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Written by JulieW
(4/18/2006 12:16 p.m.)
First , we ought to consider just what did Catherine think the Abbey would be like?
I think she had in mind something like this, Netley Abbey , a ruin which the Austen’s visited while they were living in Southampton.
and , see here
Abbeys had ,since the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, been places of habitation by members of both the gentry and the aristocracy( which JA makes playful reference to in her History of England….
nothing can be said in his(Henry VIII’s-JW) vindication , but that his abolishing religious houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general , which probably was a principal motive for his doing it .
And of course many had been altered or improved…;-)
As at Northanger.
Despite Catherine’s hopes of ruins, it transpires that not much of the ruined part of the Abbey at Northanger is to be seen. Northanger is described as begin built around a quadrangle:
She was struck, however, beyond her expectation, by the grandeur of the abbey, as she saw it for the first time from the lawn. The whole building enclosed a large court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration. The remainder was shut off by knolls of old trees, or luxuriant plantations, and the steep woody hills rising behind, to give it shelter, were beautiful even in the leafless month of March. Catherine had seen nothing to compare with it; and her feelings of delight were so strong, that without waiting for any better authority, she boldly burst forth in wonder and praise. The general listened with assenting gratitude; and it seemed as if his own estimation of Northanger had waited unfixed till that hour.
Poor Catherine: she certainly did not expect modern luxury!
And of course the joke is that it , and the grounds surrounding the Abbey ,are no mouldering ruins, but a large modernised estate, full of modern innovations( which I will discuss later!)
Now, of course, JA had her own experience of visiting an Abbey built around a quadrangle .In fact it is nearly exactly 250 years since she and her mother accompanied their cousin Thomas Leigh to Stoneleigh Abbey ,Warwickshire ,in August 1806.
I’ve linked the Abbey’s website for you to visit below.
Like Northanger Abbey it was not exactly the mouldering Abbey of Catherine’s( and possibly Jane Austen’s) imagination ;the only old original parts of Stoneleigh Abbey to survive were the cloisters and the domestic cellars( which were vaulted- horrors!) and kitchens.
However, staying at the Abbey certainly seems to have inspired at least Mrs Austen to some Gothic Fantasies : she wrote in a letter to her daughter in law at length about her stay, and waxed lyrical about the state bedchamber which contained
a dark crimson Velvet Bed: and alarming apartment just fit for a heroine
I love the use of the word alarming!
She also, more in character, wrote about the impracticalities of living in such a huge place:
The house is larger than I could have supposed. We can now find our way about it, I mean the best part; as to the offices( which were the old abbey) Mr Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them .I have proposed his setting Direction Post at the angles
One of the parts of the building which may have kept JA’s gothic expectations alive is the old gatehouse at Stoneleigh.
(.Go here for a small picture of it:
Humphrey Repton , who famously improved the grounds at Stoneleigh( his Red book of his designs is dated 1809) described it thus:
It is an object of pleasure to those who delight in whatever is ancient and venerable and therefore worthy to be retained in modern days of upstart innovation.
Certainly Catherine Morland would have preferred to have seen an old gatehouse at the entrance to Northanger:
As they drew near the end of their journey, her impatience for a sight of the abbey — for some time suspended by his conversation on subjects very different — returned in full force, and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney.
She knew not that she had any right to be surprised, but there was a something in this mode of approach which she certainly had not expected. To pass between lodges of a modern appearance, to find herself with such ease in the very precincts of the abbey, and driven so rapidly along a smooth, level road of fine gravel, without obstacle, alarm, or solemnity of any kind, struck her as odd and inconsistent. She was not long at leisure, however, for such considerations. A sudden scud of rain, driving full in her face, made it impossible for her to observe anything further, and fixed all her thoughts on the welfare of her new straw bonnet; and she was actually under the abbey walls, was springing, with Henry’s assistance, from the carriage, was beneath the shelter of the old porch, and had even passed on to the hall, where her friend and the general were waiting to welcome her, without feeling one awful foreboding of future misery to herself, or one moment’s suspicion of any past scenes of horror being acted within the solemn edifice. The breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her; it had wafted nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain; and having given a good shake to her habit, she was ready to be shown into the common drawing–room, and capable of considering where she was.
Poor Catherine: she certainly did not expect modern gatehouses and all modern conveniences and luxury! Even the approach to the Abbey lays waste to her Gothic Dreams….
I’ll post more about the other aspects of life with the General at Northanger, which confound most of Catherine’s expectations, throughout the week.
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