Sublime Anxiety: The Northanger Canon

June 22, 2007 § Leave a comment

The Northanger Canon is the collection of late 18th century ‘horrid’ Gothic novels that feature in the first work that Austen sold to a publisher, Northanger Abbey.

The book itself, first written in 1798 but not published until 1817, is a defense of the novel as an art form, a celebratory sending up of Gothic fiction and, a warning about it. Austen herself enjoyed gothic fiction, especially the work of Ann Radcliffe, but she feared that the excessive romanticism and melodrama of the books incited impressionable girls to ape the manners, coquetry and faux sentimentality of a Gothic heroine, in search of the exciting adventures they found on the page. Seeking the danger and intrigue of a novel in their everyday lives could not but breed insincerity and vanity, and in Northanger Abbey, she gives us the portrait of just such a girl in Isabella Thorpe.

The literary Gothic grew out of many influencing factors. Though classically focused, Thomas Gray’s 1751 masterpiece Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard was a precursor to elegant appreciations of the Gothic form such as Wordsworth’s 1798 poem Tintern Abbey. Gray’s poetry was strongly marked by the taste for sentiment controlled by classical ideals of restraint and composure that characterized the later Augustans, but prepared the way for the inward emotional exploration displayed by the Romantics of the 1790-1820 generation.

For a source for the truly macabre novels of the canon we need look no further than to Horace Walpole (1717–1797), novelist and man of letters. His 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, and the Gothic remodeling of his widely copied estate Strawberry Hill, ushered in an era that would last six decades and continue to influence far beyond his lifetime, from the more philosophical horror of Mary Shelley, and Dr Frankenstein’s Creature, to Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Rochester (Jane Eyre 1847), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla Karnstein (Carmilla 1872), The Turn of the Screw ( 1898 ) by Henry James, Rebecca ( 1938 ) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) by Daphne du Maurier and innumerable others featuring suitably Gothic women on dangerous estates.

Contributing influences included accounts of European travels, most notably those accounts of the well to do Grand Tour. The tour took English travelers through the Alps, invoking sublime horror, notons of lurking banditti and introduced them to European landscape painting, especially that of Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorraine, spurning on the Picturesque movement as well as the Gothic, and Graveyard Poetry, a genre popular in the first half of the 18th century. It’s subjects were, apart from graves and churchyards, elements such as night, death and hauntings, and everything else that would be considered irrational, and thus excluded, by the rational culture of the Enlightenment. It is the nature of the human mind to interpret the denied and excluded as mysterious and intriguing, and as such, elements of the Gothic novel that would keep the public coming back for more included more than just dungeons and skeletons: it was violence, murder, wealth, poverty and incest and its underlying current of themes on the minds of the Georgians: Anti-Catholicism, eroticism, social freedom and illegitimacy.

The gothic novels that make up the Northanger Canon:

  1. Horrid Mysteries: A Story From the German Of The Marquis Of Grosse by Peter Will 1796
  2. The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest by “Lawrence Flammenberg” (pseud. of Karl Friedrich Kahlert)
    Translated by “Peter Teuthold” 1794
  3. Orphan of the Rhine, Eleanor Sleath, 1798
  4. Clermont, a Tale by Regina Maria Roche, 1798
  5. The Castle of Wolfenbach, Eliza Parsons, 1793
  6. The Midnight Bell, Francis Lathom, 1798
  7. The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale, Eliza Parsons, 1796
  8. The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1794
  9. The Italian, Ann Radcliffe 1796

If you live in Virginia or plan to visit Charlottesville, then you’re in luck. And not just because Virginia is awesome, which it surely is. The Library of the venerable University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by none other than Thomas Jefferson, houses an unparalleled collection of first editions of the canon, as part of their wonderful Sadlier-Black Collection. Their website hosts photographs of the canon set, as well as blurbs and illustrations, along with those of the other classics making up the entire collection. Were I in Virginia, honestly, nothing could keep me away from that library. I highly recommend a read of the collection’s introductory essay Sublime Anxiety: The Gothic Family and The Outsider by curator Natalie Regensburg, from whom I stole this post’s title. Nice one, Natalie. The absorbingly fascinating story of book collector Michael Sadlier, and how the quest for the canon books began, can be found here on the library’s website. The collection includes first editions of and illustrations from many other Georgian writers, including Mary Shelley and John Polidori, and a Victorian personal favourite, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 1848.

Atlhough I’ve had The Mysteries of Udolpho and another Radcliffe The Romance of the Forest, on my bookshelf for a while, I’ve only just started reading them, and they really are very addictive. There has been a revival of interest lately in the gothic novel and as Radcliffe, the ‘Queen of Terror’ is especially thought to have perfected the genre, her books are less difficult to find than the rest. Recently I was surprised and pleased to find them in the ‘classics’ section of a bookstore. Of the works however of Radcliffe’s ‘charming imitators’, as Austen wrote, there is a champion in independent publisher Valancourt Books. Bless their little gothic hearts for publishing the novels of many of the canon authors.


Images featured in this post are an illustration from The Mysteries of Udolpho,Vol. 4, p. 217 (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1830) and the cover of The Midnight Bell and The Mysterious Warning as published by Valancourt Books 2007.

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