling Austen’s evocations of ordered social worlds—especially in the form of alternative or marginalized plotlines (for example, the doubled Elizas in Sense and Sensibility), or in occasions of suspense, where anxiety can be oppressively intense for characters and for the reader, and where deranging outcomes feel all too likely. This changed how my students understood Austen’s marriage plot: instead of taking for granted the inevitability of narrative closure, students were more willing to imagine the situations of dispossession, powerlessness, danger or simply open-ended waiting in which Austen’s female characters often find themselves as situations from which there may indeed be no magical rescue. We could see the novels emphasizing forms of disconnection as much as forms of community.

9.        Moreover, turning to Austen from the Gothic and back again had the effect of denaturalizing Austen’s realism. Categories of reader response associated with the Gothic—suspense, horror, anxiety, fascination, boredom, laughter, disgust—became central to our discussions of Austen, too. Gothic novels, we noticed, never let the reader forget she’s reading a book: they are full of obtrusive indices of materiality and textuality. By contrast, I’d had trouble in the past getting students to think of Austen’s fiction as anything other than a transparent representation of reality. Coming back to Austen from the Gothic, however, we were better positioned to ask what Austen does differently so that our immersion in the narrative world she creates goes uninterrupted, to see that it takes particular strategies (free indirect discourse, irony, appeals to common sense and common situations, and so forth) to make this happen. Not only in Northanger Abbey, but across her fiction, students were attuned to the way Austen repurposes literary conventions (for example, in landscape prospects, or in epistolary exchanges) and they could now read these elements of the novel in sophisticated ways. Mary Favret’s Romantic Correspondence proved especially helpful in tracking the function of reading and writing letters in Austen’s fiction against the backdrop of sentimental convention.

10.        Moving between Austen and the Gothic also helped us think in productive ways about Austen’s representations of consciousness and interiority. The Gothic’s representations of emotional extremity and psychic fragmentation sensitized us to the language of “agitation” and anxiety permeating Austen’s fiction. In the Gothic, the boundary between the self and what lies outside it is characteristically dissolved: the self projects itself into the world, or the other invades the self. Where Romantic-era Gothic typically diagnoses the breakdown of social bonds by isolating subjectivities, shrinking the possibilities for social interaction, Austen’s comedies of manners obviously work in the opposite direction, examining the fraying of social bonds by looking at moments of dissonance among a circle of interacting characters, and imagining the repair of bonds in groups knit together by sympathetic understanding. Her narrative imperatives require, however, the differentiation of her heroines from social worlds that can’t keep pace with their strength of imagination or desire, producing a gap between the self and social reality that can feel Gothic in force. Like the Gothic, too, Austen often dramatizes inwardness by focusing on the permeability of the boundary between inside and outside. [7]  The claustrophobia Austen’s heroines frequently experience—necessary to produce their distinction from their social worlds—might evoke parallels for students with the claustrophobic states so crucial to Gothic psychology.

11.        As we read, the balance of value among these works shifted in surprising ways. The Gothic was no longer just “context” or background, and the fact that some students preferred the Gothic to Austen’s brand of realism allowed for productive discussions about how and why we value certain kinds of texts, and about the privilege we accord to certain modes of reading. Austen (we always say) schools us in reading reflectively, with an appreciation for subtleties and precision of language, where re-reading moves us toward a revised understanding and greater clarity. Austen models the skeptical, recursive close reading our discipline—and especially our classroom practice—makes central. By contrast, the Gothic solicits reading as voracious consumption, propelled by curiosity; when you get to the end of the novel, you’re not expected to re-read, you look for the next book. Coleridge pinpoints exactly this feature of the Gothic in his 1794 review of Mysteries of Udolpho:

Curiosity is raised oftener than it is gratified; or rather, it is raised so high that no adequate gratification can be given it; the interest is completely dissolved when once the adventure is finished, and the reader, when he is got to the end of the work, looks about in vain for the spell which had bound him so strongly to it. (par. 1)
Led by student responses to the novels we were reading, our class discussions ended up canvassing this dichotomous sorting of readerly attitude. This, in turn, raised a series of questions I tried to negotiate as I taught. How well do these opposed models of reading describe what happens in readers’ actual practice? What are our actual investments (pedagogic or scholarly) in these models of reading? How might such an opposition between “close reading” and enthralled, compulsive reading block access to a more nuanced, more useful phenomenology of reading?

12.        Certainly, as I told my students, I think the Gothic texts we were studying reward close and careful reading (and re-reading). Not all of my students were spell-bound by these Gothic fictions, of course, and I don’t want to minimize the challenge in teaching them. Students can use a lot of help getting through long, strange, convoluted novels like The Monk or Emmeline, both in simply holding onto the thread of the narrative and in knowing when to slow down and read more closely (I ended up distributing chapter-by-chapter notes for The Italian, The Monk and Emmeline, avoiding plot summary but guiding students to significant passages and making key narrative developments explicit). Still, as I’ve been suggesting, many of them did report really getting carried away, especially by The Italian and The Monk. I cherish an e-mail I got early in the semester from one student, a talented close reader: she acknowledged that the reading assignments are long, “but generally,” she continued, sounding a little like Catherine Morland, “my problem has been stopping at the assigned reading. It's hard not to get into these books. […] I robbed myself of several hours of sleep last night reading The Monk almost to the end” (Fix). One of the pleasures of teaching this course was hearing this kind of response, and I mention it partly as encouragement to those teachers thinking about assigning some of these Gothic works. At the same time, one of the challenges of the course—one I can’t claim to have solved to my satisfaction—was figuring out how to talk about this kind of response in the classroom, besides simply welcoming it with relief. All our training tells us to try to get students to slow down, to linger over words; what then do we do with texts that impel readers to speed up? As Rita Felski observes, and as my experience teaching this course brought home to me, our discipline has a surprisingly impoverished vocabulary for talking critically (in the classroom, or in our scholarship) about modes of non-detached reading without lapsing into either platitudes or castigation (2). While we didn’t arrive at a solution to this problem, the course at least succeeded in moving these questions out into the open for me as well as for my students. [8] 

13.        As we talked about their responses to these texts and considered how they worked towards or against ideals of “close reading,” I tried to get students to think about the formal features that encourage rapid, absorbed reading, and to think about what makes terror or sensation a source of pleasure for readers. We approached these questions in part historically through eighteenth-century theories of terror writing, including Anna and John Aikin’s “On the Pleasure Derived From Objects of Terror,” and period reviews. Coleridge’s reviews of Radcliffe and Lewis take the form of elaborate reflections on, or theories of, affective readerly response and how it is generated. Comparing Gothic or sentimental writing with the new realism Austen’s fiction represents, Walter Scott’s review of Emma similarly distinguishes these genres in part on the basis of the different way each affects the reader. Scott’s review is especially interesting because, while it identifies Austen’s fiction as a singular break with the “old régime” (192) of the novel, it is far from a ringing endorsement of her realism. Instead, Scott holds open the space his own historical fiction will occupy, blending “romance” and “real life” and manners, and at the same time imagines a new nineteenth-century figure, the general reader, who turns with equal delight to realism or romance, but who goes to each for different kinds of pleasures (200).

14.        The Austen novels we were reading, of course, thematize forms of intense readerly attachment: Catherine Morland’s addictive reading of the Gothic; Marianne Dashwood’s overidentification with sentimental fiction; the many kinds of bookishness on display in Persuasion, such as Captain Benwick’s Byronism and Anne Elliot’s memory stored with poetry (Pinch). We discussed how and why the potentially dangerous effects of (too much) reading became such a charged topic in the period, and why the Gothic in particular focused cultural anxieties about reading: fears about the reader’s susceptibility to the contagion of feeling or ideas, about the reader’s loss of self-control or self-mastery, about who was reading (women, the lower classes), about the specter of a mass reading public, about the commodification of literature and the industrialization of literary production. As E. J. Clery suggests, the irrationalism of the Gothic seemed to many to mirror the irrationalism of the transfixed reading public, and in turn the irrationalism of commercial modernity more generally (148). I emphasized the emergence of the Gothic in the 1790s as a recognizable “system,” facilitated by the development of new techniques of publishing, marketing, and distribution, exemplified by the growth of circulating libraries and the innovations of William Lane’s Minerva Press. When Catherine Morland remarks that “something very shocking indeed, will soon come out in London” and Henry Tilney recognizes that she is expecting “nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duo-decimo volumes…with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern,” the exchange draws attention to the regularity of this London-based system of production and its networks of distribution into the provinces (NA 77-8). The Gothic system appeared to create a spiral of demand, where an ever-increasing flood of books only further intensified the desire of an insatiable reading public for more.

15.        That Eleanor mistakes Catherine’s meaning and instead understands her to be talking about actual riots in London points to the ambivalent association between “terrorist writing” and the decade’s fears about political unrest—between riots in the streets and a “riot in the brain,” a persistent theme in our discussions. [9]  Are Gothic fictions destabilizing social forces like mobs in the street, or is the Gothic an escape or distraction from the potential for real violence? Does the Gothic channel anxieties about political unrest, or work to contain or defuse the tensions that might give rise to insurrection? Excerpts from Edmund Burke along with contemporary prints helped my students see how in the paranoid post-Revolutionary climate of the 1790s the language of Gothic terror infected political discourse; we also discussed how Gothic fiction could be turned to explicitly political uses (as in Maria or Godwin’s Caleb Williams), and in any case inevitably took on political dimensions.

16.         To get a sense for the Gothic as a contested category and to see how period discourse mapped different kinds of reading onto different kinds of readers, we looked at William Wordsworth’s denunciation (in his “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads) of the “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” generated by “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and “deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse,” a reading habit he connects with the simultaneously hyper-stimulating and deadening environment of urban mass culture (177). My students had no trouble locating the metaphors of disease and addiction Wordsworth uses to describe a sick social body, and easily followed the connection, articulated by Karen Swann among others, between Wordsworth’s attack and modern-day complaints about the addictive, stupefying effects of mass culture. We circled back then to think about how Wordsworth’s divisions between “high” and “low” culture and his alignment of these spheres with reflective and sensation-seeking modes of reading correlated with the kind of opposition the class had registered in our course title.

17.        Like Michael Gamer and Robert Miles, rather than stress the coherence of a Gothic “tradition” or “mode” represented by a catalogue of conventions, I presented the Gothic as a “shifting ‘aesthetic’” (Gamer 4) privileging certain processes or forces: destabilization, fragmentation, contagion and the breaking of boundaries, repetition and proliferation, totalization, abjection, exaggeration, concealment, the operation of uncanny or invisible agency. This more flexible understanding of the Gothic allowed us to track Gothic effects more widely and to think about how the Gothic produces those effects, rather than simply identifying static motifs. In background lectures, I sketched the rise of a taste for the Gothic in the eighteenth century, connecting it with the vogue for ruins; literate culture’s ambivalent fascination with the superstitious tales of oral, folk culture; and the romance of the wild, the primitive, and the outdated in a world of enlightened progress. We talked about how the Gothic’s fascination with the unknowable or the unspeakable contrasted with the drive in Austen’s novels towards clarity, visibility, and open communication. As one explanation for the Gothic’s popularity we could test out over the semester, I proposed Clery’s analysis of Gothic reading as granting a temporary illusion of control, as the anxieties produced by the apparent irrationalism of modernity “could be assuaged by binding them to a narrative repeated over and over with only minor variations” (153). I juxtaposed this historicist perspective on the Gothic as a function of consumer culture with a brief introduction to psychoanalytic perspectives on horror, drawing especially on Kristeva’s theory of abjection.

18.         I chose The Italian in preference to other Radcliffe novels as a (relatively) compact and classic example of “terrorist” writing at its 1790s peak. Students responded well to the novel (they were especially fascinated by the mysterious Schedoni). I found Gamer’s discussion of the Gothic as an interested, local deployment of broader cultural codes—sentimentality, the sublime—useful in thinking about how to help my students through the narrative. In their initial reading, I discovered, students often skipped over just those passages where Radcliffe most obviously engages such codes, such as in her lengthy landscape descriptions; to the students, such passages just felt tedious and unrelated to the plot. However, once students see that these passages look like departures from the plot precisely because Radcliffe really does go out of her way to call attention to specific non-narrative codes, they can recognize the work these passages are doing, and pick up on the deployment of the same codes in other novels. Anticipating Austen’s concerns with the management of information at the level of narrative technique and its circulation among characters through gossip or letters, I drew attention to the many instances of represented storytelling in The Italian, and the importance of the control of information both within the plot and as a device of suspense (for example, the servant Paulo’s narrative of the confessional of the Black Penitents [80-82], or Ellena’s attempt to read Vivaldi’s note in the convent, closely recalled in Catherine’s attempt to read what turns out to be the laundry list in Northanger Abbey [132]).

19.        Turning to Northanger Abbey from The Italian, students quickly recognized Austen’s debt to the Gothic as well as her critique of it. They were receptive to the argument that Austen does not simply reject Gothic irrationality, but rather mobilizes its energies and resources to her own ends. [10]  As Claudia Johnson points out, Northanger Abbey “domesticates the Gothic,” showing how its dangers are not comfortably distant but shockingly close to the English reader (47). The novel spotlights sources of real terror in Catherine’s world: the aforementioned riots; tyrannical and mercenary authority figures; invidious forms of social deception. And as George Levine argues, the Gothic devices Austen parodies in fact move the plot towards an ending every bit as magical as any romance. To set up discussion of these aspects of the novel, I assigned Johnson’s chapter on the novel from Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel and Robert Hopkins’s “General Tilney and the Affairs of State: The Political Gothic of Northanger Abbey,” both excerpted in the Norton Critical edition we used; Jillian Heydt-Stevenson’s discussion of Catherine’s discovery of the linen inventory as an entry into the “Gothicized” economies of the household worked very well also as a focus for discussion (Heydt-Stevenson 130-1). Levine’s accessible “Translating the Monstrous” would also make good secondary reading for undergraduates.

20.        Given the interests of the course, I had anticipated that much of our discussion would focus on Catherine’s addictive reading and the curiosity it inspires. Instead, however, taking their cue in part from Johnson’s astute observation that Henry Tilney largely scripts Catherine’s “Radcliffean excesses” at the Abbey in advance (39), my students quickly brought our discussion around to Tilney himself and his self-appointed role as instructor, a topic that sparked pronounced (and productive) disagreement. My students took widely varying viewpoints both on how to locate Tilney’s voice in relation to Austen’s authorial perspective, and—a separate but related issue—on how to understand Tilney himself (charming, kind, and reasonable, or insufferable, bullying, and ineffectual). Since Tilney so prominently asserts his own authority as a reader, this debate proved an excellent way to try to calibrate Austen’s own take on novel reading, and it opened up avenues into the novel’s representation of masculinity more generally. Our discussion of Tilney’s pedantry led us naturally to the question of what, if anything, Catherine learns over the course of the novel, and how. Many of my students voiced skepticism about a straightforward narrative of Catherine’s maturation as a progress from delusion to accurate judgment of reality, wondering instead about alternative descriptions of the novel’s plot: is the Catherine so eager to marry Henry Tilney as deluded a reader as ever? Has Catherine’s “strange, unaccountable character” been properly redirected, or absorbed by an (exaggeratedly) conventional fiction (NA 6)?

21.        The Monk’s sheer strangeness as a novel, its length, and especially its digressions and inset narratives and poetry, can prove challenging in the classroom. Taking these digressions and fragmentations seriously by asking why they are included and what work they perform—especially the “Bleeding Nun” narrative—can in fact be a useful technique for getting at larger patterns or issues in the novel (I recommend Peter Brooks’s essay “Virtue and Terror” along these lines). Students were able to see the novel’s fragmentation and incoherence not as a failing but as an alternative, juxtaposed against the principles of coherence and closure governing Austen’s realism—and so understand those elements of Austen’s work both as artistically achieved (not simply given) and as interested (not simply neutral). The instructor also has an opportunity here to introduce engaging material from the many adaptations and repackagings the novel spawned, from hilariously condensed chapbook versions (Almagro and Claude; or Monastic Murder; Exemplified by the Dreadful Doom of an Unfortunate Nun (1803)), to phantasmagoria set-pieces, to stage versions (Aurelio and Miranda, starring Kemble and Sarah Siddons, and a “Heroic Pantomime Ballet” of “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogine” that ran more than a year at Sadler’s Wells) (Clery 144). That the novel’s pastiche form lends itself immediately to this kind of commercial reproduction, and in fact absorbs it, will be obvious.

22.        Since I’d already introduced students to the political climate of the 1790s through Northanger Abbey, they were able to place The Monk in this context easily as well. Excerpts from Helen Maria Williams’s Letters Written in France (1790) helped us connect the novel to representations of revolutionary spectacle and spectatorship. The Monk and Maria worked well read in succession, since both engage a post-Revolutionary discourse of sensibility (especially through the figure of the libertine), and both explore the potentially “anarchic” force of individual desire that, as Mary Poovey points out, Austen also contemplates through the figure of Marianne Dashwood (Poovey 101, 185-194). By the time we reached Sense and Sensibility, students were well-prepared to recognize in “sensibility” a contested cultural system (Butler 192). Maria’s critique of marriage and Wollstonecraft’s analysis of the systematic, institutional logic of women’s dispossession prime students to understand the frustration and precariousness in Elinor and Marianne’s situation in Sense and Sensibility: the real threat of an intolerably closed existence. With Maria’s exploration of mother-daughter relationships in mind, we focused on representations of the maternal in Sense and Sensibility—its bustling cast of mothers a nice change of pace after all the villainous fathers we’d been discussing. Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the novel, together with Deborah Kaplan’s essay “Mass Marketing Jane Austen,” brought us back to the questions about contemporary constructions of Austenian romance with which we began.

23.        Coming to Emmeline late in the semester, students had a good sense of what to look for in a novel that might otherwise have been mystifying and confusing. They could recognize that while many of the elements of later Gothic novels are already present—distressed orphan, check; old castle, check; random acts of poetry-writing, check—this work of the 1780s predates the more codified Gothic of novels like The Italian and The Monk, and characters and plot don’t fully conform to Gothic stereotype: the mode is still in formation. Built around waiting for a considered attachment rather than rushing into the marriage market, the novel, Smith’s first, offers many possible lines of connection with Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion in particular. If Delamere (lauded by Austen as among the “first of men” in her History of England [NA 201]) and Godolphin foreshadow many of Austen’s male leads, Adelina’s poetry-writing and madness can be read against Marianne Dashwood’s story, whereas Emmeline’s emotional responsiveness and autonomy look forward in some ways to Anne Elliot’s. There are plot similarities too: as Loraine Fletcher notes in her excellent introduction to the Broadview edition (a great teaching text), Emmeline and Anne both reject the suitor with family connections and marry a naval officer instead (21). Reading the novel together with some of Smith’s sonnets, we focused on the construction of Emmeline’s interiority though her solitary reveries and her sympathetic imagination, and the almost magical power her ability to feel deeply seems to grant her. My students were intrigued by all the rivalries between men in the book, and the way they constantly threaten to derail the heterosexual courtship plot. The obviousness with which Smith doles out rewards and punishments at the novel’s end makes for a good lesson in how novelistic closure performs ideological work: what values or social positions are vindicated and what values or social positions are criticized by the novel at the end? How does the ending of the novel rearrange or reinforce social or power relations? [11] 

24.        Despite the connections with Emmeline I’ve mentioned, Persuasion felt in some ways like a significant departure from the novels I’ve been discussing. There’s nothing remotely Gothic about Kellynch Hall, and in the end, the old manor neither witnesses a triumphant return of the rightful owner, nor falls down (the other Gothic outcome for old houses). Mr. Elliot may be as dissolute and calculating as any Gothic villain— “a designing, wary, cold-blooded being...black at heart, hollow and black!” (132)—but the threat he poses Anne isn’t ever as immediate. Where novels like The Monk warn against the dangers of individual will unmoored from social structures and traditional roles (Brooks), Persuasion seems to celebrate that possibility. In its close, shifting away from the inheritance plot to a world where people rent rather than own their houses, the novel signals a shift in terrain and mode for the anxiety conjured by Gothic fictions. The terror attached to specific spaces in the Gothic is diffused into the less locatable, but perhaps less containable, anxiousness of everyday life.

25.        Teaching this class has encouraged me to experiment with setting up similar collisions among heterogeneous groups of novels to energize other courses I teach. In a British Romanticism graduate seminar, for example, where in the past I’d usually taught one or two novels along with poetry of the period—and those novels the usual suspects, typically Austen and/or Mary Shelley—I interspersed our reading in poetry with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or the Moor (1806), Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815), and Persuasion. This was a rewarding move, and not only because my students found these novels a lot of fun to read. Making such jumps among novels and such leaps between genres, students can gain an exciting sense of the heterogeneity of a Romantic-era literary field characterized by forceful but radically differing claims for what literature can or should be.

Works Cited

Aikin, John and Anna Letitia Aikin. “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror, with Sir Betrand, a Fragment.” [1773]. Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook, 1700–1820. Ed. E. J. Clery and Robert Miles. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. 127-131. Print.

Armstrong, Nancy. “The Gothic Austen.” A Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009. 237-47. Print.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Susan Fraiman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

-----. Persuasion. Ed. Patricia Meyer Spacks. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Print.

-----. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Print.

Brooks, Peter. “Virtue and Terror: The Monk.” ELH 40:2 (Summer 1973): 249-63. Print.

Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Prod. Mutant Enemy. 1997. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001. DVD.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.

Coleridge, S. T. Rev. of Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe. Critical Review (August 1794) 361-72. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.

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Dark Jane Austen Book Club. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.

Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

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Fix, Susanna. Message to the author. 25 Sept. 2008. E-mail.

Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.

Heydt-Stevenson, Jillian. Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Hopkins, Robert. “General Tilney and the Affairs of State: The Political Gothic of Northanger Abbey.” Philological Quarterly 57 (1978): 213-24. Print.

Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.

Kaplan, Deborah. “Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women and Courtship in Two of the Recent Films.” Persuasions 18 (1996) 171-181. JASNA. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.

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-----, ed. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

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Pinch, Adela. “Lost in a Book: Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’.” Studies in Romanticism 32:1 (Spring 1993): 97-117. Print.

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[1] Recently Nancy Armstrong has written about the connection between the Gothic and property transmission in Austen: in her account, Austen’s fiction goes Gothic when the link between property and personhood is disrupted (237). BACK

[2] I deliberately avoided using the terms “Romantic” or “Romantic-era” in my title. My thinking was that these terms might either perform a leveling function (reducing everything we read to iterations of “Romanticism”) or interfere with students’ response to what they read (if they were importing notions of what “Romantic” could mean). By the same token, I wanted to resist letting the Gothic stand as simply another name for the Romantic. As the course progressed, I found we did not require the terminology of Romanticism to accomplish the pedagogical goals I had in mind. BACK

[3] For a recent example of Gothicized Austen fan fiction, see the blog “Dark Jane Austen Book Club.” BACK

[4] On such hybrid productions see Wells 177–205. BACK

[5] See, for example, Johnson, Tuite, and Heydt-Stevenson. BACK

[6] Clifford Siskin argues that Austen’s formal choices, along with her methods of publication and presentation, not only perform her difference from the novel as she received it, but also collude with the language of her earliest critics to represent that difference as an advance in the developmental terms I have outlined (193–209). Siskin sees this as a watershed moment in the development of the modern idea of "literature" itself (205). BACK

[7] See, for example, Adela Pinch’s account of how in Anne Elliot’s experience “mental space is always impinged upon” by what’s outside it (116). BACK

[8] For a thoughtful discussion of reading with feeling in criticism and pedagogy, see Mason. BACK

[9] See Johnson and Hopkins on the relationship between the novel, the Gothic, and 1790s politics. BACK

[10] Judith Wilt’s Ghosts of the Gothic presents a compelling reading of the novel within a Gothic tradition. BACK

[11] I would like to thank my colleague Deborah Kaplan for suggesting I assign Emmeline in this course. BACK


Published @ RC

April 2015