History, fiction, and anachronism: Northanger Abbey, the Tudor past and the Gothic present

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Journal Article
Textual Practice, 2012, 26 (4), pp. 631 - 648
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Northanger Abbey is conventionally described as a novel of the 1790s. This dating has seen the novel read as parody and aligned with the numerous satirical essays deriding terror fiction, that proliferated in the last years of the eighteenth century. B.C. Southam and more recently Jocelyn Harris, have argued that Austen rewrote substantial parts of the novel in 1816. In this essay I explore the idea that Northanger Abbey might be a novel out of time. By taking the advertisement appended to the novel by Austen apologizing for any anachronism that may have crept into the novel, as a starting point, I will argue that while this was undoubtedly meant to signal to readers that the jokes in the novel were about Bath society in 1803, it also reflected Austen's awareness of the increasing historicity of novels. The early years of the nineteenth century saw a plethora of novels emerge that explored both the recent and distant past. Unlike Gothic novels in which an historical setting contributed only atmosphere and ornamentation, this new historical fiction was concerned to represent historically specific culture and to avoid the unsignaled anachronism that characterised the popular works of novelists such as Ann Radcliffe. Austen's awareness of the datedness of her novel, reflects her engagement with ideas emerging from the works of writers of this new historical fiction, who sought to accurately depict the mores and manners of the past. This essay reads Austen's advertisement as an ironic gesture, one that reflects the novel's historical setting in 1803, while also situating the text as part of this new genre of historicised fiction, like the Gothic, only different. It also speculates that Austen's decision to revisit her Gothic novel in 1816, may be related to her interest in the sexual politics of the Regency which had taken a particularly Gothic turn. © 2012 Taylor & Francis.
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