This weekend, we’re having our first class of the new year. I’ll be taking us through some of the Gothic inspirations of Northanger Abbey. Want to come along? Sign up for free for the 10am or 7pm talk on Saturday 8th January. I’ll be going through all the Northanger Horrid novels.
The two tv and film adaptations that I’ve seen of Northanger Abbey lead delightfully hard into its Gothic background. In the 2007 version, Catherine’s daydreams are wound effortlessly into the plot making both general and specific references to Gothic sources.
In the bath scene below, she imagines Henry Tilney somehow merging through the wall to appear before her – a reference (I’ve always presumed) to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, in which the titular monk Ambrosio gets a magic frond for the purpose of slinking sneakily through walls. Dream Henry Tilney’s entrance through a wall is significantly less creepy (but not by THAT much).
We’ve also got highwaymen and daring rescues in ways which reference generic tropes but have also always brought to mind the opening scene of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest to me. It’s easily her most exciting opening, with a debtor’s midnight flight from Paris (family accompanying), a misty moor, brigands, a mysterious house and an equally mysterious heroine bundled into our debtor’s carriage bound goodness knows whither. Whether she’s just been saved or damned, I’ll leave it up to you to discover with your own reading!
What usually finds less place in the adaptations though is the central Gothic mystery that the book of Northanger Abbey references time and again – the black veil. But what is the black veil and what’s so darn spooky about it?
In the novel, the mystery is introduced in a conversation between Catherine and Isabella, discussing Catherine’s current read.
“Have you gone on with Udolpho?” asks Isabella
“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”
“Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?”
“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”
They’re referencing the mystery of the black veil in Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) – one of the most infamous examples of the delayed reveal in Gothic fiction.
While immured in the Castle of Udolpho (where she’s been taken by her nefarious uncle-in-law Montoni who has plans to wrestle her inheritance off her), she hears rumours… rumours of the death of the former owner and rumours of a mysterious painting. In one room of the sprawling castle, something sits behind a black curtain. But what? Her servant Annette whispers all kinds of conjectures and Emily can’t help but be devoured by curiosity. Of course, she’s a Gothic heroine with the self-preservation instincts of a potato leaping into a deep-fat fryer.
Emily just can’t help herself
She paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.
WHAT DID SHE SEE!? Is it the murdered body of the former owner? A skeleton? Some other dread and dire secret? Well, you’ll have to wait till literally the end of the book to find out. Just a couple of hundred pages.
The incident of the black veil is often mistakenly referred to as an example of the ‘explained supernatural’ (in which seemingly supernatural incidents are revealed to have natural causes) but it’s not really. There’s no supernatural explanation offered at any time. The reason that it’s so often confused with the supernatural explained (which does appear frequently in Radcliffe) is that it functions in the same way: there’s a mystery presented, an enigma to be solved, a variety of interpretative choices offered and then… a pause (in this case a really REALLY long pause) before the truth is revealed. Contemporary critics (and modern readers) were often disappointed with Radcliffe for resolving her seemingly supernatural dilemmas with incredibly mundane answers. Ghostly music turns out to be a mad nun wandering the forest. Inexplicable lights and groans at night is actual someone’s mother who’s been locked up in the dungeon for years. (Not that mundane now I come to think about it…) The mystery of the black veil, even though it’s not the supernatural explained, was infamous as one of the worst examples of in Radcliffe’s fiction of a reveal that couldn’t in any way live up to the intrigue of the original mystery.
Poor Catherine (and poor you if you read Mysteries of Udolpho): so excited by a mystery that was going to lead nowhere at all. It’s a bit of meta-commentary in Northanger Abbey. Catherine’s overblown and Gothic expectations of the world, which lead time and again to bathetic reveals, are an echo of an already existent Gothic technique. The crushing of excited expectations. The descent from the supernatural to the mundane, from the thrilling to the routinely explicable, from the transcendent to the grubby material realities hiding behind tantalising black veils.
If you’re wondering what’s behind the black veil, I can save you a few hundred pages of reading. But if you want to find out for yourself, stop here!
Is it a mouldering corpse?
The key to some devastating secret?
Not so much. It’s a wax memento mori. An imitation of death. Just like Catherine with her laundry lists, Emily uncovers to the mystery and parts the veil only to find the forgotten and unimportant relics of someone else’s daily life.