Manuscript Ghosts: Reader and Writer in Romantic Gothic Fiction

Francesca Kavanagh, PhD candidate, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s affectionate parody of late 18th-century gothic novels, the unlikely heroine, Catherine, discovers what she believes is a manuscript in an ‘old-fashioned black cabinet.’ 1) After struggling with the locks and searching through a series of empty drawers, the reader’s suspense and Catherine’s curiosity are rewarded by ‘a roll of paper…[on which] half a glance sufficed to ascertain written characters.’2)

Unfortunately, the accidental snuffing of her candle leaves her to a restless night agonising over the unknown contents of the manuscript until the cold light of day finally reveals it to be merely a list of items for washing. The materiality of the manuscript (its physical qualities) is essential to the comedy of this scene. The unclear ‘written characters’ found on the ‘precious manuscript’ cause a thrill of suspense and excitement which is quickly deflated when they are revealed to be the ‘coarse and modern characters’ of a neglectful servant.3

Austen is directly referencing a key trope of Romantic-era gothic fiction in which the protagonist discovers a mysterious manuscript which reveals terrible secrets about the past. In these scenes of discovery and reading the ghostly presence of the manuscript’s writer is central to the production of the gothic atmosphere of suspense and terror for both the heroine and the reader of the novel itself. To bring this presence into being, authors such as Austen, Ann Radcliffe and Emily Brontë use the materiality of manuscripts in their novels to call attention to the act of reading and give corporeal form to the ghosts of their manuscript writers. Laura Baudot suggests that material qualities of texts create an awareness of the act of reading which vies with the reader’s absorbed imagination and ‘reveals the extent to which fictional outcomes are deduced from the physical appearance and tactile reality of the novel.’4 In this way, the materiality of the manuscript can be seen to produce a gothic reading experience for both protagonist and novel reader by reproducing the emotions of the writer.

Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest 1791

Catherine’s encounter with the washing-bills was very likely inspired by another famous discovered manuscript scene from Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. In this novel, the heroine, Adeline, discovers a manuscript in a secret passage below the Abbey where she is living. Unlike Catherine’s washing-bill, this more serious novel presents a manuscript which fulfils Gothic expectations. It is old, worn and so ‘decayed with damp’ as to be almost ‘totally illegible.’5 This decay reproduces the sorrows of the man who wrote the manuscript and physically fragments the narrative, drawing Adeline and the reader’s attention to the manuscript’s materiality. The earliest editions of The Romance of the Forest represented physical damage to the manuscript with a collection of asterisks which appear in large groups, almost as paragraphs, on the pages of the novel. In attempting to render visible the fictional manuscript, these asterisks draw the reader’s focus to the type on the printed text in their hands. In doing so, they interrupt the reader’s absorption in the narrative in a similar way that the damage in the fictional manuscript interrupts Adeline’s reading. These interruptions recall the production of the manuscript and novel and produce a gothic encounter with the ghost of the writer: “By a strong illusion of fancy, it seemed as if his past sufferings were at this moment present … and, turning her eyes, a figure, whose exact form she could not distinguish, appeared to pass along an obscure part of the chamber.”6 This ghostly presence of the writer has been called forth by Adeline’s reaction to the material remnants of his manuscript.

Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest; interspersed with some pieces of poetry, by the authoress of "The Mysteries of Udolpho" &c. &c. Embellished with engravings on wood, London: J. Limbird, 1832, p. 55. Rare Books, Special Collections.

Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights 1847

The discovered manuscript trope can also be found towards the end of the Romantic period in one of the most famous passages in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. While Radcliffe’s manuscript produces an ephemeral presence and Austen’s only the reality of domestic labour, Brontë’s manuscript calls forth a visceral encounter with the ghost of its writer.

In an enclosed bed inside a never-used room at Wuthering Heights, Brontë’s insipid narrator, Lockwood, discovers the manuscript diary of the late Catherine Earnshaw. It is written in the margins of religious tracts and she has scratched her name in the paint of a windowsill ‘in all kinds of characters, large and small.’7 This irregular handwriting is also evidenced in the manuscript annotations which are a mixture of ‘detached sentences … [and] a regular diary, scrawled in an unformed, childish hand.’8 The lack of uniformity—the ‘rude[ness]’ and fragmentation of Catherine’s handwriting, which covers ‘every morsel of blank that the printer had left’9—powerfully evokes her  wild and hungry character. After deciphering her ‘faded hieroglyphics,’10 Lockwood falls into a doze from which he is roused by the tapping of a tree branch against his window. Uncertain if he is still dreaming, he breaks through the glass to catch hold of the branch. Instead, his fingers close ‘on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!’11 Lockwood describes this encounter with spine tingling terror: ‘the intense horror of nightmare came over me; I tried to draw back my arm, but, the hand clung to it.’12 The ghost of the manuscript writer has come to haunt the scene of reading. Notably, it is Catherine’s hand which first appears and this, as well as her representation in this scene as a ghostly child, connects her forcibly with the manuscript Lockwood has discovered. Her hungry handwriting has taken material form in her grasping ghostly hand.

These three texts demonstrate the ways in which the discovered manuscript trope uses the materiality of the manuscript to evoke the presence of its writer. While Austen produces comedy with the coarse hand of a neglectful servant, Radcliffe and Brontë use the hand-writing, decayed or damaged pages, and the fragmentation of their manuscripts to thrill their readers with the ghostly presence of the writers of their manuscripts.


  1. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, London: Vintage, 2008, p. 158.
  2. Ibid, p. 159.
  3. Ibid pp. 159, 161.
  4. Laura Baudot, ‘“Nothing really in it”: Gothic interiors and the externals of the courtship plot in Northanger Abbey,’ Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 24, no. 2, 2011-12, p. 347.
  5. Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest, Chloe Chard ed., Oxford University Press, 2009 p. 131.
  6. Ibid, pp. 132, 134.
  7. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, London: Penguin Books, 2003, p. 19.
  8. Ibid, p. 20.
  9. Ibid, p. 20.
  10. Ibid p. 20
  11. Ibid, p. 25.