The Gothic Mystery of Francis Lathom's Life.

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Date: Annual 2019
Publisher: Jane Austen Society of North America
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,303 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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Despite JANE AUSTEN'S impassioned defense of novel reading in Northanger Abbey, few modern readers are willing to labor through all seven novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe, even though she assures Catherine Morland that they are "'all horrid.'" Clearly Isabella, Catherine's new friend and a self-appointed expert on current fiction, hasn't read them herself, but her friend Miss Andrews has, and she is as "'beautiful as an angel'" (33). Isabella's logic here isn't altogether sound, but what is clear is the enthusiasm among young (and possibly older) ladies for horrid gothic mysteries. And of course, among some men too--Henry Tilney being one of them.

Austen's references to Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries o/Udolpho and other novels have been well explored, but those on Isabella's list of next-up mustreads were assumed to be fictional until John Louis Haney published evidence of their existence in 1901. Bibliophile and critic Michael Sadleir later found actual copies of the "horrid novels." His homage to these books is delightfully expressed in an article published in 1927. Citing Isabella's list from Northanger Abbey, he states that they will survive "as tiny stitches in the immense tapestry of English literature" (9).

One of these novels was mentioned by Jane in a 1798 letter to Cassandra written from the Bull and George, a stage stop where she was staying with her parents on the road back to Steventon from Godmersham: "My father is now reading the 'Midnight Bell,' which he has got from the library, and mother sitting by the fire" (24 October 1798). The date of this letter indicates that Jane's family of avid readers had managed to get hold of a book that was fairly hot off the press. She does not say whether she has read it yet or what her father thinks of it, though it is clear that the novel was already a circulating library favorite.

The Midnight Bell was published anonymously earlier that same year, 1798, and it's not clear that Austen knew who its author was, though she almost certainly knew the name of Francis Lathom from his subsequent books, whether she read them or not. In any case, The Midnight Bell proved to be such a success that Lathom's books started to appear on an almost yearly basis under the author's name. He found a willing publisher in Minerva Press, Leadenhall Street, London, by then a phenomenally successful and profitable publishing house that specialized in gothic fiction and mysteries.

Minerva's books were in high demand. Its founder, William Lane, was the entrepreneur who had invented and instituted the first circulating library in London, in about 1770. Lane's library contained over ten thousand volumes by 1794 (Blakey 113), and, with his active encouragement, circulating libraries were all the rage by the time Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, as Isabella attests. The phenomenon made Lane a fortune and was responsible at least in part for the craze for gothic romance. These novels were not high literature, but they fueled an increasingly ravenous reading public,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A629396716