“Abduction and Pursuit Plots in the Romantic-era Novel” by Katherine Nolan

I am in the early stages of researching a book project tentatively titled, “Hot Pursuit: Abduction Narratives in the Romantic-era Novel.”  The Romantic-era novel is a notoriously disparate subject. Even the phrase “Romantic-era novel” suggests that scholars are hesitant to declare something definitively as a “Romantic novel.” Instead, fiction from 1776-1832 is a patchwork of genres that seems to bear the handiwork of Victor Frankenstein himself. The NOVEL special issue on the Romantic-era novel highlights the sense of the novel itself as “hijacked” by genre fiction. These genres, loosely defined, include sentimental novels, gothic novels, and historical novels. Through these genres, I detect one figure running (or being chased) through all of them: the abducted female figure. Charting a lineage from Richardson’s Clarissa, romantic-era heroines across all genres are in constant danger of abduction and entrapment. Even the gentle drama of Jane Austen’s novels flirt with an abduction plot in Emma. My book project will attempt to map how these genres relate to the narrative of abduction as a way of charting, if not ideological coherence, than at very least the ideological battle lines of the Romantic era. I am also thinking about subtle differences in these plots; for instance, the difference between pursuit and abduction. Perhaps these distinctions might offer something like the influential template Toni Bower created for the novels of 1660-1760 in Force or Fraud. I am in the early stages of researching this project. Some preliminary questions I have are: What are the salient differences between the various genres of the Romantic era as they approach abduction plots? Can these plots help scholars define some commonalities in the Romantic novel?  How do domestic plots about abduction interact with the very real abductions of African people during the romantic period? What can abduction plots tell us about the Romantic era? 

Just as an example of the kinds of moments in novels I am interested in: I have found myself thinking a lot about Ann Radcliffe’s early novel A Sicilian Romance as an exemplar of a “pursuit” plot. The heroine, Julia, has run off with her lover Hippolitus to escape the odious, older suitor chosen for her by her father (in a move reminiscent of Clarissa). Radcliffe figures Julia’s escape in relation to her confusion with another gothic heroine in pursuit. For, in the forest, there are two women with their lovers escaping from evil patriarchs. Just when we think Julia is at risk of being caught, Radcliffe swaps her with a near identical figure: 

Wretched girl! I have at least secured you!,’ said a cavalier, who now entered the room. He stopped as he perceived Julia; and turning to the men who stood without, ‘Are these,’ said he, ‘the fugitives you have taken?’… it appeared that the stranger was the Marquis Murani, the father of the fair fugitive whom the duke had before mistaken for Julia. (Radcliffe 112) 


Because Julia is indistinguishable from this other gothic heroine, both women are able to escape their pursuers. It allows them to enact their own desires to be with their lovers. Julia’s double also points to the generic nature of gothic novels, the rigidity of their conventions often cast by critics as a potential detractor from the seriousness and literary value of the form. However, generic convention seems to be crucial to how the novel imagines possibilities of agency within the pursuit plot. Julia is fungible with other women because their stories are the same, not because they might look the same; creating structures of mutual aid between women. 


Bio: Katherine Nolan earned her Ph.D. in 2020 from the University of Chicago. Her dissertation was titled, “She Objects: On the (Im)Mobility of Women in the Eighteenth Century Novel.” Katherine’s work has appeared in Philological Quarterly, The Rambling, and (forthcoming) Eighteenth-Century Fiction. She has presented at ASECS, NASSR, and the Legacies of Enlightenment Workshop. Katherine now teaches high school English at an independent school in the Seattle area.