Historical Gothic

Horace Walpole is generally credited with – and claimed for himself – the creation of ‘a new species of romance’ with The Castle of Otranto (1764), which he subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’. Some would trace the roots of the tradition to the terrifying scenes in Tobias Smollett’s Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and some would argue that Thomas Leland’s Longsword, Earl of Salisbury (1762) – subtitled ‘An Historical Romance’ – is really the ‘first’ Gothic novel. Longsword does indeed have the medievalism typical of the early works in the genre – which of course is why the form is called ‘Gothic’ – but it lacks the defining sense of the supernatural or the marvelous. Another early example of the genre is William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage (1772), which is full of supernatural machinery. But Walpole’s invention did not find many imitators until Clara Reeve set out to improve upon his technique in The Old English Baron (1777/1778), which she also subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’ to establish its pedigree. The tradition developed slowly: the next date was 1783 with the publication of Edwy and Edilda: A Gothic Tale by Thomas Sedgwick Whalley.

The distinguishing feature of the subdivision termed ‘Historical Gothic’ is the provision of historical details that root the story in ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ or simply ‘olden’ times. The attempt to recreate the authentic manners and settings of the feudal age (the fourteenth century was often chosen) was seldom believable and sometimes laughable. Ann Radcliffe’s first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), relates the conflict between rival feudal Scottish clans, but is typical of many Historical Gothic novels in having only the slightest grasp of history. In her novel A Sicilian Romance, supposedly contemporary with the poetry of Tasso, a sumptuous Renaissance ball is followed by a private musical trio, in which Ferdinand plays the violoncello, Verezzi plays the German flute, and Julia accompanies her singing on the pianoforte. The more successful Historical Gothic novels drew their inspiration from antiquarian studies of English medieval Romance literature popular in the mid-1700s, notably Richard Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762), Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), Thomas Warton’s History of English Poetry (1774–81) and Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785): ‘Romance may not improperly be called the polite literature of early ages, and they have been the favourite amusements of later times.’

The heightened romantic colouring given to historical times and events may be part of the escapism with which the Gothic novel is sometimes charged. Walpole, for example, secure in his ‘Gothick’ villa at Strawberry Hill with its bookcases modelled on medieval tombs, felt that ‘there is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one’ (letter, 5 January 1766). But the central flaw of Historical Gothic is that the impulse towards historicism ultimately runs counter to the impulse towards romanticism; erudition and idealism do not sit happily together. The dream-like obscurity that is so important to the terror of the Gothic is repeatedly undermined by the requirements of antiquarian accuracy.

Historical romance survived throughout the entire period, and is remembered today primarily by the rise of the regional novel. Subtitles easily identify Historical Gothic novels: for example, an anonymous author’s Mortimore Castle: A Cambrian Tale (1793), George Walker’s Haunted Castle: A Norman Romance (1794), Palmer’s Haunted Cavern: A Caledonian Tale (1796) – one among many Scottish novels which ring with the adventures of the Highland chieftains. Sidney Owensen, Lady Morgan, was a fervent Irish nationalist, and the Irish novelist Regina Maria Roche, author of The Children of the Abbey (1796), also wrote Historical Gothic novels set in Yorkshire and Ireland (The Monastery of St. Colombe, 1813), Cornwall (Trecothick Bower; or, The Lady of the West Country, 1814), and six novels set in Ireland; her The Tradition of the Castle; or, Scenes in the Emerald Isle (1824), is a convincing treatment of absenteeism, religious freedom and Irish national pride. Regional historical Gothics laid the ground for the work of Sir Walter Scott and Maria Edgeworth, in which supernaturalism is replaced by nationalism.

Copyright © 2000 Rictor Norton


1 Historical Gothic

1764 The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
1773 Sir Bertrand, a Fragment by John Aikin
1777 The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve
1785 The Recess by Sophia Lee
1786 Vathek by William Beckford
1790 Review of James White's John of Gaunt
1795 Mysteries Elucidated by Anna Maria Mackenzie
1796 The Haunted Cavern by John Palmer
1796 Hubert de Sevrac by Mary Robinson
1806 The Novice of Saint Dominick by Sydney Owenson


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