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It was a dark and stormy night: The rise of Gothic fiction

Updated Tuesday 26th October 2010

Are you a fan of ‘Frankenstein’ or a devotee of ‘Dracula’? Do you shiver at the graveyard scene in ‘Great Expectations’? Explore the surge of Gothic fiction, in the second half of the eighteenth century

‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ are famous novels containing Gothic characteristics. This article traces the rise of Gothic fiction, in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The new genre was dubbed ‘the Terrorist System of Novel Writing’, but the books soon tended to contain rather predictable ingredients. Gothic settings were often wild and lonely mountainous regions, usually in a medieval, Catholic, European country, studded with gloomy castles, monasteries and mansions. Gothic heroines were beautiful, vulnerable maidens, threatened by sinister male oppressors – generally older aristocratic tyrants. Formulaic plots involved the abduction and incarceration of the persecuted heroine, followed by escape from dungeons and pursuit through labyrinthine subterranean passages. There was a pervasive threat of danger, with undertones of incest, rape and murder. Fear, mystery and suspense were key components; supernatural events occurred, and chapters ended with cliff-hangers (much like modern ‘soaps’).

‘The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story’ paved the way in 1764. Its author was Horace Walpole (1717–1797), who chose a thirteenth-century setting. Clara Reeve (1729–1807) penned a hugely successful novel: ‘The Champion of Virtue: A Gothic Story’, which was published in 1777, then revised and republished a year later as ‘The Old English Baron’.

The most popular (and most highly paid!) eighteenth-century novelist was Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823). She was ‘the Great Enchantress’, specialising in ‘the hobgoblin-romance’. Her books included ‘A Sicilian Romance’ (1790), ‘The Romance of the Forest’ (1791), ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794), and ‘The Italian’ (1797). It has been said that Gothic fiction appealed mainly to middle-class female readers, because it provided welcome escape from their restricted, humdrum lives. Mrs Radcliffe’s heroines could venture into awe-inspiring landscapes and experience adventures. Ironically, when she wrote ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ she had never actually travelled outside of England; but she had read about other countries and seen paintings of locations, and she transported her followers with her imaginings. Her style was, fundamentally, genteel. Readers could derive a frisson of excitement, but there were clear boundaries of decorum that she would never dream of crossing.

John Keats called her ‘Mother Radcliffe’, acknowledging the profound influence she had on Romantic writers. As well as evoking vivid natural scenery, she took keen interest in the psychology of feelings, regarding emotions like love, fear and melancholy as being interrelated. Sir Walter Scott compared the impact of reading Mrs Radcliffe to the effects of taking drugs, declaring that her books could alleviate pain and languor, sorrow and distress, and would only be dangerous if taken habitually!

The essayist William Hazlitt said that, after Mrs Radcliffe, ‘the greatest master in the art of freezing the blood’ was Matthew Lewis (1775–1818). When Lewis wrote ‘The Monk’ he was just nineteen. It was phenomenally successful on publication in 1796. Lewis claimed to have been inspired by Mrs Radcliffe, but his novel was macabre and sensational, and its sadism and sexuality differed markedly from her style. She was singularly unenthusiastic about being spoken of in the same breath as him! The story concerns a young and very devout monk, Ambrosio, who is seduced into depravity and forges a pact with the Devil.

Another youthful effort permeated with Gothic influences was ‘Frankenstein’, by Mary Shelley (1797–1851), which was written at a time when scientists were investigating how to use electrical power to reanimate corpses. Shelley’s novel describes Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to revive a dead man, and the dire consequences.

Matthew Lewis had taken the Gothic to a new level, but the Irish clergyman and teacher Charles Maturin (1782–1824) decided to go still further. In 1813 he expressed his aim to ‘get the possession of the Magic Lamp with all its slaves from the Conjuror Lewis himself’. ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ appeared in 1820. Many Gothic novels had stories embedded or nested inside each other, with a range of characters telling their tales. This is a key feature of Maturin’s text. Melmoth, like Ambrosio before him, strikes a deal with Satan. His life is extended, but his debt can be transferred if he finds someone who is prepared to take his place. Many reviewers were offended by the book, denouncing it as blasphemous, immoral and obscene. [Incidentally, Maturin was the great-uncle of Oscar Wilde. When Wilde was released from prison and went to live in France, he referred to himself as Sebastian Melmoth.]

The foundations of Gothic literature were laid by these early experimenters, who inspired later generations of writers to incorporate Gothic elements into their books.

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