Friday, 22 June 2007

Sublime Anxiety: The Northanger Canon

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, was simultaneously 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, she gives us the portrait of just such a girl in Isabella Thorpe.

The literary Gothic grew out of many influencing factors and was the Romantic Period's appreciation and interpretation of the medieval. It ranged from elegant appreciations of the Gothic form, such as Wordsworth's poem Tintern Abbey, to the truly macabre novels of the canon and to the more philosophical horror of Mary Shelley, and Dr Frankenstein's Creature. The Gothic revival, which appeared in English gardens and architecture before it got into literature, was the work of a handful of visionaries, the most important of whom was Horace Walpole (1717–1797), novelist and man of letters. His 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto and the Gothic remodeling of his widely copied estate Strawberry Hill, ushered in an era that would last six decades.

Contributing influences included accounts of European travels, most notably those accounts of the well to do Grand Tour, which took English travelers through the Alps, invoking sublime horror, notions of lurking banditti and 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 often on the minds of the Georgians: Anti-Catholicism, eroticism, social freedom and illegitimacy.

The gothic novels that make up the Northanger Canon are:

The Mysteries of Udolpho 1794 by Ann Radcliffe
The Italian 1796 by Ann Radcliffe
The Castle of Wolfenbach 1793 by Eliza Parsons
The Necromancer: or, The Tale of the Black Forest 1794 by Carl Friedrich Kahlert
Horrid Mysteries
1796 by the Marquis de Grosse
The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale
1796 by Eliza Parsons
Orphan of the Rhine
1798 by Eleanor Sleath
Clermont, a Tale
1798 by Regina Maria Roche
The Midnight Bell 1798 by Francis Lathom

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, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

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 Austen era writers. They currently publish four of the canon titles: The Italian, The Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont and The Midnight Bell and have the others in the works. I’ll be purchasing these titles from Valancourt when I get a chance to read them and I put it out there that interested parties should do the same. One of the things I love doing as a human being is supporting independent thinkers, dreamers, artists and book-lovin’ entrepreneurs.

The pictures 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, as published by Valancourt Books 2007.


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