Friday, January 23, 2015


“Gothic” is a word that instantly conjures up images of pointed arched windows and doors, dark ruins, gargoyles, ghosts and terror.  But in literature it’s so much more and an exhibition recently on at the British Library shows how the genre of gothic fiction has evolved from the very first example, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, written in 1764 – 250 years ago!

This novel featured medieval castles, ghostly apparitions, mistaken identities, knights, shadows and doom.  It was based on a dream Walpole had, but at the same time it has its roots in medieval stories of chivalry and romance which Walpole felt were so much better than the novels of his time.  It wasn’t until the second edition, however, that the phrase “a Gothic story” was added to the title page and so a genre was born.

He also invented the literary device of pretending to have found an old manuscript, the “discovered document” then being published as if it were an old story rather than just written.  He didn’t officially let on that he was the author until the second edition.

A gothic novel usually has plenty of terror, wonder, mystery and darkness.  Castles, old abbeys and ruins often feature, or at the very least a creepy house of some sort.  The heroines seem to be predominantly virgins (or naive young ladies) who need to be rescued by dashing, courageous heroes.  And the villains are bad, very bad.

The landscape and/or weather can play a huge part in these novels, as for example in Wuthering Heights.  Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho among other novels, was apparently a master at creating a terrifying atmosphere using descriptions of the landscape.  I confess that although I own a copy of that book, I have yet to read it.

Gothic novels were extremely popular and Northanger Abbey, mentioned by Elizabeth in a previous post, was Jane Austen’s wonderful satire of what happens when you read too many of these types of stories.  The exhibition I went to featured first edition copies of all the books the heroine of Northanger Abbey reads, which was interesting to see.  I love seeing old books, especially first editions!

My first encounter with the genre was when reading Victoria Holt’s books during my teens. On the Night of the Seventh Moon, Mistress of Mellyn and Kirkland Revels for example all featured an innocent young heroine who walked right into danger, finding herself in a scary castle or some such place with a brooding hero and something dark and threatening happening.  The reader was never sure whether he was actually a hero or a villain until he saved the heroine from some dire peril.  I loved those books, but I’m not sure I would like them as much now (haven’t tried reading one since).

Then there was Edgar Allan Poe – I avidly read all his stories and adored the poem The Raven.  It’s just so wonderfully evocative!  I also happen to love Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, although I never thought about it as a gothic poem before going to this exhibition.  I just liked the way it sounded when read out loud.

The gothic genre is definitely still alive and well, with all the paranormal books and horror stories that abound.  For me though, I think I prefer the old kind – although scary, it wasn’t quite as graphic.  What do you think?

Christina x 

Monday, January 05, 2015

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

I’ve just finished reading this, the third book in HarperCollins’ The Austen Project, a 21st century re-writing of Jane Austen’s novels. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as much for Val McDermid’s skill in giving the story a completely credible 21st century makeover, as for the unputdownable book she came up with. I shall not reveal the neat twist at the end - though I suspect that many of you will already have read the book.

The Edinburgh Festival makes an excellent alternative to Bath – plenty of things to see which will broaden Cat’s mind – and relocating Northanger Abbey to the borders is just right.

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

I also think that Cat being obsessed with vampire fantasy really works. Cat buys into the vampire fantasy world and allows herself to believe that it fits uncannily well into what she knows of the Tilneys. Of course, she’s going to be frightened witless and make an utter fool of herself.

However, the real technical problem for Val McDermid, surely, was how to create a believable Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old who must be naïve and ignorant of the world – but in the 21st century. Her solution is brilliant: Cat has been home-educated by her mother, a Primary school teacher, so she has never had to cope with her dinner money being stolen; never been laughed at or shamed in class; she’s never had a best friend to giggle with – or to break up with; and, apart from her brother James, she knows no boys.

Furthermore, she has a highly-developed imagination and lives almost entirely inside her head where she is the heroine of her own adventures following the vampire stories she so loves. I suspect that for many of my fellow bloggers who were ‘scribbling children’ this may ring as bell, as it did with me.

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

Cat’s admirable parents try to keep her feet on the ground but they don’t grasp the extent to which her growing up largely in isolation from her peers has made her potentially vulnerable. If Cat had been educated normally, she’d probably have had a crush on the lovely Bella who talks the talk, knows who’s hanging out with whom, and where the cool places to be seen in are - and grown out of it. In the stories Cat tells herself, best friends are never devious or manipulative, so she simply doesn’t recognize Bella for what she is. Bella becomes an instant soulmate – and Cat is loyal to her friends.

She has no idea how to take Johnny Thorpe’s mixture of boasting, fulsome admiration of herself, and heavy hints she doesn’t understand and which make her feel awkward. Bella and Johnny are types quite outside her experience and, if she’s to emerge unscathed, she’ll have to wise up fast. 

Claremont Lake  - a touch of mystery

I love the way Val McDermid shows us all this. It’s interesting, too, that sex is a subject Cat shies away from; it embarrasses her. When Bella comments, ‘Oh God, that was the first sleepless night your brother gave me.’ She paused and gave a cat-like smile. ‘But not the last’, Cat’s reaction is to shift the conversation away as fast as possible. It’s obvious to the reader that this is an area where Cat is completely ignorant. And it fits. I liked the way that her growing feelings for Henry come tentatively (‘she felt a curious yearning sensation in her stomach’) and she’s cautious about labelling it. That, too, rings true. We feel that she will sort out sex later, when she’s ready for it.

Val McDermid is equally successful in her portrayal of Henry Tilney. In the original, Henry is a clergyman: intelligent, fun to be with, and he opens Catherine’s eyes to a number of things, including explaining Isabella and Frederick’s behaviour. He’s Cat’s emotional mentor. However, he has no personal problems to overcome, which a hero needs.

In McDermid’s version, Henry is still Cat’s emotional mentor but we get a hint of his back story. When Cat demands, ‘How would you feel if your fiancée was letting another man come on to her in public?’ We learn that ‘Henry’s face froze’. The discerning reader picks up that there is something in Henry’s past which has hurt him badly. Did Freddie seduce Henry’s own girl-friend, perhaps. We aren’t told but, if we read carefully, we realize that Henry, too, has emotional problems, and this makes him more real and, dare I say it, more intriguing than the Reverend Henry Tilney. 

Dillington House, standing in for Northanger Abbey

McDermid’s Eleanor Tilney, too, is more filled-in as a character than the original. She longs to do an art degree but her father has forbidden it. She is also lonely and misses her mother, who died when she was thirteen. She confesses to Cat: ‘It’s like I don’t have anybody to show me how to be a woman, if that makes sense?’ She is forced to live in an entirely male environment with no consideration of what she needs.

Cat, who has two sisters and comes from a loving family, is unselfconsciously affectionate towards her new friend and Eleanor responds to this.

In fact, one of the most interesting strands in the book is Cat as catalyst. Just before she sets off for Northanger Abbey, Andrew Allen, a highly-successful theatrical ‘angel’ tells her that having her to stay, ‘has broadened the range of what I’ve been to see…. I think you may inadvertently end up earning me quite a bit of money.’

St Alban’s shrine – a touch of Gothic

Cat is astonished. ‘Her parents had never encouraged her to think of herself as having a positive influence on anybody’s life.’  Not only may Cat have to do some internal readjustments, we realize that her parents may have to do so, too. Her lack of pretentions and her openness have also affected both Henry and Eleanor for the better; they, too, are moving on  Cat’s innocence holds a sort of moral mirror up to the other characters in which their true natures are displayed.

If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it. Not only did I enjoy it thoroughly, it also gave me great pleasure to think about it at some length and to write this piece.

Elizabeth Hawksley