One of author Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey, famously departs from the realist social satire of her other work to ruthlessly, and hilariously, parody the Gothic romances popular in her day. But to properly parody such novels means one must read them ― and it seems Austen did.
According to The Guardian, a letter up for auction next week shows the novelist’s taste in melodramatic fiction hadn’t abated since finishing Northanger Abbey around 10 years earlier. Dated in October 1812, Austen’s letter, actually sent to her niece, is humorously addressed to Rachel Hunter, the author of Lady Maclairn, the Victim of Villany.
Austen and her niece, Anna Lefroy, had recently read the novel, of which Lefroy herself said, “there was no harm in it whatsoever only in a most unaccountable way the same story about the same people [was] represented at least three times over.” Austen’s letter playfully mocks the book’s florid prose and floods of unrestrained sentiment. At one point, she beseeches Hunter to continue producing volumes about the couple’s courtship, which was “handled too briefly.”
It seems that long before reality TV binges and bodice-rippers, women were indulging in entertainment that mixed straightforward pleasure with the appreciation of unintentional camp.
If the book was so dreadful, why was the illustrious Austen bothering with it at all? Lefroy’s daughter, Fanny-Caroline Lefroy, wrote that her mother and aunt had been “reading & laughing over [Lady Maclairn], together.” Even Austen, apparently, happily found enjoyment in reading something mediocre in order to mock it and pick it apart.
It seems that long before reality TV binges and bodice-rippers, women were indulging in entertainment that mixed straightforward pleasure with the appreciation of unintentional camp. Much like TV today, novels were considered indulgent and frivolous in Austen’s day ― a dangerous distraction from edifying pursuits such as reading sermons or learning needlepoint. Though critically lauded works like hers helped establish the novel as a meaningful art form, lowbrow Gothic romances were also a commonplace source of light entertainment.
So to all you guilty-pleasure fans out there, know that no less than Austen was of your ranks. Maybe if she’d lived today, she would have been on Book Twitter every Monday night, live-tweeting “The Bachelor” ― which boasts its own absurd vocabulary and overwrought romantic travails ― with her signature wit and, dare we say, snark.