Introduction to Gothic Readings by Rictor Norton

The most popular literature in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not Romantic poetry, but "the latest trash of the day": the Gothic novel. By the end of 1794 the critical reviewers were unable to keep up with "the present daily increasing rage for novels addressed to the strong passions of wonder and terrour" (British Critic, August 1794). This was the earliest genuinely popular literature, appealing to all classes of readers rather than just to an élite literary culture, and producing the first "bestseller" in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Though first editions were relatively expensive, a wide readership was assured by the existence of cheap reprints and numerous circulating libraries from which they could be borrowed, well stocked by specialist publishers such as William Lane’s Minerva Press in Leadenhall Street in the City of London. The novels written by Radcliffe’s colleagues were regarded as "sofa companions", never destined to find a place on the shelves of a gentleman’s library. Most of the novelists were women, working in a self-aware feminine literary tradition; they were dismissed by most male critics and refused canonical status. But by all contemporary accounts, these novels effected a revolution in popular taste and, in Sir Walter Scott’s words, "flew from hand to hand" among middle-class tradespeople and their daughters, working-class men, ladies’ maids, university students and professors, earls and gentlewomen.

In this selection of readings I have endeavoured to provide representative samples of the major Gothic genres (Historical Gothic, the Radcliffe School of Terror, the Lewis or "German" School of Horror, tragic melodrama, comic parody, chapbooks, supernatural poetry and ballads, literary criticism and theory, book reviews and polemic), supplemented by private letters and diaries, and contemporary anecdotes about dramatic performances and the design of theatre sets. My major aim has been to establish the literary-cultural context of the Gothic. The selections illustrate the major Gothic issues (e.g. the aesthetics of the Sublime, religion and the supernatural, the influence of ancient Romance, the discourse of Enlightenment reason versus Romantic imagination), as well as the genre’s conventions or "hobgoblin machinery" (e.g. vampires, spectres, orphans, the Inquisition, banditti, nuns, storms, ruined castles, phantasmagoric labyrinths and mystic forests) and important social themes (e.g. prison reform, revolutionary politics, mother–daughter relationships, illicit sexuality, sensibility, madness). All of the major writers are represented, as well as the authors of the seven "horrid" novels listed in Jane Austen’s parody Northanger Abbey.

The Gothic novel is not easily encompassed during a single educational term: Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is nearly 300,000 words long, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer is not much shorter. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often chosen for study because of its relative shortness as well as intrinsic interest. There have been many anthologies of Gothic tales or short stories, but the characteristic form of the genre was the long novel. Unfortunately if one reads a whole novel by each of the major writers – Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Mary Shelley (possibly also Charlotte Smith, William Godwin, Charlotte Dacre) – little time is left for studying the minor writers – writers who represent the genre just as much as those in the canon. For the sake of both these minor writers and overworked students, this reader contains many short extracts from long novels – following the precedent set by their contemporary reviewers.

I have chosen 1764 – the publication date of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto – as the starting date. Many works earlier than this influenced the Gothic tradition – Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime (1756), the poetry of James Thomson, Thomas Gray, James Macpherson’s "Ossian", Edward Young and the graveyard poets, and revivals of "Celtic" or "Saxon" or "Bardic" poetry by antiquarians – but if all influential work were included, we would have to go back to the ghost scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the witches’ scene in Macbeth. My touchstone has been whether or not a work was "part of" rather than "an influence on" the Gothic tradition.

The original or "first wave" of the Gothic tradition peaked around 1810 and then fell out of fashion very quickly. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820 was regarded as a revival of a dying tradition. Gothic novels appeared at the rate of more than a dozen every year from 1794 through 1797, and increased to nearly two dozen per year for 1798 through 1810, before subsiding to little more than half a dozen per year for 1811 through 1820, then to only three or four per year for 1821 to 1830 (F.S. Frank, The First Gothics, 1987). I have selected material through about 1840 so as to include a few items from the turning-point at which the Gothic was felt to be in need of revival (as in the case of Ainsworth’s Rookwood), and to include retrospective criticism that sums up the achievements and failures of the tradition. I have refrained from including items which properly form part of the regeneration or "second wave" of the tradition, during the Victorian era, by which time it had lost much of its original focus on "dreadful pleasure" and been superseded by a new emphasis on abnormal psychological states deriving from Maturin and Poe rather than from Radcliffe and Lewis.

I have divided the two main streams of the Gothic novel into Radcliffe and the School of Terror, and Lewis and the "German" School of Horror. These two schools are often portrayed as emphasizing, respectively, sensibility versus sensationalism. Although the "machinery" of the Radcliffe School is often mocked, the agents and incidents of terror in this stream are usually internal, whereas the agents and incidents of horror in the Lewis School are usually external. The former is characterized by mystery and corner-of-the-eye creepiness, whereas the latter is characterized by violence and raw-head-and-bloody-bones. In the former we are often invited to wonder if the events are not really in the mind of the narrator, whereas in the latter our focus is often directed to political agents of oppression. In the former a common theme is sensibility; in the latter a common theme is sadomasochism. Nevertheless I would not push this personal/public dichotomy too far. Both schools exploit the resources of the subconscious, taboo, trauma and nightmare, sexuality, mental disorientation and madness, and both schools portray social injustice, prisons, and the brutalizing effect of poverty. Both schools are, in other words, equally "Gothic".

For the past generation it has been fashionable to distinguish between "the female Gothic" versus "the male Gothic". Ellen Moers coined the term "female Gothic" in Literary Women (1976), and much of the feminist approach of the mid-1980s focused on the "gendered" discourse of sensibility and how that relates to the dichotomy of "female" supernaturalism versus "male" reason; the historical position of women in "patriarchal" society and how that relates to questions of female authorship; contested sites of female sexuality such as the castle and the home; and the villain’s use of the male gaze to police female sexuality. A feminist awareness is undoubtedly fruitful for analysing the Gothic – most of whose authors were women – but the conception of "the female Gothic" risks falling into sexist stereotypes about women being best at portraying emotions while men are best at recounting action. This rather ignores the high number of murders that occur in novels by women. A supposed dichotomy between "the female Gothic" and "the male Gothic" can be hard to maintain along historical principles. For example, the Lady’s Magazine is undoubtedly a site for "the female Gothic", yet major contributors to the magazine were men, such as George Moore whose Grasville Abbey was serialized in it under the perhaps gender-ambiguous initials "G.M." Coleridge’s Christabel can be fruitfully analysed as part of "the female Gothic", especially in its depiction of the relationship between Christabel and Geraldine, but in this poem Coleridge borrowed from The Castle Spectre by Lewis, head of "the male Gothic" tradition. Minor male writers such as Isaac Crookenden and T.J. Horsley Curties were thoroughly Radcliffean, while two of the leading women writers, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Dacre, were thoroughly Lewisian. A rigid categorization by gender generates too many cross-dressers.

The psychoanalytical approach was popular throughout the 1980s, especially in the use of Freudian theory and Freud’s concept of "the uncanny". Much attention has been given to the analysis of repressed sexuality and how this is reflected by Gothic compositional devices such as premonitory dreams and the projection or displacement of fear, and Gothic images such as the spectre or monster (representing "the other"). During the 1990s the psychoanalytical approach focused specifically on female sexual issues, such as female masochism, and theories about the "pre-Oedipal" stage in which the female infant fears being absorbed into the mother (who certainly haunts many novels). Lacanian theory is sometimes employed in an amalgam of psychoanalytical, feminist and post-structuralist approaches, and Kristeva’s theory of "abjection" has been used to analyse Gothic melancholia.

There is a general consensus that the terror at the heart of the Gothic reflects pent-up desire. Some Gothic plots are seen as narratives of emergent female sexuality, in terms of the heroine’s relation both with her mother and with the patriarchal villain. The heroines of Gothic novels never quite grow up, but remain fixed at some childhood or "pregenital" stage. Fear of being raped is often cited as being fundamental to "the female Gothic", while actual rape is fundamental to "the male Gothic". But prurient rape imagery is found not only in Lewis’s The Monk, but also in many examples of "the female Gothic". Incest is a frequent theme in the genre, often explicitly, as in Lewis’s The Monk and Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother, sometimes implicitly, as in the strong bonds expressed between brother and sister in Joanna Baillie’s play De Monfort.

Sometimes the Gothic is seen as a kind of cover for subversive or illicit sexuality. An interest in "unspeakable" and "unnatural" desires and crimes in works by Walpole, Lewis and Beckford (and sometimes Maturin) is often perceived as a reflection of the writer’s own homosexuality, with suppression and secrecy being linked to the homophobia of contemporary English society. Very strong bonds between women, and between daughters and mothers, are also sometimes perceived as reflecting (suppressed) lesbian desire. Undoubtedly there are sexually subversive themes in much Gothic literature, but we must guard against identifying the entire genre with these themes. The reductive claim that they are all grounded in homosexual fantasy founders on the fact that most Gothic novels were written by married women in order to support their large families.

Modern and postmodern criticism have increasingly moved away from a focus on individual psychology to a focus on social, political, economic and ideological issues. "The female Gothic" is often informed by an awareness of the economic dependency – or powerlessness – of women. The feminist/Marxist approach has pointed out how often issues of money and property dominate Gothic novels by women. It is unfair and male-chauvinist, for example, to accuse Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho of secretly harbouring erotic desire for the man whom she clearly despises for murdering her aunt to get her property. But money, power and sex all employ the same set of tropes.

The political ferment that paralleled the rise of the Gothic novel – the Revolution and the Terror in France – has always been recognized. Gothic novels often attack the prevailing rule of class, church, and patriarchal society – summed up in the figure of an aristocratic Roman Catholic tyrant. But this is not a simple matter of attacking a male "patriarchy", for such tyrants are not always princes or monks: some wicked Marchesas and cold Mother Superiors also fit the bill. The attack on Roman Catholicism, usually very explicit, derives mainly from the xenophobic enmity of British Anglicanism (and Protestantism) towards European Roman Catholicism. The upheavals of the old political order mirror the attacks on the ancien regime in Gothic novels, but though the rigidity of feudalism is explicitly attacked, the broad class structure is usually retained. These novels draw their potent imagery from the fall of the Bastille in 1789, but by the end of the last volume, after the wicked are punished and the just are married, the new social order that replaces feudal tyranny might best be termed upper-middle-class benevolence. All romantic novels, Gothic or sentimental, toy with the subversive possiblity of inter-class love, but the heroines rarely marry into the class beneath them, a fate prevented by the discovery of a strawberry birthmark that proves that their peasant lover is, after all, of noble (or at least gentle) birth, the same as they.

The long-running argument about whether the Gothic novel is genuinely subversive or genuinely reactionary has not been resolved. Contemporary critics complained (accurately) that many Gothic novels tended to undermine social, religious and moral conventions, but we are less sure about how far they tended to be politically subversive. Most post-structuralists will probably contend that the Gothic novel reinscribes rather than deconstructs bourgeous ideology. A long and predominantly Socialist tradition generally condemns the Gothic novel for being reactionary. It is argued that the genre tends to make one feel helpless to effect progressive social change. It is difficult to combine within a single genre both romance and realism or, more specifically, intense individual psychology with a broad social critique. It is perhaps mainly in depictions of prisons and the Inquisition (as in novels by Godwin and Maturin) that social realism works happily hand in hand with imaginative Gothicism. My own feeling is that many Gothic novels are indeed subversive, but primarily upon the individual rather than the social level.

It is less difficult to recognize that the attack on Gothic novels in the contemporary press was informed by a conservative political ideology. As the Revolution in France degenerated into the wholesale slaughter of the Terror, which seemed to bury the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, much of the reactionary ruling class in England condemned such democratic ideals as leading inevitably to the complete collapse of society. Gothic novels were politically censured as "the terrorist system of writing", and their authors denounced as Jacobins set on destroying England. Gothic novels were un-English – and un-manly. Even the less demonstrative women novelists were branded as belonging to "the Wollstonecraft school" of early feminsm.

The approaches I have been discussing deal mainly with substance, whereas another fruitful approach – the aesthetic – deals mainly with form, structure, motifs and conventions. We can enjoy the Gothic as a literary construct, whatever its cultural, psychological or political significance. There has been a tendency to overpraise works such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto for their psychological drama; this novella might better be appreciated as a highly artificial "amusing fiction" by a sophisticated connoisseur of things medieval. Similarly, the economic themes in novels by women are too often seen as occupying centre stage, when in most cases such themes are subsidiary. By "foregrounding" ideology, we risk forgetting that the Gothic is grounded in the desire to entertain the reader through the use of literary devices. Even the most disgusting passage in Lewis – "Sometimes I felt the bloated toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom. Sometimes the quick cold lizard roused me, leaving his slimy track upon my face, and entangling itself in the tresses of my wild and matted hair. Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with the long worms which bred in the corrupted flesh of my infant." – can be analysed in terms of its poetics: rhythm, rime, alliteration, assonance, acrostic scrambling, chiasmus.

The primary motivation for most Gothic writers was the joy of literary creation. The Gothic novel creates, above all, a very literary world. Novels and poetry are read and discussed by the heroines, and libraries are often found in castles, convents or mansions, from Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (1788) to Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839). Books and manuscripts are important physical objects in Gothic fiction – even Frankenstein’s monster studies books. Gothic heroines frequently compose their own poems, and Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791) could well be seen as "A Portrait of the Artist as a Gothic Heroine". Literary consumption was important in the increasingly constrained lives of women during this period, and the writing of fiction was a way for them to escape some of the limitations placed upon them by an increasingly male-dominated culture.

The Gothic is a paradoxical genre, and many writers took delight in its paradoxes. Much of its content streams forth from the unconscious, but is carefully channelled by the hyper-conscious. Irony and satire play across the surface of a stormy sea, calming the subversive currents that threaten to wreck the ship. The "spirits from the vasty deep" are kept well in check by the aesthetic reins of "the Sublime", "the Beautiful" and "the Picturesque" – and by a fourth aesthetic category which has not been sufficiently appreciated, "the Ridiculous", for example the deliberate use of lower-class characters to contrast with and subtly satirize the Sublimity of the villains and the Beauty of the heroines. Gothic literature was written to delight as well as to terrify, as demonstrated by its oft-repeated paradoxes of "dreadful pleasure", "delightful horror" and "fearful joy".

Copyright © 2000 Rictor Norton

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