In Becoming Jane, Anne Hathaway’s Jane Austen visits Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, a popular novel of the time. While this visit is likely fiction, I can’t help but wonder what such a conversation might have covered. Although reading was an admirable pastime, fiction that could be considered romance—fictional escapes not based on historic figures—was frowned upon by many. ‘Romance’ described stories read purely for entertainment rather than the betterment of the mind. Shocking! Topping the list was the Gothic, unlikely to be displayed on your drawing room shelves. Hmmm. Nowadays, romance is the largest portion of the fiction market, yet still gets the ‘cut’ from serious literary readers!
Gothics depended on wildly exaggerated tales of danger, and helpless women dependent on brutish men. They included the supernatural and degrees of violence. I’m sure Jane Austen read at least one of these tales, and had an opinion on Miss Radcliffe. Was it admiration for her craft, or admiration for her timing and boldness to write such fiction? After all, writers were often looked down upon, and a woman writing for income? Not to be borne!
For the 19th century reader, romances and particularly the new gothics offered a bold departure from normal life—normal for Austen’s peers, that is. Certainly, lower class women were degraded and used in ways the upper classes wanted to ignore. In later years, poets and authors such as Edgar Allen Poe continued to disparage the gothic genre, even Miss Radcliffe herself. She stayed completely out of the public, and later wrote her classic The Italian to slow the shift in gothics from terror to horror, of which she disapproved. (She told me. In a dream.) (Kidding.)
Overall, Austen’s work was an answer to the skewed world of gothic literature. She placed her characters in all-too-real (again, for her peers) situations where the major terror was making a faux pas at the dance. Her most famous hero is also the most brooding. While the many men of Austen include the reckless and the cads, Darcy makes himself acceptable by ravishing Lizzie’s mind, not her body.
I’m of the mind that Gothics and Austen are the parents of our own romance genre today.
As a child of the sixties and seventies, I grew up reading romantic suspense, and gothics such as Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Michaels. These type of stories fell out of favor because too many young women did too many stupid things. Well, perhaps the genre has returned. Brutish behavior came back recently, with much commercial success.
The plot and characters in my novella, Alarmingly Charming, part of the Austen in Austin Vol 1 anthology, are based on Northanger Abbey. To keep from going down that TSTL (too stupid to live) road, my heroine is sweet, naïve, intelligent and imaginative, and not as flighty as her Austen counterpart. She’s a wallflower and a bookworm. Many of us relate. My Kathryn Morton realizes her value and strengths facing her own Tilney and Thorpe. I think you’ll enjoy my parody of Austen’s parody:
ALARMINGLY CHARMING 1887 Austin Texas. As travel companion to her condescending cousin, Philadelphian Kathryn Morton dreamily anticipates a week in the Wild West as the best cure for meekness. After a long rail journey and a steady diet of gothic dime novels, she shivers, despite the Texas heat, at the ghastly tales of the Austin Axe Murderer. Kathryn has little time to fret, given the competing attentions of quiet rancher Harmon Gray and elegant gentleman Jonathan Wellington. With her new-found confidence and her boundless imagination, she sets out to solve the mystery of Hyde Park Cemetery before another student flees Austen Abbey. Only then can she return home to her English-born parents as an independent American woman. A woman in love. But on the stormiest of nights, Kathryn learns that solving the mystery may destroy a future with the man she’s fallen for in a big Texas way.
Debra E. Marvin
Debra E. Marvin tries not to run too far from real life but the imagination born out of being an only child has a powerful draw. Besides, the voices in her head tend to agree with all the sensible things she says. She’d like to live just a wee bit closer to her grandchildren, but is thankful that God is in control, that He chooses to bless us despite ourselves and that He has a sense of humor.
Other than writing light-hearted romances and gritty gothics, she has pretty normal obsessions: fabric, peanut butter, vacations, British dramas and whatever mystery series she’s currently reading. Visit her at debraemarvin.com, the Inkwell Inspirations Blog, @debraemarvin on twitter and Debra E Marvin on Facebook and Pinterest, but not her house because she usually has dirty dishes. Check out her Amazon Author page to see what’s next after Alarmingly Charming.