Playing the Heroine and Distorting the Abbey – Northanger Abbey and Lady Audley’s Secret

Analyse the nature of parody (as exaggeration, imitation, or mockery, for example) as a narrative device in your chosen texts.

Gothic texts have often utilised parody to critique cherished foundational archetypes, twisting noble patriarchs into benevolent tyrants, heroes into anti-heroes and supernatural aids into deceitful harbingers of destruction. These decadent and flawed tropes of gothic fiction have been relied upon by writers in the genre, from Walpole onwards, as the building blocks of the gothic novel, but their definition and role in these texts are altered and changed as new texts are brought into the canon (Hanoosh, p.114). As the gothic novel alters the classical and even romantic archetypes, it continues further distort archetypes of its own creation through parody and invention. Parody in particular often adds a new dimension to the tried and tested character types such as in the novels Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1818) and later Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862).

Whilst many of the characters within these two 19th century texts fit commonly accepted archetypes (Frye, 94) their position within these roles is not a comfortable one, with many, particularly Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey and Lucy Audley of Lady Audley’s Secret feeling the pressure of conforming to their roles. It is certainly the role of the heroine that is most problematic in both these novels as the women who are expected to fulfil them are not entirely built for the purpose. Catherine is established early in the novel as being not at all heroine or maiden material, she is not predisposed to fulfilling the cultural expectations of her time but works to maintain some semblance of Georgian feminity. Austen leaves us in no doubt of Catherine’s unsuitability for the task asserting amongst telltale signs of a lack of feminine interests that “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine” (Austen, p.1). It is important to both the novel as a parody of gothic fiction and Jane Austen’s style as a whole that her protagonist is not what the reader has come to expect in Georgian fiction, as Catherine’s sometimes irrational curiosity and artless manner lays the foundation for the story that lies ahead (Shaw, p.594). In the hands of a more suited heroine, one who does not also border on the eternal child archetype, Northanger Abbey would be a rather dull romance.

Lucy Audley as a parody of the maiden archetype is not at all like her Georgian counterpart, she is stunning, deceitful and decisive. Taken at face value she is the very picture of a Victorian heroine, beautiful, charming and compliant, but Braddon takes this archetypal damsel in distress and turns her into cunning and murderous con artist. It is desperation, not curiosity that drives Lucy’s actions, and it is the appearance of virtue, without the substance of it that defines that parody at play within the text. She has been downtrodden and mistreated, but finds a way to pull herself up into a stately and comfortable position. In a different context her story would almost be a hero’s quest, but the social and moral transgressions she commits in order to secure her position make her abominable in the eyes of those around her when they are revealed making her ultimately fit the shape shifter archetype. The complex heroine would come to be an archetype in itself, but Lady Audley’s Secret “exploit[s] moral ambiguity and disclose[s] the more complex reality beneath the Victorian bifurcation of women as angels or demons” (Felber, p.472). She appears to be the demure, pretty and inoffensive heroine of her times, but in reality she is spiralling out of control. Her apparent madness shows her to have been clever, strong willed, manipulative and utterly self sufficient. Or as self sufficient as a woman of little means can be in the time. These virtues and flaws set her up as being the opposite of what she appears to be. Her beauty, rather than being a blessing, as with other heroines, becomes her curse: “Did she remember the day in which that fairy dower of beauty had first taught her to be selfish and cruel, indifferent to the joys and sorrows of others…”(Braddon, p.202).

Architecture plays a huge role in characterising the gothic; from the catacombs of The Monk (Lewis, 1796) to the sinister halls of The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe, 1795), the setting of these tales of misfortune and human failing plays as much of a role in creating a sense of foreboding, and foreshadowing events to come as any of the Archetypal gothic characters the reader encounters in these texts. Braddon constructs a similarly complex and divisive building to house the secrets of Lady Audley, imitating the secret passages and hidden chambers of her predecessors, with telling artefacts, such as the pre-Raphaelite portrait of Lucy Audley which portrays her true, almost demonic nature, to demonstrate the layers of secrecy and deception at play within the story. The portrait itself as described from the perspective of Robert Audley is a mockery and distortion of Lucy Audley as the Victorian heroine, with normally beautiful or striking features transformed; “… all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one” (Braddon, p.50). The painting is arguably a more accurate representation of the lady of the house than the subjective, immediate acquaintance with her person could convey, leading the reader to question which is the parody; Lady Audley’s portrait or her everyday demeanour and facade of perfection.
By contrast Northanger Abbey has all the appearances of hiding a sinister, gothic secret, but instead holds a rather mundane, if ugly, domestic truth. This is best exemplified by the horror felt by Catherine during the night when staying at the abbey and the reality of her “horrific” discovery, the papers that turn out not to hold some deep dark truth (Glock, p.33), but rather an old laundry list. To be fair on our unexpected heroine her expectations of the abbey are heightened by not only her own extensive reading of gothic novels and the abbey’s gratifying compliant appearance; “Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be in daily reach.”(Austen, p.31), but also by Henry Tilney’s jovial evoking of a classic formula of gothic fiction on their way to the abbey; “And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? – Have you a stout heart? – Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” (Austen, p.147). The imagined gothic adventure playfully related by Henry gets to the heart of what Austen is trying to achieve in her parody, it is an expression of the dangers and folly of succumbing to the tantalising and alluring world of the gothic novel, and letting in permeate through the psyche, manifesting it’s clichés and tropes in the mundanity of real life.

Austen deliberately conjures up such tyrannical patriarchs and archetypal ruler as Manfred in Castle of Otranto (Walpole, 1793) when developing the character of General Tilney. Whilst the general’s motivation for his abrasive conduct are not nearly so carnal and debased as Manfred the reader and indeed Catherine are lead to believe that he is just the sort of man who could be capable of immense cruelty, and even murder or imprisonment of his long suffering wife. In a text full of misdirection and miscommunication it is the conduct of General Tilney as a parody of the gothic patriarch that sets in motion the greatest misunderstanding and false assumption that places Catherine’s future happiness in jeopardy; “But the inexplicability of the General’s conduct dwelt much on her thoughts. That he was very particular in his eating, she had, by her own unassisted observation, already discovered; but why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable!” (Austen, p.203). This confusion at the general’s conduct and Catherine’s knowledge of the trope of gothic fiction allows her to construct a dangerous fiction in which she fantasises that Mrs Tilney, as a parody of the gothic wronged woman, was perhaps murdered or still imprisoned within the walls of the abbey;  “…and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed” (Austen, p.179). His financial motivations when revealed do not excuse his cruelty but rather move him from the realm of the gothic villain into something much more mercenary, but still villainous.

Braddon also plays games with our expectations of the masculine archetypes in her text. Robert Audley as parody of chivalry and the quest hero goes on a journey in which he must overcome challenges and faces trials of his moral and intellectual fortitude, but unlike the classic hero he acts in a thoroughly unchivalrous manner, but he is still possessing of the ideals of the masculine hero, he is of stately rank, good breeding and is well educated. However he is bitterly adverse to the opposite sex  (Braddon, p.142) and this hatred can been seen as a parody of the masculine attempts to subdue the feminine during a time of heavily gendered power. He goes so far as referencing the biblical misdeeds of Eve, and is rather cavalier with his cousins emotions, feigning ignorance of her affection and intentions towards him, until such time as it suits his needs. This is a far cry from the tales of sacrifice and courage that dominate the hero quest stories that precede it.

Braddon and Austen, whilst taking very different routes in getting to their goal, play with character archetypes to make the reader consider the reality of the maiden archetype in a masculine hegemony. Braddon utilises the tools of sensation fiction to construct a caricature of the perfect heroine in the facade projected by Lucy Audley (Schroeder, p.87) , whilst underneath the facade, the desperate Helen Tallboys lies dormant, until she is discovered. Conversely Austen’s most blatant parody is that of the father figure, and how this overbearing presence can be misconstrued by the heroine, whose happiness is ultimately at his mercy.

Northanger Abbey and Lady Audley’s Secret use the idea of the archetype heroine, hero, patriarch or gothic labyrinth in order to set up their reader’s expectations for the narrative which makes the eventual twist or deception more effective, and even shocking. The parodic nature of taking gothic and romantic tropes and manipulating them serves not only a narrative purpose but strikes a jarring note in the collective unconscious, providing both incidental a deliberate social commentary, ever so slightly changing and shaping the gothic archetypes for those that are to follow.

Buy Books From Book Depository So I can buy coffee!

Austen, J. (1903). Northanger abbey. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg.
Braddon, M. and Taylor, J. (2011). Lady Audley’s Secret: Edited with Notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor and with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor with Russell Crofts (Penguin Classics). Cambridge [England]: Proquest LLC.
Frye, N. (1951). The Archetypes of Literature on JSTOR. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Apr. 2016].
Glock, W. (1978). Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of Northanger Abbey. Rocky Mountain Review, 32(1), pp.33-46.
Hannoosh, M. (1989). The Reflexive Function of Parody. Comparative Literature, 41(2), p.113.
Lewis, M. (1796). The monk. London: Printed for J. Bell.
Morris, D. (1985). Gothic Sublimity. New Literary History, 16(2), p.299.
Radcliffe, A. (1795). The mysteries of Udolpho. Boston: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, for J. White, W. Spotswood, Thomas & Andrews, D. West, E. Larkin, W.P. Blake, J. West, and J.W. Folsom.
Schroeder, N. (1988). Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M. E. Braddon and Ouida. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 7(1), p.87.
Shaw, N. (1990). Free Indirect Speech and Jane Austen’s 1816 Revision of Northanger Abbey. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 30(4), p.591.
Walpole, H. (1793). The castle of Otranto. London: Printed for Wenman and Hodgson.

Buy Books From Book Depository So I can buy coffee!

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s