Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.

Knightley, Mister. Mister Knightley was created by Jane Austen and appeared in Emma (1815). Knightley also appeared in the unfinished novel Masters and Mysteries (1796).

Described by leading Jane Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland as “the most ground-breaking of Austen’s abortive novels,” Jane Austen’s Masters and Mysteries is perhaps the most fascinating of the what-ifs surrounding Austen’s life. As scholar Kenneth Hite rightly claims, “Had Austen pursued writing romances in the mode of Masters and Mysteries, she would have become a challenger to Ann Radcliffe.” Traditionally, the novel is considered a serious attempt to write a Gothic novel in the mode of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and was abandoned by Austen at the three-quarters mark when she realized that a more profitable approach would be a satire of the Gothic’s conventions, an approach which ultimately became Northanger Abbey (completed in 1798 but not published until 1817). However, although Austen was writing a serious romance wholly within the confines of the Gothic genre, the frequent themes of Austen’s later work, especially the hypocrisies of the hierarchical British social system, are visible throughout the novel. Moreover, the protagonist of Masters and Mysteries, Mr. Knightley, is a test run for the similarly-named hero of Austen’s Emma and arguably for many of Austen’s Knightley-like heroes.

Masters and Mysteries is a bildungsroman narrative that follows the progress of young Mr. George Knightley as he learns to negotiate a social world beyond his provincial hometown of Downell. The novel begins with Knightley visiting London and entering various social circles. Two figures occupy the majority of his time: Henry Richardson (modeled on the German scientist and mountaineer Horace-Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799)) and Michael Packard. Richardson becomes Knightley’s confidant and aggressive mentor, while Packard becomes Knightley’s rival. The first third of the surviving novel manuscript takes place in London, with Knightley making social errors and learning to recover from them, and slowly advancing up the ranks of the club-scene and the “scientific mountaineering” circle. For example, Knightley allows himself to be persuaded by Richardson to climb the Scottish mountain of Ben Nevis, even though Packard had already announced that he would be free-climbing it himself. Similarly, Knightley is slow to perceive that Packard bears him ill-will and is awkward in countering Packard’s malicious sallies.

The second third of the surviving manuscript takes place in “Thibet” [sic], as Knightley and Richardson, in search of the respect of their peers, climb “Mount Austin,” the tallest and most unconquerable mountain of the “Thibetan Alps.” Austen’s use of the gothic romance mode emerges during this section, as Knightley and Richardson encounter what they believe is an abandoned monastery. What follows is a catalogue  of the stock Gothic devices and motifs: the ancient, haunted, castle-like monastery, complete with trap-doors, deserted wings, darkened staircases, and a painting which seem to bear great significance to Richardson and might explain his mysterious past; dungeons and claustrophobic tunnels beneath the monastery; weather (in this case blizzards) as objective correlative of the figure who would ultimately prove to be the villain; messages delivered in dreams and nightmares; a variety of high-pitched emotions, including a number of swoons, as Mr. Knightey is overcome at points; a patriarchal religious figure, the Lama, who is revealed to be both tyrannical and corrupt; Richardson’s birthmark, which Austen apparently intended to be crucial in the resolution of the plot; and numerous scenes in the tombs and crypts of the monastery.

Unusually, Austen adds an array of imaginative elements to the novel. Austen is not known for her use of the fantastic–if anything, she is one of the most famous of the mimetic novelists–but they are part of the Radcliffean Gothic, and Austen, at this point still an unpublished novelist, may have felt that the supernatural elements were required for a successful Gothic. (Alternatively, it is possible that her use of them here was a way of getting them out of the way–of scratching an itch that would never return). Northanger Abbey would eschew the supernatural and fantastic altogether in its parody of the Gothic, but in Masters and Mysteries Austen retains these elements. So the novel either features or makes reference to a tribe of Himalayan Yeti, a warlock-like Lama, the Lama’s possibly Satanic advisor, the ghostly nuns of the monastery, whispering rats in the walls, a literally endless staircase, moving walls, rooms, doors and furniture, and in the final chapter of this section the revelation that the monastery itself is both sentient and malign.

The final third of the surviving manuscript takes place on the journey back to Richardson’s home (where, undoubtedly, the final quarter of the novel, never written by Austen, would have taken place). Following the abandonment of the climb toward the peak of Mount Austin, Knightley’s questions about his companion and about the value of male loyalty loom large. Knightley’s nagging concerns about Richardson having abandoned him in the monastery are magnified by the haunting memory of Richardson’s reaction to the monastery’s painting. This and other mysteries are brought up during the long nautical voyage back to England–a ship which becomes increasingly prison-like and confining to Knightley as the trip progresses. Knightley’s worries become fears as the ship becomes figuratively littered with male corpses whose tragic, repressed histories are unearthed during the course of the voyage. Their fates remind Knightley of the gothic’s foremost moral, as articulated by Horace Walpole, that “the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generations.”

From Austen’s manuscript notes, the ending of the novel can be seen: on arrival at Richardson’s home in Bath, an increasingly awkward relationship between Richardson and Knightley becomes fractured and then shattered as Richardson’s secrets are revealed and he is forced to literally and figuratively confront his ghosts. Once Richardson’s hidden past–he is both half-Indian and a wife-murderer–comes to light Knightley is forced to acknowledge both the hypocrisies of society with regard to race and the crimes of his friend and mentor. Knightley overcomes his own fears and anxieties, delivers the cut directe to Richardson (thereby losing his position in London society and among the “scientific mountaineers” whose company Knightley has so valued) and in so doing becomes a man. Knightley then returns home to Downell and vows to life out his life in a properly moral manner.

Masters and Mysteries has a heavier, darker tone than Austen’s later novels while still engaging–somewhat uneasily, it must be admitted–with major social and cultural issues. The first third of the novel, set in Society London, set the reader up to expect a typical Austen novel of manners, family, and society. The transition to the Gothic is therefore somewhat jarring to the reader. (Lord Bulwer-Lytton would manage the transition from society novel to novel of horror more smoothly in his A Strange Story (1862)–perhaps he used Austen and Masters and Mysteries as a model of what not to do?). Austen is skillful in delivering chills to the reader–specifically of what Anne Radcliffe thought of as Terror, which arises from the Burkean sublime and “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” Austen nicely evokes the archetypal horror fiction Bad Place in the form of the monastery. And Austen, clearly having some form of fun, indulges herself in the over-the-topness of the horror elements in the novel. (Austen was clearly a practitioner avant la lettre of the theory that too much is too much, but way too much is just enough).

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