“One wonders whether James intends to put us in mind of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters by using this formulation?” (Adrian Dover)
The Brontë sisters had no connection to Hampshire whatsoever, and this note seems to suggest the editor’s identification of the governess as Agnes Grey ; alter ego of Anne Brontë (1820 – 1849), whose recollections may have provided the narrator with her initial misgivings to accept the vacant job. Agnes Grey indeed is a likely mold for the heroine as the private tutor who handles her little charges with professional ease. This governess, however, is clearly composed from a number of Austen creations :
Being the youngest of several daughters, she could be Lydia Bennet from Pride & Prejudice. Her age of twenty, however, and her eye-catching power of observation are second Bennet daughter Elizabeth’s. A protagonist who prides herself for her accuracy in judging other people’s character and intentions at the instant. In the James version she had had brothers too, which adds another novel to the heroine’s recipe, in which she has a brother, without causing any inconsistency with her apparent ‘sisters only’ background.
This second novel sufficiently defines the father of these young ladies as the ‘poor country parson’ from Douglas’s introduction. And Jane Austen describes the daughter of that shepherd of souls in a way that suggests her to have lied to her employer about her qualifications as a governess. Because the problems she has to face at Bly are somewhat out of her depths, her hubris is connected to these qualifications anyway. And the resulting tragedy has certainly learned her the lesson of being honest to herself : the heroine never lies.
The employer, a handsome bachelor “in the prime of life” (a standard eufemism), is not to be fooled that easily when it comes to assessing applicants for a job, and he certainly knows a girl’s real age (in the Austen novel seventeen rather than twenty) when he charms one. But after eighteen frustrating months he is also desparate to find somebody who is prepared to guard his private little secret in as remote a place as possible.
This remotest of places is his ancestral estate, and, as far as Northanger Abbey’s imaginative heroine is concerned, such a place must surely be haunted : she is the star in a parody on the gothic story. If one knows how to catch an expert, the resulting opportunity is too good to miss, and already in her first sentence, Jane Austen sums up virtually every argument that Literature Studies has at one time or another held against a governess who is seeing ghosts :
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”