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Northanger Abbey, Gothic Parody, and the History of the Fictional Female Detective

It doesn’t take a super-sleuth to trace the origins of the fictional male detective to Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, both of whom emerged in tandem with the rise of early police forces in Britain and America.  The success of these nineteenth-century characters, literary historians have argued, was rooted in simultaneous curiosity about and suspicion of the solving of crime as a new full-time pursuit for a professional workforce.

The origins of the fictional female detective are more obscure.  In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime, for example, Michael Sims writes:  “I’m imprecise about the year [in which “the first stories about female detectives appeared”] because critics aren’t sure.  They argue over whether W. S. Hayward anonymously published Revelations of a Lady Detective in 1864 or if the 1864 edition was a reprint of an 1861 edition barely mentioned but otherwise unknown” (xii).  This language underscores how much the disputed origin point itself is shrouded in the mystery of the “anonymous,” the “barely mentioned,” and the “otherwise unknown.” 

This obscurity might be fitting, as early practitioners of the genre turned a societal tendency to overlook or underestimate women to the lady detective’s advantage, particularly when crucial information was to be had in the domestic sphere.  For instance, a passage from 1864’s The Female Detective that Sims includes as an epigraph states, “The reader will comprehend that the woman detective has far greater opportunities than a man of intimate watching, and of keeping her eye upon matters near where a man could not conveniently play the eavesdropper” (qtd. in Sims ix). 

Jane Austen, of course, did not know the word “detective,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary came into use in the 1840s.  Nonetheless, critics have noted that certain key elements of what we now call detective fiction can be found in Austen’s novels, as well as in the novels of Ann Radcliffe that inspired Northanger Abbey.  Elizabeth Mahn Nollen has written that “Ann Radcliffe’s works, especially Udolpho [Catherine Morland’s particular obsession], stand at the forefront of a female literary tradition in which the conventions of the Gothic romance, the mystery, and the bildungsroman conjoin” (39).  In a Persuasions article centered on Northanger Abbey, Stephanie Barron, herself a mystery writer, asserts that “in the architecture of [Austen’s] stories, [modern mystery writers] discern many of the classic planks of detective fiction” (60), including a central mystery about the crimes or suspect motivations of a male character, such as Willoughby, Wickham, or Frank Churchill.  Barron writes:  “At the heart of Northanger Abbey is the chief mystery central to all of Austen’s work:  a young woman’s effort to penetrate the veil between herself and—rather than Laurentina’s skeleton as Catherine imagines—the male half of her world” (62).  In Barron’s estimation, though, Catherine is not the chief “detective” of the novel:  rather, she plays Watson to Henry Tilney’s Holmes (63).  It is Henry who uses his intelligence and expertise to finally confront the novel’s chief “suspect” (his father, General Tilney) and figure out the motive for the General’s “crime” (ejecting Catherine from Northanger Abbey with such malicious haste). 

Susan Zlotnick identifies Catherine Morland as a proto-detective:  “reading Radcliffe turns Catherine herself into the very thing Henry Tilney declares to be one of the hallmarks of modern, enlightened England, . . . a voluntary spy” (288).  Catherine becomes, in Zlotnick’s perhaps facetious words, “one of the earliest girl detectives in the literary canon, an eighteenth-century Nancy Drew snooping into drawers and ferreting out criminal behavior” (289).  In Zlotnick’s analysis, Catherine’s snooping is a means to the ends of female agency and independent thought and action.  She writes:  “As foolish as Catherine’s searching for a hidden manuscript may be, it challenges the domestic status quo and calls upon the heroine to act heroically:  to demonstrate strength, bravery, and self-determination” (289). 

Perhaps we should linger a bit longer, though, on Catherine’s “foolish” search.  We can see throughout her stay at Northanger Abbey that Catherine’s reading of Radcliffe has guided her not only to imagine or to act but specifically to look for things—indeed, to “snoop” or to engage, like her later female-detective counterparts, in “intimate watching.”  She shares this tendency with the central character of another gothic parody, Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The Heroine, who remarks that “heroines are privileged to ransack private drawers, and read whatever they find there” (17). 

I would like to argue here that gothic parodies of the quixotic variety like Northanger Abbey and The Heroine are indeed precursors to female-detective and girl-sleuth literature and that thinking of them in this way can help us see nuances in characters like Catherine Morland often too easily dismissed as silly, deluded, or immature.  Quixotic gothic parodies lay the foundation for later female-centric mystery literature in at least three ways.  One, they center a search for material evidence, linking the heroines to emerging methods of antiquarian history even as the heroines are vocal about their distaste for written histories.  Two, these narratives draw attention to conflicts between what young women see and how they see it, in contrast to what and how others want them to see.  Three, these narratives establish a character type explicitly counter to the traditional gothic heroine, paving the way for indefatigable lady detectives and adventurous girl sleuths in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

The search for evidence 

When we think of novel-obsessed heroines like Catherine Morland, we might first think of their reveries, their flights of fancy, their vivid imaginations.  Yet there is another, seemingly antithetical side to these characters, and that is their obsessive quest for material proofs to corroborate their romantic fantasies.  The Heroine’s Cherry Wilkinson, generally an incorrigible fantasist, seeks out tangible evidence to support her hypothesis that she is not the daughter of ordinary farmer Mr. Wilkinson but rather an heiress with a shadowy past.  Thus one night, she recounts, “I stole into Wilkinson’s study, in hopes of finding, before my flight, some record or relic, that might aid me in unravelling the mystery of my birth. . . . I opened Wilkinson’s scrutoire, without ceremony.  But what were my sensations, when I discovered in a corner of it, an antique piece of tattered parchment, scrawled all over, in uncouth characters, with this frightful fragment” (17–18).  The reader is presented with the fragment, which reads: 

This indenture
For and in consideration of
Doth grant, bargain, release
Possession, and to his heirs and assigns
Lands of Sylvan Lodge, in the
Trees, stones, quarries.
Reasonable amends and satisfaction
This demise
Molestation of him the said Gregory Wilkinson
The natural life of
Cherry Wilkinson only daughter of
De Willoughby eldest son of Thomas
Lady Gwyn of Gwyn Castle.  (18) 

Cherry acknowledges the “chasms” in this fragment, but she is satisfied that “it is evident I am at least a De Willougby, and if not noble myself, related to nobility” (18).  Cherry assures her correspondent that she has not leapt to this conclusion only based on the fragment.  She continues:  “what confirms me in this supposition of my relationship to Lady Gwyn, is an old portrait which I found a few minutes after, in one of Wilkinson’s drawers, representing a young and beautiful female dressed in a superb style, and underneath it, in large letters, the name of, ‘NELL GWYN’” (18). 

This is all comically ridiculous, of course.  Instead of a relic, Cherry finds a parody of one:  an image of a woman designed not to be venerated but to be ogled.  And the fragment does not provide any irrefutable evidence that Cherry was born a De Willoughby and delivered into the hands of Wilkinson for a nefarious purpose yet to be uncovered.  But these comic inversions do point back toward the appeal of the gothic novel for a young female reader seeking some hint that she has a purpose and a place in the world.  The fragment echoes, in miniature, a Radcliffean trajectory from paternal inheritance (such as the patrilineal genealogy that begins A Sicilian Romance or St. Aubert’s dying injunctions to Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho) to a concluding female legacy (the discovery of a long-lost mother or the inheritance of an aunt’s considerable property).  When we remember that Cherry lost her own (real) mother, and seems to have few, if any, tangible maternal memorials, we might feel a little more sympathy for her quixotic search, even as we enjoy its comic excesses. 

Catherine Morland is more apt than Cherry Wilkinson to acknowledge the shortcomings of her hunts for evidence.  When she holds a washing-bill in her hands, rather than the chronicle of an ill-fated nun, she admits as much.  But Catherine finds it difficult to shake the notion that there is more to the story of Mrs. Tilney than anyone is telling her:  “The suddenness of her reputed illness;” she thinks, “the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the time—all favored the supposition of her imprisonment.  Its origin—jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty—was yet to be unravelled” (193).  Note the optimism of the dogged sleuth here.  The origins are not lost to time or to ingenious concealment; they are simply “yet to be unravelled.”  Due to Catherine’s persistent focus on Mrs. Tilney, I would quibble with Barron’s assertion, cited earlier, that the central mystery of Northanger Abbey is “a young woman’s effort to penetrate the veil between herself and—rather than Laurentina’s skeleton as Catherine imagines—the male half of her world” (62).  If the fate of Mrs. Tilney is the parallel to Signora Laurentini’s skeleton, then Catherine very much sees that mystery itself as part of Henry’s world.  Because novels like Udolpho place so much weight on female experience, Catherine cannot conceive of the fact that an old laundry list would have a greater material presence at Northanger Abbey than its former mistress. 

We might even go so far as to say that who Mrs. Tilney really was—if not how she really died—remains an unsolved mystery at the heart of Northanger Abbey.  From the first time she is mentioned, Mrs. Tilney is strangely, we might even say absurdly, absent from her own story.  Mrs. Allen reports to Catherine that “‘Mrs. Tilney was a Miss Drummond, and she and Mrs. Hughes were school-fellows; and Miss Drummond had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her father gave her twenty thousand pounds, and five hundred to buy wedding-clothes. Mrs. Hughes saw all the clothes after they came from the warehouse.’”  When Catherine asks, “‘And are Mr. and Mrs. Tilney in Bath?’” Mrs. Allen replies, “‘Yes, I fancy they are, but I am not quite certain.  Upon recollection, however, I have a notion they are both dead; at least the mother is; yes, I am sure Mrs. Tilney is dead, because Mrs. Hughes told me there was a very beautiful set of pearls that Mr. Drummond gave his daughter on her wedding-day and that Miss Tilney has got now, for they were put by for her when her mother died’” (65).  These descriptions by the notoriously shallow Mrs. Allen paint Mrs. Tilney as little more than a fashion mannequin used to display her father’s wealth and a cipher important only for transmitting the tangible manifestations of that wealth to the next generation. 

At Northanger, Catherine does get to see “a very elegant monument to the memory of Mrs. Tilney” in the chapel, but its “highly-strained epitaph, in which every virtue was ascribed to her by the inconsolable husband” (195) does not provide much identifying detail.  The portrait of Mrs. Tilney in Eleanor’s room proves equally generic and unenlightening, as does Mrs. Tilney’s former chamber.  Naturally, Catherine takes this as evidence of a cover-up.  She is sure that Mrs. Tilney must have left material traces of herself behind and that their absence therefore points to criminal concealment.  She asks herself, “Would the veil in which Mrs. Tilney had last walked, or the volume in which she had last read, remain to tell what nothing else was allowed to whisper?  No:  whatever might have been the General’s crimes, he had certainly too much wit to let them sue for detection” (199).  When Henry finds Catherine snooping, he says, “‘[a]s there is nothing in the room to raise curiosity, this must have proceeded from a sentiment of respect for my mother’s character. . . . The world, I believe, never saw a better woman.  But it is not often that virtue can boast an interest such as this.  The domestic, unpretending merits of a person never known, do not often create that kind of fervent, venerating tenderness which would prompt a visit like yours’” (201–02).  And herein lies the crux of the matter:  Catherine wants Mrs. Tilney to be venerated. 

In fact, in her search for tangible residual evidence of Mrs. Tilney’s life, Catherine acts not just like a silly girl but as a particular kind of romantic—and Romantic—historian.  Terry F. Robinson has noted that Catherine’s search for tangible memorials resonates with William Godwin’s writings on “history as ‘relic’” (217):  “Long after burial, [Godwin] argues, the dead continue to transmit meaning through the material items and dwelling places once connected with their bodies” (218).  Through this lens, we might see Catherine on a quest not just for thrills, but indeed for meaning:  what was the meaning of Mrs. Tilney’s life and death?  Catherine, and the reader, will never really know.  But in creating Catherine Morland, Austen creates a new kind of female protagonist for gothic and mystery literature.  She splits apart the dual function that Ellen Moers has identified as defining the gothic heroine:  that of “persecuted victim” and “courageous heroine” (91).  Unlike Cherry Wilkinson from The Heroine, Catherine does not see herself as a gothic victim.  She sees Mrs. Tilney as one.  Setting the stage for later fictional sleuths, Catherine positions herself as the courageous heroine trying to avenge wrongs against, and alleviate the suffering of, the persecuted.  The gothic novel has taught Catherine to think that women have lives full of thrilling particulars and momentous turning points, and so Catherine does not want Mrs. Tilney to remain “a person never known,” a woman described only by the money she brought to her marriage, or someone remembered only through clichés like “the world . . . never saw a better woman” (202). 

The importance of sight 

Catherine, of course, uses her eyes to spot clues at the abbey, and indeed the very first line of Northanger Abbey announces a recurring concern with sight and interpretation:  “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (5, emphasis added).  All detectives need keen sight, and they also need to withstand questioning about what their sight leads them to suppose.  Female detectives are perhaps especially subject to second-guessing in this regard.  Take the delightfully named Nora Van Snoop, from the 1902 short story “The Stir Outside the Café Royal.”  Nora takes a position as a New York detective (we come to learn at the end) for the sole purpose of tracking down the gangster who killed the man she loved.  When she identifies the culprit in London to the local police, an inspector asks her, “But do you know—can you be sure . . . that this is the man who shot the Detroit bank manager?”  Nora responds, “Great heavens!  Didn’t I see him shoot Will Stevens with my own eyes!” (Rook 322).  She is confident (the statement ends in an exclamation point, not a question mark), and she turns out to be right. 

Catherine ends up less confident in her own vision as Northanger Abbey unfolds.  As she approaches Bath for the first time, we are very aware of seeing the place through her lens, as “her eyes were here, there, every where’’ (11).  On her arrival, there is always “some new part of the town to be looked at’” (17) and new people to watch.  And at the theater, she does not “forget to look with an inquiring eye for Mr. Tilney in every box which her eye could reach” (28).  At a particular moment, however, Catherine starts to question her ability to interpret what she sees.  It happens as she walks with Henry and Eleanor, who “were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing. . . . Here Catherine was quite lost. . . . The little which she could understand however appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before.  It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer proof of a fine day’” (111–12).  Unlike the Tilneys, Catherine is not inculcated into the paradigm of taste.  She begins to take their subjective assessments of visual phenomena as syllogistic proofs, which inevitably leads her to try to adopt their perspectives as her own:  once taken under Henry’s tutelage, “she soon began to see beauty in every thing admired by him” (112–13). 

This shift toward Catherine’s taking on more of Henry’s perspective is an important context for reading the passage when Henry teases Catherine with a panoply of gothic conventions on the road to Northanger Abbey.  He not only catalogues particular items she will see (such as a “‘ponderous chest which no efforts can open’” [162]) but how she will respond to the evidence of her eyes:  “‘you will probably think you discern (for your lamp is not extinguished) one part of the hanging more violently agitated than the rest.  Unable of course to repress your curiosity in so favorable a moment for indulging it, you will instantly arise, and throwing your dressing-gown around you, proceed to examine this mystery’” (162–63). 

Given that Catherine has already started to adopt Henry’s ways of seeing, it is not surprising that his monologue influences her.  Her first forays into snooping are even framed through a recollection of Henry’s vivid list of coming attractions.  On her first night at Northanger, Catherine is on the point of going to bed when a black chest catches her eye, and “Henry’s words, his description of the ebony cabinet which was to escape her observation at first, immediately rushed across her; and though there could be nothing really in it, there was something whimsical, it was certainly a very remarkable coincidence!” (172).  Once she gets through the chest’s multiple locks and sees paper with “written characters” on it, “she acknowledged with awful sensations this striking exemplification of what Henry had foretold” (174).  The next morning, though, Catherine is forced to concede that “[i]f the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand” (176). 

Interestingly, here it is Henry who has led Catherine astray and perhaps a memory of Udolpho that brings her back to the evidence of her senses.  Towards the end of The Mysteries of Udolpho, we get the solution to the mystery of what lies behind the black veil.  It is not Signora Laurentini’s skeleton but a memento mori in wax, commissioned by a former inhabitant of the castle.  And the narrator asserts that Emily’s terror could have been dissolved quite easily:  “Had she dared to look [behind the veil] again, her delusion and fears would have vanished together, and she would have perceived, that the figure before her was not human, but formed of wax” (Radcliffe 662).  For narrative purposes, such a clarification cannot happen earlier in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  It would eliminate one of the most scintillating mysteries promised by the title.  By writing a quixotic gothic parody, however, Austen can show us a heroine who looks again, illustrating how imaginative flights of fancy can, at least on occasion, coexist with honest empirical investigation. 

Dirt and decisiveness 

The final way in which quixotic gothic parodies lay the groundwork for the fictional female sleuth is in creating a character in opposition to the conventional gothic heroine.  We have already seen how Catherine positions herself at a remove from the gothic heroine, assuming the role of detective rather than the role of victim.  In addition, a good deal of the parody in Northanger Abbey comes from the comic dissonance between its own heroine and the heroines of the novels she reads.  Far from being cultivated as a delicate flower, Catherine, we are told, grew up engaging in boys’ sports and was not particularly absorbed in the usual heroine hobbies of small-animal rescue and light horticulture.  Even when she is a bit older, Catherine reminds an unapproving Mrs. Allen that she “‘never mind[s] dirt’” (80). 

Catherine’s more outlandish counterpart, The Heroine’s Cherry Wilkinson, is similar in that her rustic heartiness divides her quite exasperatingly from the heroines she emulates.  She even finds that her given name, Cherry, “reminds one so much of plumpness and ruddy health. . . . I wonder,” she muses, “whether Cherry could possibly be an abbreviation of CHERUBINA.  ’Tis only changing y into ubina, and the name becomes quite classic. . . . Yes, Cherubina I am resolved to be called, now and for ever” (Barrett 11).  Even as Cherubina, though, this quixotic heroine proves at times amazingly resourceful.  She saves her suitor from ruffians by laying a trail of the criminals’ own gunpowder and setting it alight with the candle from her lantern, thus drawing the attention of the neighbors.  She saves another acquaintance from the gallows with a clever legal argument.  And she saves herself from hanging for theft by inventively catching her accuser in a lie.  Such resourcefulness is the name of the game for Nancy Drew, who is always confident in her abilities to, for example, navigate a car through a snowstorm (Nancy’s Mysterious Letter), trace the owner of a homing pigeon (Password to Larkspur Lane), or save a drowning woman from a rushing current using her knowledge of “a safe cross-chest carry” (Mystery of the Ivory Charm 162). 

Certainly, it would take time and many developments in adolescent culture and the print marketplace to arrive fully at the birth of a Nancy Drew. But figuring Catherine Morland and her fellow gothic quixotes as precursors to later fictional female detectives helps us better see what Catherine was really trying to do at Northanger Abbey.  In the most basic sense, she was trying to investigate the story of another woman’s life, and she was willing, temporarily, to transgress the boundaries of doorways and decorum to dig up the dirt.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  Ed. Barbara Benedict and Deirdre LeFaye.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
  • Barrett, Eaton Stannard.  The Heroine.  Ed. Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik.  Kansas City, MO: Valancourt, 2011.
  • Barron, Stephanie.  “Suspicious Characters, Red Herrings, and Unreliable Detectives: Elements of Mystery in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.”  Persuasions 32 (2010): 60–67.
  • Keene, Carolyn.  Mystery of the Ivory Charm.  New York: Grosset, 1974.
  • _____.  Nancy’s Mysterious Letter.  New York: Grosset, 1968.
  • _____.  Password to Larkspur Lane.  New York: Grosset, 1994.
  • Moers, Ellen.  Literary Women.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
  • Nollen, Elizabeth Mahn.  “Female Detective Figures in British Fiction: Coping with Madness and Imprisonment.”  Clues 15.2 (1994): 39–49.
  • Radcliffe, Ann.  The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Oxford: OUP, 2008.
  • _____.  A Sicilian Romance.  Oxford: OUP, 2008.
  • Robinson, Terry F.  “‘A mere skeleton of history’: Reading Relics in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.”  European Romantic Review 17 (2006): 215–27.
  • Rook, Clarence.  “The Stir Outside the Café Royal.”  Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine.  Vol. 1.  London: Harmsworth, 1898–1889.
  • Sims, Michael.  The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime.  NY: Penguin, 2011.
  • Zlotnick, Susan.  “From Involuntary Object to Voluntary Spy: Female Agency, Novels, and the Marketplace in Northanger Abbey.”  Studies in the Novel 41.3 (2009): 277–92.
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