Northanger Abbey, Frankenstein, & the Female Gothic
‘I remember finishing it in two days – my hair standing on end the whole time.’ – Henry Tilney on reading Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey
January 2018 marks two hundred years since Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking first novel Frankenstein was published anonymously. Shelley had wanted her work to ‘curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’, and her thrilling account of creation, ambition, and monstrosity remains influential to this day. Shortly before, in December 1817, Jane Austen’s mock-Gothic Northanger Abbey appeared posthumously. In writing about the comic effects that reading too many ‘horrid’ novels had on a young and impressionable heroine, Austen turned her satirical eye on the Gothic craze that had swept Europe. Both novels provided fresh perspectives on the genre that had been delighting and horrifying audiences for over fifty years.
Alongside Shelley and Austen, many of the Gothic’s most successful practitioners were women. Most notably, Ann Radcliffe was a pioneer of the genre, who published five immensely popular novels between 1789 and 1797, and whose influence was far-reaching. Other lesser-known women writers such as Clara Reeve, Caroline Lamb, Regina Maria Roche, Eliza Parsons and Eleanor Sleath wrote Gothic works. They are often in conversation with one another or with male writers, and often neglected in the modern day. William Lane’s Minerva Press, established in 1790, published many female Gothic novelists, and these women also benefitted from circulating libraries which made their work widely available, from cheaply produced novellas or bluebooks, and from magazines, in which they published serial fiction in installments.
Our 2018 exhibition will explore this history, setting Shelley and Austen’s iconic novels in their female literary contexts, and placing rare editions of their novels alongside their lesser-known contemporaries.