Gothic Readings, compiled by Rictor Norton


The contemporary critical debate about the Gothic novel centred on three interrelated issues: the power of fear and the supernatural to stimulate the creative imagination (for both writer and reader); the tendency of the genre to deprave and corrupt its readers; and the subversive or revolutionary political nature of the genre. These three aesthetic, moral and ideological critiques are linked by the repeated charge that such literature appeals to and is created by ‘the distempered imagination’.
          The aesthetic discussion at its highest level concerned the nature of terror and ‘the sublime’, and, at its lowest, ‘hobgobliana’. Whether the creator of such literature was considered to be a romantic genius or a terrifier of children in the nursery and a panderer to vulgar taste depended partly on the political stance of the critic and the perceived politics of the novelist. At the height of the rage for the Gothic, the categories of the Beautiful, the Sublime, the Picturesque and the Pathetic (or Melancholic) were all formally analysed into their constituent subdivisions. Sublime sounds, for example, were analysed by Rev. Archibald Allison, famous organist and music theorist: ‘The noise of an engagement heard from a distance, is dreadfully Sublime’ whereas ‘The firing of a Review is scarcely more than magnificent.’ The artificiality of this kind of ‘associationism’ was sometimes criticized, for example Gilpin was reproached for his insensitivity in appreciating the ‘picturesqueness’ of impoverished peasants in the foreground of landscapes.
          The argument over the moral tendency of the genre centred on the obscenity and blasphemy in M.G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796). Lewis’s advertisment of that fact that he was a Member of Parliament created a public scandal. Thomas James Mathias, Treasurer to the Queen and Librarian at Buckingham Palace, and highly respected editor of Thomas Gray’s works, argued that Lewis should be prosecuted at law, with the effect that Lewis quickly suppressed the offending passages in the second edition of his novel. The blasphemy and obscenity may be mild by modern standards, but they undoubtedly exist, and even today Lewis succeeds in his apparent intention to shock and to subvert conventional morality.
          The political dimension of the debate may be better appreciated today, with our postmodern sensitivity to ideological issues. Much criticism of Gothic literature is class-based: subscribers to circulating libraries are often characterized as possessing the vulgar taste of the lower classes. By the end of ‘the first wave’ the predominant critique was that Gothic novels were suitable only for kitchen maids. But the underlying fear was that Gothic novels were a threat both to the bourgeois middle class and to the established upper class. Novelists were perceived as advocates of the principles of the French Revolution – which in many cases they were. Writers such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith came from Dissenting backgrounds that opposed the rigid hierarchy of Anglicanism and were ‘democratically inclined’. The Marquis de Sade observed 1800 that Gothic novels were ‘the inevitable fruit of the revolutionary shocks felt by the whole of Europe’ (Idée sur les Romans). William Hazlitt said that Radcliffe’s mouldering castles ‘derived part of their interest, no doubt, from the supposed tottering state of all old structures at the time’. Free thinking was practised and defended by the circle of political radicals around William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Their friend Mary Hays, in her feminist novel Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), linked the names of Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, Radcliffe, Lewis and Holcroft, and the critic Allan Cunningham in 1834 remarked that ‘William Godwin is the Anne Radcliffe of moral order and social law.’ Reactionary journals such as the Anti-Jacobin Review attacked sensibility and the Gothic as being sickly, effeminate, revolutionary and French: in a word, un-English. And most of the conservative attacks on the Terrorist School were blatantly sexist attacks upon women, characterized as viragos:

Ye female scribes! who write without a blot,
‘Mysterious Warnings’ of – the Lord knows what;
O quit this trade, exert your proper skill,
Resume the needle, and lay down the quill.

(Aberdeen Magazine, 1798)

          In addition to covering the main issues in such debates, I have included reviews of the major novelists, often by major critics (though Coleridge is mistakenly taken as the reviewer of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho), and critical commentary on their respective merits. The chronological arrangement of the selections charts the steady increase in the popularity of Gothic fiction, and the last few selections record chart its steep decline. There is general agreement that although the Gothic tradition had some outstanding writers, their imitators lacked their skill and could not maintain it, and were no match for the new fashion for picturesque realism, as in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. This section concludes with one of six lectures that D.M. Moir gave to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution in 1850/51, which constitutes an admirable summing up of the first wave of the Gothic, and indicates the extent to which Lewis and the ‘German’ School of Horror rather than Radcliffe and the sentimental School of Terror would come to dominate the second wave.

7 Theory and Criticism

1773 "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror"; by Anna Laetitia Aikin
1783 "Illustrations on Sublimity" by James Beattie
1790 Of the Sublimity and Beauty of Sound by Rev. Archibald Alison
1791 Review of Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance
1794 The Banished Man by Charlotte Smith
1794 Review of Count Roderic's Castle
1794 Review of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho
1796 The Mysterious Warning by Eliza Parsons
1796 Preface to Emma Courtney by Mary Hays
1797 The Pursuits of Literature by Thomas James Mathias
1797 Review of Lewis's The Monk by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
1797 "The Terrorist System of Novel-Writing" (anon.)
1797 "On the Titles of Modern Novels"
1798 "Vindication of The Monk" (anon.)
1801 Ancient Records by T.J. Horsley Curties
1801 Review of Lewis's Tales of Wonder
1802 "Novels and Romances" by "Rimelli"
1802 "On the Supernatural in Poetry" by Ann Radcliffe
1803 Flowers of Literature by Rev. F. Prevost and F. Blagdon
1810 Review of Maturin's Fatal Revenge by Sir Walter Scott
1810 Critique of Walpole's Castle of Otranto by Sir Walter Scott
1818 "The Preternatural in Works of Fiction" (anon.)
1819 "William Godwin's Novels" by William Hazlitt
1819 A Tale for a Chimney Corner by Leigh Hunt
1821 Review of Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer
1822 Description of Fonthill Abbey
1826 Review of Radcliffe's Gaston de Blondville
1850 "Monk Lewis and His Coterie" by David Macbeth Moir
1896 Literary London by Thomas Rees

(Copyright 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton)

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