At one point in Jane Austen’s celebrated satire on gothic fiction, Northanger Abbey, one of the characters gives her friend some recommendations for “horrid novels” that she simply must read. At one time it was thought that Austen made up the names of these seven horrid novels but in fact they were real. One of them was Eliza Parsons’ 1793 novel The Castle of Wolfenbach, which I’ve just finished reading.
Reading this novel it’s easy to see why Austen had so much fun sending up the gothic genre. While I personally love Ann Radcliffe’s novels and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk the sad truth is that the bulk of the gothic fiction written at that time was not in the same league (which of course is true of any genre).
And The Castle of Wolfenbach has plenty of elements that just invite satire. There are the preposterous coincidences, the fairly clumsy use of supernatural trappings in what is really a non-supernatural tale, the overheated and highly improbable plot, the sentimentality, the heroines who faint at regular intervals, and worst of all the contrived ending that seeks to wrap everything up much too neatly. And added to that are a couple of ingredients that are present in most gothic fiction but are very much magnified in this one - an outrageous English chauvinism and a very annoying conventional piety. Hardly a page goes by without the reader’s being assured that the hand of Providence will ensure that virtue will be rewarded.
Of course these flaws were fairly common in many novels of that period, not just gothic fictions. And despite its flaws The Castle of Wolfenbach is entertaining enough if you can approach it as a kind of 18th century high camp melodrama. It’s an intriguing example of late 18th century trash fiction.
At the time of its original publication in 1793 it was a considerable commercial success. Like so much trash fiction (and trash movies) it provides a fascinating window into the prejudices and anxieties of its era. Quite often the less exalted cultural products of an era, being less concerned with universal themes, reveal more about the period in question than does high art. The Castle of Wolfenbach is absolutely overflowing with cultural, religious and class prejudices and anxieties.
It’s worth checking out as long as you don’t set your expectations too high. Also worth a look is another of Austen's horrid novels, The Necromancer.
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