Austenalia

The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett

As I continue my quest to read the Gothic novels that Austen read, I came to this gem.  Technically speaking, it could not have been an inspiration for Northanger Abbey, since it was published in 1813 and read by Austen in February and March of 1814, however, it provides a fascinating look at Gothic parody and has an interesting connection to Austen, which I will reveal later on in this post.

Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in a letter dated March 2-3, 1814: 

I finished the Heroine last night & was very much amused by it.  I wonder James [their elder brother] did not like it better.  It diverted me exceedingly…We have drank tea & I have torn through the 3rd volume of the Heroine, & do not think it falls off.–It is a delightful burlesque, particularly on the Radcliffe style.  (Le Faye 266-67)

The Heroine was popular upon its publication, and remained in print until 1927 (Horner and Zlosnik 3). No less a light than Edgar Allan Poe had this to say:

…although it has run through editions innumerable, and has been universally read and admired by all possessing talent or taste, it has never, in our opinion, attracted half that notice on the part of the critical press, which is undoubtedly its due. There are few books written with more tact, spirit, näïveté [[naïveté]], or grace, few which take hold more irresistibly upon the attention of the reader, and none more fairly entitled to rank among the classics of English literature than the Heroine of Eaton Stannard Barrett. (41)

I myself will admit to having laughed aloud several times while reading it.  The Heroine follows the adventures of the self-styled Cherubina de Willoughby as she manages by turns to be clever, silly, naive, rude, and self-absorbed in her quest to become a heroine just like those she has read about in novels–all the usual suspects–Mysteries of Udolpho, the Monk, The Italian, Pamela, etc.  There is a 2011 edition available, but through the magic of print on demand, you can also get the 1909 version with an introduction by Walter Raleigh, which is the one I read.  Raleigh does not have a lot of respect for Barrett, but I agree with Horner and Zlosnik that Raleigh may have been too quick to dismiss Barrett’s talent (2).  I think Poe was right.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book, though, was a reference to Sir Charles Bingley on page 98. Yes, that Bingley. Janeites will know that Pride and Prejudice was first published in January 1813.  The Heroine was also originally published in 1813, though I have not yet found the month.  This led me to wonder about any connection between the two writers.  Now, you will say, wait–you were reading the 1909 version, perhaps it was revised.  I had the same thought, so through the magic of the Internet and the Hathi Trust, I located a scanned version of the 1813 edition.  In volume II, page 15, the very same text appears referring to Sir Charles Bingley. (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015059389596&view=2up&seq=6)  Cherubina is referring to Stuart, her paramour, when she writes, “Would Sir Charles Bingley have deserted me so I ask? No.  But Stuart has no notion of being a plain, useful, unsuccessful lover like him” (15).  The reference is not repeated and there is no further elucidation, but the statement implies that our heroine has read Pride and Prejudice, which means Barrett had as well.  He also seems to expect that the reader will know who Bingley is.  Could this reference to her own work have been one of the reasons Austen so enjoyed the book? I don’t know if we will ever find out, but it is interesting to wonder.

The Heroine is definitely worth your time, if you enjoy parody, or the Gothic.  It is certainly a bit of fun and a little bit of a literary history puzzle. I have mentioned in a previous post that even though The Heroine could not have inspired Northanger Abbey, it may have been on Austen’s mind when revising it for publication.  I am glad to report that I am not alone in seeing the possible connection: 

Austen reworked Northanger Abbey some time between 1816 and 1817, and it seems probable that at least some of it is indebted to Barrett’s work.  We might suspect a reference to The Heroine in its ironic first sentence, for example:  “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (Northanger Abbey 5).  Like Catherine Morland, The Heroine’s heroine, Cherry Wilkinson, has read more Gothic novels than are really good for her.  Like Catherine, Cherry has difficulty differentiating between life and fiction.  (Dow and Halsey)

Give it a try; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Works Cited

Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 1, December 1835, 2:41-43.

Barrett, Eaton Stannard, Esq. The Heroine: or Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader. London, 1813. Accessed via Hathi Trust 5 July 2020, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015059389596

Barrett, Eaton Stannard. The Heroine: with an introduction by Walter Raleigh. London: Henry Frowde, 1909.

Dow, Gillian and Katie Halsey. “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years.” Persuasions Online 30.2 (2010). Accessed 5 July 2020, http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol30no2/dow-halsey.html.

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. “Dead funny: Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The heroine as comic gothic.” Cardiff Corvey: reading the romantic text 5.2 (2000).

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen’s Letters (fourth edition). Oxford UP, 2011.