by Shelly Coates
When my professor, my classmates, and I defined the term “Gothic novel” in our “Major Women Authors” course, we said that Gothic novels combine elements of both romance and horror genres; we did not mention the secret room as an essential convention of the Gothic novel. However, based upon the texts that we read in the course, I would argue that the secret room is, in fact, the most important convention of the Gothic novel in that it is so frequently employed to create a sense of mystery and terror, two fundamental elements of the genre. In both The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe and Castle Doom by Jill Gregory, the crucial moments of mystery and terror are set in a secret room, and even in Northanger Abbey, in which Jane Austen parodies Gothic novels, the mystery of the secret room is arguably the most important element of the plot.
In The Romance of the Forest, Adeline and the La Mottes must hide out in the abbey, an architectural ruin that contains a series of apartments. Adeline investigates them in the darkness and decides, “A mystery seems to hang over these chambers” (Radcliffe 115). As she proceeds into a secret room, she realizes that it is “exactly like that where her dream had represented the dying person” (115). Her sense of terror is elevated by her imagination but also by the sense that the room suggests the possibility of a murder having occurred there. From early in the book, then, the secret room is crucial because it generates terror in both the protagonist and the reader, and terror is a necessary characteristic of the Gothic genre.
Adeline’s terror is heightened by the objects in the secret room. She continues through the chamber and is “nearly overcome by a superstitious dread,” causing her to “combat her remaining terrors” to examine the object caught in the reflection of the moonlight (115). Upon finding that it is a rusty dagger, she then discovers a roll of paper that turns out to be a manuscript that a captive man wrote before he was murdered in that very room (116). The room becomes associated with imprisonment and death, and this produces a sensation of terror in Adeline. In his account of the chamber and his impending death, the captive man has written “All around me is dead […] in this dismal chamber,” remarking, “the dread of farther sufferings have disturbed my fancy” (133). As she reads these words, the narrator notes, Adeline’s imagination wanders “in[to] the regions of terror” (134).
In Castle Doom, a secret room in the castle is also essential to the story. As Arianne tours the dungeon prison, she is confronted by a gypsy, who whispers, “Yes—the blue panel. That’s the one […]. You must find the tower room” (Gregory 134). The unknown location of the tower room heightens the sense of mystery in Arianne’s mind as well as in the reader’s mind. This anticipation is enhanced when Arianne disappears toward the end of the story. As Arianne’s beloved, Nicholas, battles his rival Julian, he calls out to his sister Katerine to ask where Arianne is. Katerine screams, “The tower room!” and is immediately seized by Julian’s soldier (150). The narrative then shifts to Arianne, who is investigating the corridor into which Julian and Cren seem to have disappeared. She notices a blue panel, and feels terror as she pushes it open on a second try (152). Although Gregory’s description of terror is subtle in comparison to Radcliffe’s, both narratives generate a moment that causes the heroine to react in fright. And just as Adeline finds mysterious objects, such as the dead man’s manuscript, in the secret room, so does Arianne find a significant object—a “white-haired figure lying in the bed” behind the blue panel (153). Arianne freezes in shock when she discovers that the occupant of the tower room is none other than Nicholas’s father, Archduke Armand. Although he was believed to have been murdered by Julian, the Archduke is still alive and being held captive in the secret room—the mystery is solved! The presence of the archduke is the primary means necessary to prove that Nicholas is the rightful heir. Better than a manuscript of the captive man, Arianne finds the captive man himself.
In contrast to these two texts by Radcliffe and Gregory, Jane Austen mocks Gothic conventions in her novel Northanger Abbey. Significantly, Austen directs much of her criticism to the convention of the secret room, in this case, Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom. Having been forbidden to enter the bedroom, Catherine presumes that it is the place in which General Tilney murdered his wife. Once she finds that Mrs. Tilney’s portrait is not in the General’s room, she takes it as decisive proof of his guilt. She “attempt[s] no longer to hide from herself the nature of the feelings” that General Tilney “had previously excited,” including, interestingly enough, “terror” (181). The terror that she feels, Catherine admits, comes directly from her having read about similarly villainous “characters” in books (181). She even starts to refer to the secret room as Mrs. Tilney’s “prison” as she watches for signs of the General’s lamplight through the window (189).
Meanwhile, Catherine bides her time and waits for an opportunity to examine “the mysterious apartments” (190). She then begins to sneak into the room to investigate, but her terror is heightened, and she experiences a sense of “[a]stonishment” that stops her momentarily (193). As she overcomes her fear and proceeds into the room, she wonders, “[Will] the veil in which Mrs. Tilney […] last walked, or the volume in which she […] last read, remain to tell what nothing else [is] allowed to whisper?” (194). However, as Catherine explores the room, she finds nothing out of the ordinary. While the secret room invokes the same feelings of mystery and terror that it does for Adeline and Arianne, Catherine discovers that it is merely the room in which Mrs. Tilney spent her final days of illness. Catherine describes her actions as “folly” because they are guided by an imagination influenced by an overfamiliarity with Gothic novels. As Henry arrives and verifies that the room holds no evidence of harboring terrible deeds, Catherine realizes that she “had been craving to be frightened” (200). Her experience of terror has been the result of her own imagination conjuring up a Gothic narrative about the Tilneys’ secret room.
These examples suggest that the most important convention of Gothic literature is the ominous secret room. In The Romance of the Forest and Castle Doom, the secret room is the site of captivity and murder, and its presence creates in the reader a sense of mystery and terror. In Northanger Abbey, Austen critiques the convention of the secret room, but her attention to this literary convention only underscores its importance. As Coral Ann Howells puts it, “We cannot imagine a Gothic novel which doesn’t have a castle or an abbey—or at least a monastic cell—for there is a distinctive Gothic environment which is both fairytale and menacing” (24). While there are many conventions of Gothic novels, the secret room is the most significant.
 This particular section of “Major Women Authors” was taught by Dr. Amy Scott-Douglass at Marymount University in Fall 2011.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford UP, 1923.
Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone, 1978.
Gregory, Jill. Castle Doom. In Once Upon a Castle. Contributors Nora Roberts, Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman. New York: Jove, 1998. 87-170.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. Ed. Chloe Chard. Oxford UP, 1992.