Gothic Readings, compiled by Rictor Norton


Many people during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries kept literary journals or diaries, listing the books they read and commenting upon them, thereby constructing an image of themselves as ‘lovers of literature’. Both literary amateurs and professional writers such as Anna Seward in the provinces of Staffordshire kept up with current literature and shared their views with their literary friends, sometimes in extensive literary correspondence. It is interesting to see how these honest interchanges between literary friends differ from the official critical reviews. Such personal documents also provide information about literary fashions, and about reading practices. For example, many people read books aloud to one another (including ‘horrid’ novels); many people enjoyed sharing ghost stories with one another; and readers seldom regarded multi-volumed Gothic novels as being too taxing – Mary Russell Mitford read two dozen books a month. Such private responses were generally more favourable to Gothic novels than the increasingly carping critical reviews.
          Whereas literary journals record the professional context of literature, these private sources often touch upon the emotional context in which such books were read. Many were read in a secluded chimney corner as a kind of consolation as well as for shivers of excitement. Fanny Burney wrote to her husband M. D’Arblay that she believed that Radcliffe’s writings ‘are all best calculated for lonely hours & depressed spirits. I should probably have done more justice to Udolpho if I had read it in one of my solitary intervals.’ (1 August 1797). Scott felt that the Radcliffe School had a particularly strong appeal to sequestered invalids and spinsters and bachelors, bewitching them away from their world of secret sorrow, while many critics felt that the Lewis School stirred up the libidinous passions of young men.
          Many of the responses in this section come from people who were young at the turn of the century, and were responding to a ‘modern’ fashion created by equally young writers – Lewis was 19 when he wrote The Monk and Radcliffe wrote four novels by the age of 30. But even later in life, people nostalgically remembered the books of their youth, and enjoyed rereading them. Scott’s claim that once you know the riddle of Udolpho you can no longer reread the novel is not true: Charles Bucke, for example, read it nine times with pleasure. A critic of Radcliffe’s posthumously published novel Gaston de Blondeville observed in 1826 that even though the works of novelists such as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott had supplanted the earlier taste for the Gothic, some of the best Gothic novels ‘have continued to excite the girl’s first wonder, and to supply the last solace to her grandame’s age, thumbed over, begged, borrowed, and thought of as often as ever!’

8 Readers' Responses

Late Eighteenth Century
     Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi
     Maria Edgeworth
     Joseph Ritson
     Henry Francis Cary
     Anna Seward
     Thomas Green
     Mary Hartley
     Elizabeth Carter
Early Nineteenth Century
     Anna Laetitia Barbauld
     Samuel Taylor Coleridge
     Percy Bysshe Shelley
     Charles Knight
     Henry Crabb Robinson
     Mary Russell Mitford
     Charles Bucke
     William Makepeace Thackeray
     Cyrus Redding
     Charlotte Brontë

(Copyright 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton)

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