Georgian Life and Literature

The Gothic Lady's Library

Eighteenth-century landscape image

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 Allan Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839). Books and manuscripts are important physical objects in Gothic fiction. Gothic heroines frequently compose their own poems, and read romances which stimulate their imaginations. 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 Lady's Library symbolizes both escape and empowerment for the Romantic writer.

Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto was, according to its preface, "found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England."

Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan, in The Novice of Saint Dominick (1806), says "The lady Magdelaine had already spent four years in composing a voluminous History of the Crusades, .... She had retired from Paris to the chateau de Montmorell, which rose on the northern skirts of the forest of Champagne, as a residence more appropriate to the pursuits of one who expected to unite the heathen reputation of an Anna de Commines with the holy fame of a Saint Geneviève: and solitude and a total sequestration from the world, together with the convent-library of the Dominican sisters (then rich in legendary lore and pious tradition), gave boundless scope to the profound meditations of philosophy, and favoured the deep researches of history."

In "The Adventure of the German Student" (1824) by Washington Irving, the hero "shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays Latin, the quarter of students. There in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne, he pursued his favourite speculations. Sometimes he spent hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature."

George Colman dramatized Godwin’s Caleb Williams, titled Falkland, in 1796, with an excellent Gothic library for the stage set.

In Emmeline or the Orphan of the Castle the heroine salvages from the collection in the decaying library of Mowbray Castle, various works by Milton and Shakespeare and Tasso, if I remember correctly.

Anna Seward in Llangollen Vale has some notes on a Gothic Library, c. 1796.

Women discussing books they're reading is an important trope in Gothic novels, including Norhanger Abbey, Shirley, and The Heroin. Horsley Curties in Ancient Records has an interesting section on the discovery of the Abbey's library. There is a library at the top of the Castle of Argol in JUlien Gracq's surrealist Gothic novel of that name, c. 1950. One sub-type of the Gothic library is the laboratory of the mad scientist; see e.g. Dr Hoffman's library in Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Frankenstein's monster also studies books.

There is a splendid library built on a rock over a waterfall described in the English Review for June 1789 in connection with a review of Agnes de Courci> (perhaps it is a quotation from the novel): "I have lately employed myself in directing the Gothic library to be finished, which our ever-regretted Mrs Montford began. You must remember the point of the rock which overlooks the waterfall; my new building is an octagon, so near its summit, that, when the folding-doors are open, the dasing of the water from the natural cascade in the reservoir under, has a solemn and pleasing effect."

I have in fact visited such a folly built over a rushing stream in Scotland: the overhanging balcony was constructed in such a way as to tremendously amplify the sound of the torrent running beneath into the inner chamber, and it was a truly sublime experience. It was the Hermitage near Dunkeld House, Perthshire/Tayside, first built in 1758, later remodeled by Playfair and renamed Ossian's Hall (see illustration above), with paintings of the life of Ossian around the walls (no longer extant except for a very small patch). It's been called a Gothic tea-house, but it would always have been rather gloomy and wet because as I remember it either had no windows, or they were very heavily shaded by the surrounding woods. The open balcony overhangs the Black Lynn Falls. Barbara Jones in her classic book Follies and Grottoes observes that the building has "some good toothy grot-work on the east side going down to the river level."

There was of course an 18th-century fashion for Gothic libraries, despite the fact that straight Neoclassical bookcases are much more practical than rather inaccessible arched recesses. The most famous is of course Horace Walpole's library at Strawberry Hill. Another good one is at Arbury Hall, Warwickshire. There are also lovely Gothic libraries in houses that are otherwise resolutely Classical, such as Milton Manor in Oxfordshire and Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

Copyright © 2006, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List during February 2006.

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