A conflict between “sense and sensibility” was naturally to be expected; and, the year after Mrs. Radcliffe published The Italian, Jane Austen had completed her Northanger Abbey, ridiculing the “horrid” school of fiction. It is noteworthy that for the Mysteries of Udolpho Mrs. Radcliffe received L500, and for The Italian L800; while for the manuscript of Northanger Abbey, the bookseller paid Jane Austen the ungenerous sum of L10, selling it again later to Henry Austen for the same amount. The contrast in market value is significant. The publisher, who, it may be added, was not necessarily a literary critic, probably realised that if the mock romance were successful, its tendency would be to endanger the popularity of the prevailing mode in fiction. Hence for many years it was concealed as effectively as if it had lain in the haunted apartment of one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothic abbeys. Among Jane Austen’s early unpublished writings were “burlesques ridiculing the improbable events and exaggerated sentiments which she had met with in sundry silly romances”; but her spirited defence of the novelist’s art in Northanger Abbey is clear evidence that her raillery is directed not against fiction in general, but rather against such “horrid” stories as those included in the list supplied to Isabella Thorpe by “a Miss Andrews, one of the sweetest creatures in the world.”
It has sometimes been supposed that the more fantastic titles in this catalogue were figments of Jane Austen’s imagination, but the identity of each of the seven stories may be established beyond question. Two of the stories—The Necromancer of the Black Forest, a translation from the German, and The Castle of Wolfenbach, by Mrs. Eliza Parsons (who was also responsible for Mysterious Warnings)—may still be read in The Romancist and Novelist’s Library (1839-1841), a treasure-hoard of forgotten fiction. Clermont (1798) was published by Mrs. Regina Maria Roche, the authoress of The Children of the Abbey (1798), a story almost as famous in its day as Udolpho. The author of The Midnight Bell was one George Walker of Bath, whose record, like that of Miss Eleanor Sleath, who wrote the moving history of The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) in four volumes, may be found in Watts’ Bibliotheca Britannica. Horrid Mysteries, perhaps the least credible of the titles, was a translation from the German of the Marquis von Grosse by R. Will. Jane Austen’s attack has no tinge of bitterness or malice. John Thorpe, who declared all novels, except Tom Jones and The Monk, “the stupidest things in creation,” admitted, when pressed by Catherine, that Mrs. Radcliffe’s were “amusing enough” and “had some fun and nature in them”; and Henry Tilney, a better judge, owned frankly that he had “read all her works, and most of them with great pleasure.” From this we may assume that Miss Austen herself was perhaps conscious of their charm as well as their absurdity.