The Gothic novel and the invention of the middle-class reader: "Northanger Abbey" as case study

Tenille Nowak, Marquette University


This study reopens the conversation regarding Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and its relationship to the Gothic. By placing Northanger Abbey as a transitional piece and considering its potential correlation with the invention of the middle-class reader during the eighteenth century, I demonstrate how the seven Gothic novels mentioned by Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey influenced Austen's authorial development and enabled her to subtly caution her middle-class audience against mis-appropriating the aristocratic behaviors which Gothic novels often glorified. To do this, I begin by offering a brief contextual discussion on how the middle class arose, the concerns which were prompted by their access to new reading material like the Gothic, and how institutions such as circulating libraries increased and promoted reading among the middle class. In addition, I position Jane Austen as a writer in the process of transition, emerging from the private sphere to a more public forum, and address the struggles which she encountered while writing and trying to publish Northanger Abbey . I briefly summarize how Austen used this particular novel as an experimental ground to test and develop her own writing style and observe how that novel also represents a thematic evolution from writing simple humorous pieces for her family to writing savvy social commentaries for a larger audience. The majority of this study focuses on the novels that Austen specifically chose to include in Northanger Abbey: Clermont, The Orphan of the Rhine, The Midnight Bell, The Necromancer, or the Tale of the Black Forest, The Castle of Wolfenbach, The Mysterious Warning , and Horrid Mysteries . My investigation demonstrates how specific constructional elements from each Northanger Novel influenced the composition of Austen's own text. In addition, I illustrate how each of the novels' thematic elements which she incorporated into her story allowed her to distinguish for her readers the individual benefits and valuable lessons that the "frivolous" Gothic niche could provide. also consider how these same elements allowed her to present her readers with her vision of appropriate, ethical behavior for the newly affluent middle class to emulate as their social, financial, and political status continued to rise.

Recommended Citation

Nowak, Tenille, "The Gothic novel and the invention of the middle-class reader: "Northanger Abbey" as case study" (2008). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3357933.