Tuesday 29 October 2019

The Bride of Northanger – and Netley Abbey

It's a pleasure to welcome Diane Birchall, with a look behind the inspiration for a literary location!


As an early practitioner of what is now called the Austenesque, I wrote my first piece of pastiche in 1984, winning a contest in Persuasions (the journal of JASNA), with an imitation of Miss Bates’ discursive chat in Emma.  I found this to be such a delightful pastime, I haven’t stopped yet. Hundreds of stories and a few novels later, I’ve found a lifetime study of Austen’s work to be a resoundingly entertaining education. Examining Austen’s methods and her witty and elegant style with the object of improving my own, led to an ever deepening appreciation of her uniquely re-readable novels.
Why, then, did it take such a long time for me to come around to a real consideration of Northanger Abbey? An early work, though one she revised later, it has enormous charm and humor, though perhaps not the same weight of thought and workmanship as her more mature works. Northanger Abbey satirizes the Gothic genre, the “horrid novels” read for thrills by its young heroine Catherine Morland and her more experienced friend Isabella Thorpe. Jane Austen also seized a revealing chance to air her own opinions about novels and novel-writing. However, it was not so much the Gothic literary playfulness that I found most appealing about Northanger Abbey: it was the central relationship, which was a puzzling one to me.  I never quite understood why or how an unusually clever man like the captivating Henry Tilney could fall in love with such a young, naïve, uneducated girl as Catherine. This was something I wanted to explore, psychologically, realistically, and romantically. 
After some consideration of Henry’s father, General Tilney, I realized that Henry had been fairly bullied and brutalized by this dreadful man, and that a girl like Catherine, with her refreshing honesty and lack of guile, was therefore very appealing to him. 
A sequel to Northanger Abbey, my novel The Bride of Northanger contains plenty of Gothic adventuring.  Austen enjoyed the genre herself, and I duly read several of the books Catherine and Isabella pored over, full of incidents of the sort that Henry Tilney memorably said made the hair on his head stand up on end. These episodes were fun to research and to invent; but I never wanted to stray too far away from Henry and Catherine themselves, and how their own love story might have progressed. Their engagement we know lasted a year, during which time they corresponded; and I was sure Henry recommended plenty of good reading to his naïve young fiancée. Thus, by the time of the wedding, she had been exposed to much more thinking and education, and was consequently a better, more interesting wife for Henry. Their marriage became a more equal one than it might have seemed at the conclusion of Northanger Abbey. Certainly there were Gothic horrors for them to contend with, but Catherine, with her natural common sense and improved mind, became a most admirable heroine, in my mind at least:  a true Bride of Northanger.
In trying to find the right cover picture to represent Catherine, I needed to look no further than a portrait by the French artist Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, of a young girl who would have been exactly the same age as Austen’s Catherine. This was Corisande Armandine Leonie Sophie de Gramont (1783 – 1865), a granddaughter of Marie Antoinette’s favorite friend the Duchesse de Polignac. Corisande married an English MP, the Earl of Tankerville, and lived in England. She was visually my Catherine to a T (or a C), but I wanted the cover to be more than a pretty girl’s head. I needed an Abbey, to represent Northanger. 
Netley Abbey by Moonlight by John Constable, 1833
The obvious choice was Netley Abbey, which Jane Austen actually visited herself while living in Southampton. Soon after her father’s death in 1805, Jane, her mother, sister Cassandra, and friend Martha Lloyd moved to Southampton, taking lodgings with sailor brother Francis’s wife Mary. Francis would be at sea, and Mary was pregnant, so the arrangement suited all parties. Jane Austen had been to Southampton earlier, as a young girl, and knew it well;  Netley Abbey, on Southampton Water, was a popular excursion. In 1808 Jane wrote to Cassandra about taking their two young nephews, who had lately lost their mother, on an outing there:
“I intend to take them to Netley today; the tide is just right for our going immediately after noonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain.” 
Portrait of John Constable as a young man, 1799
There can be little doubt that Netley Abbey, with its forbidding aspect and dramatic history, seized Jane’s imagination, as it had that of other authors and painters. The suppression of the monasteries in Henry VIII’s time may seem remote to the period in which Jane Austen wrote, but it was an historical subject that was important to her. She saw evidences of monastic buildings taken over by rich landowners for their own gain, all around her. Her depiction of General Tilney’s greedy, self-serving way of running his grand estate that had once been a religious house, reflects this. 
The Ruins of Netley Abbey, sketch by John Constable, 1826
The decorative painting I chose of Netley Abbey for my own book cover is by the English landscape painter John Constable, titled Netley Abbey by Moonlight. The painter and his wife visited Netley in 1816, on their honeymoon, though the watercolor painting was done years later. The ancient Cistercian structure, founded in 1238, has a most bloody history and has been said to be haunted by ghosts of the monks whose home was ripped from them in the confiscations. What better place to set off ghostly imaginings in almost any visitor – and to spark the imagination of genius to recreate it as Northanger Abbey. 

About the  Author

Diana Birchall worked for many years at Warner Bros studios as a story analyst, reading novels to see if they would make movies. Reading manuscripts went side by side with a restorative and sanity-preserving life in Jane Austen studies and resulted in her writing Austenesque fiction both as homage and attempted investigation of the secrets of Jane Austen's style. She is the author of In Defense of Mrs. EltonMrs. Elton in AmericaMrs. Darcy's Dilemma, and the new The Bride of Northanger. She has written hundreds of Austenesque short stories and plays, as well as a biography of her novelist grandmother, and has lectured on her books and staged play readings at places as diverse as Hollywood, Brooklyn, Montreal, Chawton House Library, Alaska, and Yale. Visit Diana at her Austen Variations author page, follow her on TwitterFacebookand Goodreads.

The Bride of Northanger
A happier heroine than Catherine Morland does not exist in England, for she is about to marry her beloved, the handsome, witty Henry Tilney. The night before the wedding, Henry reluctantly tells Catherine and her horrified parents a secret he has dreaded to share - that there is a terrible curse on his family and their home, Northanger Abbey. Henry is a clergyman, educated and rational, and after her year’s engagement Catherine is no longer the silly young girl who delighted in reading “horrid novels”; she has improved in both reading and rationality. This sensible young couple cannot believe curses are real...until a murder at the Abbey triggers events as horrid and Gothic as Jane Austen ever parodied - events that shake the young Tilneys’ certainties, but never their love for each other...



October 28                My Jane Austen Book Club (Interview)
October 28                Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog (Review)
October 28                vvb32 Reads (Spotlight)                            
October 29                A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide of Life (Guest Blog)
October 29                From Pemberley to Milton (Excerpt)
October 30                Drunk Austen (Interview)
October 30                Silver Petticoat Review (Excerpt)
October 31                Jane Austen’s World (Review)
November 01            So Little Time… (Interview)
November 01            Laura's Reviews (Review)
November 04            English Historical Fiction Authors (Guest Blog)
November 04            Confessions of a Book Addict (Spotlight)
November 05            More Agreeably Engaged (Review)
November 05            Vesper’s Place (Review)
November 06            Jane Austen in Vermont (Interview)
November 06            Diary of an Eccentric (Interview)
November 07            All Things Austen (Spotlight)
November 07            A Bookish Way of Life (Review)
November 07            Let Them Read Books (Excerpt)  
November 08            Babblings of a Bookworm (Review)
November 08            vvb32 Reads (Review)
November 11            My Jane Austen Book Club (Review)
November 11            Reading the Past (Spotlight)
November 12            Jane Austen’s World (Interview)
November 12            The Calico Critic (Excerpt)
November 13            The Book Rat (Review) 
November 13            Austenesque Reviews (Review)
November 14            Fangs, Wands, & Fairy Dust (Review)
November 14            The Fiction Addict (Review)
November 15            My Love for Jane Austen (Spotlight)
November 15            Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books (Review)                                   


Laurel Ann Nattress said...

I love the logic and chain of events that lead to the creation of the cover. thanks for sharing.

TONY said...

Diana, I am pleased you chose Netley Abbey as a cover picture. I agree, Jane could well have been influenced by Netley's history. Netley influenced the Gothic movement. I was born and brought up a couple of miles from Netley on the outskirts of Southampton. My schools mates and myself used to clamber over Netleys ruins and scare ourselves with the stories about the ghosts. Netley had a white lady and a black clad monk for starters just to get the hairs on the backs of our necks rising. Good luck with the book. Tony

Diana Birchall said...

Dear Tony, I am so glad to hear from you and to have an opportunity to thank you! The wonderful piece you wrote for Jane Austen in Vermont about Netley Abbey inspired me in my book and in all the posts I am now writing. It was like a guidepost to the place and to the research I had to do to learn all about it. I am so envious of you growing up near there, and I hope to visit Netley myself on my next trip. I'd love to meet you too. Best wishes and thanks, Diana