She read Gothic romance novels. In fact, she read some obscure Gothic literature, even works written in German.
These atmospheric tales of the supernatural provided a springboard for her satirical “Northanger Abbey” published in 1818. This novel sees Isabella Thorpe recommending a list of gothic classics to her friend Catherine Morland. The impressionable young woman begins to recognize in her associates gothic victims and villains.
For years, Austen’s readers assumed the “horrid novels” the girls read together were mostly the invention of the author’s fertile imagination. However, historian Michael Sadleir researched the titles and rediscovered them.
First mentioned in the exchange between Isabella and Catherine are two well-known gothic gems by Ann Radcliffe, “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and “The Italian.” The other titles provided the basis of Mr. Sadleir’s literary investigation. They include “The Castle of Wolfenbach” (1793) and “The Mysterious Warning – A German Tale” (1796) by Eliza Parsons, “The Necromancer, or, The Tale of the Black Forest” (1794) by Ludwig Flammenberg, “The Midnight Bell” (1796) by Francis Lathom, “The Orphan of the Rhine” (1798) by Eleanor Sleath, and “Horrid Mysteries” (1796) by Marquis de Grosso.
These rediscovered stories were bound and reprinted first in 1968 by The Folio Society and again in 2005 by Voran Court Books. “Northanger Abbey” therefore proves even the proper and intellectual Jane Austen had a taste for the macabre.