Why Northanger Abbey? A Possible Inspiration for Austen’s First Novel

Why Northanger Abbey? A Possible Inspiration for Austen’s First Novel

Anyone who has written a novel knows that the editing process can be a challenge.  As an author, you want everything to be as perfect as you can make it.  A compelling plot, interesting and relatable characters and intriguing settings are all essential to a great read.  Not to mention you need to make sure all your spelling and grammar ducks are in a row.

Northanger Abbey

As I continue to edit my upcoming novella “Captain Tilney’s Bastard,” I am moving toward all those goals.  Everything is coming along fine, except there was this nagging little voice inside me saying something was missing.  But what? All Northanger Abbey’s characters were there; Eleanor, Cathy, Henry, Frederick and Isabella, not to mention the characters I developed to enhance the story.  The plot should keep the reader interested (I so hope!), and of course there is the setting itself.  What could be more exciting than a story set in a medieval castle?

Then I asked myself “What do I know about medieval castles?” But then what became even more pertinent to me was “What did Jane Austen know about them, and how did she get the idea for Northanger Abbey?

We all know that the novel was a spoof on the favorite pastime of the era, the Gothic Novel.  But still, I wanted to know more about the iconic setting Austen created.

In my travels on the internet, I found a very interesting theory in the JASNA article “The Real Bluebeard of Bath: A Historical Model for Northanger Abbey,” written by Janine Barchas.  In her article, Barchas argues it is likely Austen was inspired to write Northanger Abbey from a place called Farleigh Hungerford, a medieval castle with, as Barchas puts it “a bloody history of murder and poison, of wives locked in towers, of letters found in old furniture, and mysterious coffins still in view.” The ruins of this castle were a very popular tourist attraction during Austen’s time, and was featured in a guidebook that was owned by the Austen family.  Bachas feels there is a close resemblance between Catherine’s fantasies of General Tilney as a wife killer and the reality of the crimes committed by Hungerford Castle’s most notorious resident, a man named Walter Hungerford.

A favorite at Henry VIII’s court, and an agent to Thomas Cromwell, Baron Hungerford had a reputation of being less than kind to his wives.  Three wives complained of his cruelty.  The last wife, who was named Lady Elizabeth Hussey, daughter of Lord Hussey, petitioned the king for help.  She claimed that when his attempts to poison her failed, he locked her in the castle tower and tried to starve her, and that she was only alive because her neighbors managed to bring her food.  Elizabeth remained a prisoner for years; her imprisonment only ending when King Henry got tired of the baron (We all know that was something old Henry VIII had a habit of doing) and accused him of witchcraft and homosexuality and beheaded him.  (Here’s a little historical trivia: he was executed the same day as Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s main man at the time.  Cromwell was executed for treason, but we all know it was more than likely because he set him up with Anne of Cleves as his fourth wife, and Henry didn’t like her looks.)

There are other parallels between Northanger Abbey and the history of Hungerford Castle.  In the guidebook “The New Bath Guide,” 1798 edition, a letter found stuffed in a sofa cushion in the castle is mentioned.  The letter was written, not by Thomas Cromwell, but by Oliver Cromwell, the regicidal leader of the failed Commonwealth of the 1640s.  Barchas ties this to Catherine’s discovery of the laundry list in the chest at Northanger Abbey.  She also mentions that Northanger Abbey’s former title “Susan,” could be another connection, since Baron Hungerford’s first wife was of that name.

Of course no one can know for sure if this is what inspired Austen to write the novel, but Barchas’ article makes a compelling argument that it is.  Not to mention the article is a great read, and you will learn a ton.  I know I did.  And now I understand just a little bit more, I can put that knowledge to work when I write sequels and variations from Austen’s work.

If you take a peek at my novella when it comes out, you may just see old Baron Hungerford here and there.  I look forward to sharing it with you!


Check out Janine Barchas’ article at: www.jasna.org/publications/persuasions/no32/barchas


8 Responses to Why Northanger Abbey? A Possible Inspiration for Austen’s First Novel

  1. It is interesting to think of Jane as a tourist. I have never heard of the Baton before but it does seem like he did give her an idea for Northhanger Abbey.

    • Thanks, Teresa. I had never heard about either. I found the article on the JASNA website in their publication Persuasions. It always has great articles on all things Austen!.

    • I had never heard about him either until I found the article. There is a bit more information about him on Wikipedia. He got into a lot of mischief, including trying to conjure spirits with auras to find out how long Henry VIII would live. Big mistake; that was one of the reasons Henry VIII got rid of him!!

  2. Looking forward to seeing this novella. Blessings on the launch. Thank you for this post. it is entertaining to think of Jane as a tourist taking tours of castles and such.

    • Thank you! I hope to release the novella sometime next month!! It is interesting to think of Austen as a tourist; This article gives us a different way of looking at what inspired Austen!!

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