Gothic Readings, compiled by Rictor Norton


Frontispiece to <em>Tales of Terror, 1801

Gothic literature was frequently satirized and parodied from 1796 through the 1820s. For example, William Godwin's novel St Leon (1799) was parodied by ‘Count Reginald de St Leon' as St Godwin: A Tale of the xvi, xvii and xviii Century (1800); Lewis's The Monk was satirized in Thomas Dermody's The Harp of Erin (1807); and The New Monk (1798) by ‘R.S.' was a rewriting of Lewis's The Monk with the action transferred from the Inquisition to a boarding school and Methodist chapel. Lewis's verse was satirized in Charles Few's A Parody upon the poem of Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene (1799). Full-scale burlesques upon Radcliffe's works include Mrs F.C. Patrick's More Ghosts! (1798), Mary Charlton's Rosella, or Modern Occurrences (1799), Sarah Green's Romance Readers and Romance Writers (1810), and Eaton Stannard Barrett's The Heroine, Or Adventures of Cherubina (1813). Barrett's novel ‘very much amused' Jane Austen, whose own satire, Northanger Abbey, was begun in 1797. In Love and Horror: an Imitation of the Present and a Model for all future Romances (1815), by ‘Ircastrensis', the dull normal young man falls in love with Ethelinda Tit, dead these two hundred years, and contrives adventures that allow him to transform himself into a Gothic hero – a standard pattern for Gothic parodies.
          It was perceived that some Gothic novelists just followed the fashion rather than wrote from their hearts, and satirists focused upon their formulaic techniques and conventions. The ubiquitous veil of mystery cast over all the stories from the Radcliffe School was derided. T. Ferguson in Gothalbert of the Tyne, or The Gothic Minstrel's Progress from Parnassus to the Press (1823) develops his tale at a leisurely pace because it is best to keep

Some portion of our Gothic hist'ry,
Envelop'd in a sort of myst'ry –
A mode, which, if I don't mistake,
Keeps Curiosity awake; . . .
So Novel writers throw a veil
Of myst'ry, o'er each magic tale,
In order to allure us on,
Till each successive Tome is done.

          The most effective weapon employed in political attacks on the Gothic novel was satirical mockery. For example, Thomas James Mathias in his barbed satire The Pursuits of Literature, or What You Will (1794 onwards), attacked popular literature such as Charlotte Smith's Celestina in these terms:

Is it for me to creep, or soar, or doze,
In Modish song, or fashionable prose:
To pen with garreteers obscure and shabby
Inscriptive nonsense in a fancied Abbey.

But Mathias's underlying censure was that works by the women novelists ‘now and then are tainted with democracy'. There is a good political satire of Mat Lewis MP as ‘The Old Hag in a Red Cloak. A Romance' in The Spirit of Anti-Jacobinism for 1802. Satirical pastiches on the Gothic were popular in the 1810s, and David Macbeth Moir in 1851 suggested that Gothic melodrama and the school of Lewis were abandoned in the face of ridicule and burlesque. However, my impression is that many inferior critics and poets were simply leaping to the attack upon an already dying horse.
          It should also be noted that many Gothic novels contain an element of self-satire. This may be an authorial acknowledgment that the events they record are not wholly believable. Eliza Parsons' cynical exploitation of a fashion in her novel Lucy, published by the Minerva Press in 1794 (in the same month as The Mysteries of Udolpho), is revealed when she says that Lucy in her wanderings through the castle ‘was so exceedingly fatigued, and out of humour, that she went quietly into her own room to boil her potatoes, and reserved the vaulted passages for her afternoon's walk'.
          Some modern critics feel that the Gothic novelists didn't trust their form, and lapsed into satire by accident. My feeling is that the Gothic novelists were very aware of the artificiality of their form, and simply enjoyed poking fun at it. By having profane comic characters as well as sacred serious characters, the Gothic novelist could puncture the balloon of the supernatural while at the same time affirming the power of the imagination. Even Ann Radcliffe – who was certainly serious about her work – employed humorous characters to satirize her own bag of Gothic tricks. For example, the maid Annette – the mischievous alter ego of another Ann, the author – explains to Ludovico that she has little reason to fear running about a castle full of drunken men on the loose:

‘I only want to go to my young lady's chamber, and I have only to go, you know, along the vaulted passage and across the great hall and up the marble stair-case and along the north gallery and through the west wing of the castle, and I am in the corridor in a minute.'

It is hard to fling such mockery against the Gothic novelists, since they have already employed it themselves, whether cynically or sincerely.

6 Parody

1797 Azemia by William Beckford
1798 Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
1799 "The Scribbler" by Mary Alcock
1804 "A Village Circulating Library" by Charles Dibdin
1810 "To Make a Novel" (anon.)
1810 The Age; A Poem (anon.)
1813 The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett

(Copyright 2000, 2020 Rictor Norton)

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