“My father is now reading The Midnight Bell, which he has got from the library, and mother sitting by the fire.” So wrote Jane Austen, from the Bull and George coaching inn, in October, 1798. It is an interesting portrait, the practical Reverend George Austen reading (aloud, perhaps) from one of the most popular Gothic novels of the day, the library book that he enjoyed well enough to carry while traveling.
The Midnight Bell, was published in the first half of 1798, not very long before Jane Austen began writing Northanger Abbey (then called Susan), and Austen references that novel in her work as one of the ten or twelve Udolpho-like books that Isabella Thorpe has compiled to read with Catherine.
The author of The Midnight Bell was Francis Lathom. Like Austen, he was a precocious writer who enjoyed an early period of productivity followed by a lapse, and then a renewal of creativity in the years preceding his death. While Austen and Lathom were roughly the same age, by the late 1790s, she had, to her credit, a batch of juvenile writing and two unpublished epistolary novels: an untitled one (Lady Susan) that she later recopied and abandoned, and Elinor and Marianne, the early version of Sense and Sensibility. Lathom, on the other hand, had already churned out a number of stage plays, many of which had been produced, and published his first novel, The Castle of Ollada. Reviews of his plays were often lukewarm. The Monthly Mirror, July 1801, wrote of one: “The author possesses some vivacity and a tolerable notion of what is agreeable to the taste of a modern audience; but the interest and humor of this piece are very slight” and A Companion to the Playhouse pronounced one of his early comedies “frivolous and uninteresting” and “deservedly condemned”. On the other hand, The Cabinet wrote that Lathom was “..one of the best novelists of the modern school.”
Lathom was among the earliest novelists to incorporate historical fact with sensational fiction. Reality did not displace the Gothic staples, however: there were an abundance of exotic locations, secret passages, abductions, wretched wanderers, long lost parents, noble villains and damsels in distress. It is unlikely that Lathom’s integration of history or extravagant melodrama had appeal for Jane Austen as something to be imitated; she avoided history and– other than lampooning them in Northanger Abbey – Gothic-style histrionics. Lathom’s knack for irony and satire would not have escaped her, however, and one can imagine Jane smiling as her father read, “He threw himself upon the ground in despair; in a few minutes, however, recollecting that inactivity could add little to forward his wishes, he rose”, or, “The gates of the castle being locked might be construed into an indication either of its being inhabited or not being inhabited.” It is possible as well that when Austen crafted heroines and heroes who learned to distinguish between social rank and genuine merit, she reflected upon Lathom’s observation in Men and Manners, that “Such is the frailty of human nature, that the sneer of a fool has more power to raise its feelings than the admonitions of a wise man has to restrain them.”