Fathering Gothick

NPG 6520; Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757 NPG 6520 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757): the father of Gothick
NPG 6520 licenced for non-commercial use © National Portrait Gallery, London

We’ve come to regard the late 17th and early 18th centuries as the Age of Enlightenment, a period when science and rational thought were promoted as philosophical ideals in Europe. Come the mid-18th century there was the inevitable backlash, of sorts, and particularly in the arts. A kind of romanticism — before that term came into being in the closing years of the 18th century — was in the air, and in Britain its epitome may be seen in the strange figure of Horace Walpole.

Son of Robert Walpole, a leading minister in the British government between 1721 and 1742 and de facto Prime Minister long before that office was invented, Horace was able, on the death of his father, to indulge his fantasies by conceiving and building the extraordinary Strawberry Hill House between around 1750 and the mid-1770s. This was the original building which initiated what became known as the Gothic Revival, when sensibility for the Middle Ages began to be indulged, particularly in architecture. I’ve seen this described as “Georgian eclecticism”, a tendency to avoid features derived from the classical period, and it soon began to be applied to gardens, follies and other “built ruins” (such as Blaise Castle, Bristol). While this aspect of the picturesque originated in England, architecture in mainland Europe was also to be influenced by “Gothick” (I prefer this spelling to indicate this mock medieval affectation — Strawberry Hill’s Gallery had a papier mâché ceiling, for example).

Strawberry Hill gallery in 1842, from The Illustrated London News (image public domain)
Faux fan vaulting, Strawberry Hill gallery 1842 (The Illustrated London News image public domain)

Now, as well as introducing this architectural novelty Horace went on to write and publish the first Gothic horror story. The Castle of Otranto (or, to give it its original title, The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto) was first published in 1764, ascribing the tale to a medieval cleric. It went through three editions in Walpole’s lifetime, by which time he had acknowledged that he himself was the author of what was now simply described as A Gothic Story.

In the first few pages we have a giant helmet crashing down on one unfortunate individual. This supernatural happening is compounded by what were to become the staples of Gothick horror: damsels liable to fainting fits, deep dungeons, dark corridors, spooky castles, cowled monks and all the other paraphernalia. When I diligently read this a few years ago it all seemed rather amorphous and silly, but I’m sure a second reading will reveal more of its subtleties as well as eliciting even more of those aspects that were to characterise this particular genre as it grew and grew.

And what a legacy it spawned! By the end of the 18th century the reading public — voracious for even more vicarious thrills and frights — were presented with bittersweet delicacies such as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. Easy to lap up but also to make fun of, Gothick tales soon spawned pastiches by readers such as the teenage Jane Austen. One such she entitled Susan, then with the heroine’s change of name she retitled it Catherine. It was to eventually appear posthumously as Northanger Abbey in 1818.

Following the defeat and final exile of Napoleon, the summer of 1816 was the ‘year without a summer’ due to worldwide weather disruption caused by the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies. In that dark period a group of friends and acquaintances sojourning in Switzerland agreed to each write what were in effect Gothick stories. Mary Shelley eventually produced the innovative novel Frankenstein (1818) and Byron outlined a tale based on folk beliefs in the Balkans, later beefed up by his personal physician Polidori as The Vampyre (1819). Even the parodic Northanger Abbey (published in the same year as Frankenstein) couldn’t put paid to the irrational underpinnings of the appetite for supernatural narratives.

The remainder of the 19th century saw no let up in Gothic outpourings with their peculiar touch of horror: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Masque of the Red Death (1842), Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Dracula (1897) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) are all heir to the tradition that Walpole began. I’m pleased to say I’ve read a great number of these titles over the years, especially as they were particularly identified in the creative writing session I attended on Gothic horror. I must say that I’m looking forward, at some time or another, to reading most of them for the first or umpteenth time. And reviewing them for your possible delight.

Comparing extracts from examples of Gothick horror was informative. Ann Radcliffe heightened emotions by a judicious mix of description and feeling: the castle of Udolpho has “mouldering walls of dark grey stone” (descriptive) rendering it “a gloomy and sublime object” (feeling); the battlements are “still tipped with [the sun’s] splendour” (factual description) until, the sun’s rays fading, “the whole edifice [is] invested with the solemn duskiness of evening” (feelings of solemnity). The opening of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is awash with adjectives and adverbs intended to induce depression: dull, dark, soundless, oppressively, alone, melancholy, sternest, bleak, vacant, decayed sickening, dreariness. It’s as if he had plundered a word bank or run a word association exercise past himself before settling down to his opening paragraph. Even the opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), that later evocation of Gothic horror, utilises the same techniques in describing her dream of Manderley: windows gape forlorn, Nature encroaches on the drive “in her stealthy, insidious way”; she looks upon “a desolate shell, soulless…”

Other aspects brought up by this creative writing session included a useful if not always applied distinction between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’. If an atmosphere of suspense is built up without putting words to what is unfolding then that could broadly be called ‘terror’. But writing that describes in graphic, maybe even gratuitous, detail whatever is occurring, that might be term ‘horror’. In other words, terror is implicit, horror is explicit. (I note that Ann Radcliffe thus distinguished these two states in her 1826 essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”.)  But while a helpful distinction, writers and, especially, publishers, may unconsciously or maybe deliberately blur the lines.

A note about Otranto: this is a real place, on the Adriatic side of the heel of Italy. It indeed has a castle, but it is not Walpole’s castle of horrors. The cathedral there, by the way, has a splendidly vigorous Romanesque mosaic across the whole floor plan of the building. Amongst the many Biblical, mythological and astrological figures are odd fabled personages like Alexander the Great born aloft by griffins and King Arthur astride a goat. Someday I may even have a chance to visit.

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7 thoughts on “Fathering Gothick

  1. I don’t know what this says about me, but Gothic lit is my favorite type of fiction. I have read many of the titles you mentioned but not all. I may be one of the few people who does not care for Austen so I’ve not read much of her writing.
    I think Gothic lit was an extreme example of the push back against science. These stories represent aspects of our world that science cannot explain. The human condition seems to need unexplained terrors and things that go bump in the night. Science is about controlling our word, Gothic lit reminds us there are many things we cannot control and shouldn’t try.

  2. That was the beauty of Mary Shelley’s creation — it was about things that go bump in the night, set in castles, glaciers, peasant huts and the frozen North, but caused by that very rational science that pooh-poohed all the supernatural mullarkey of ghosts and inexplicable happenings. Northanger Abbey played up to the vogue for mysterious country piles but showed that there were rational but no less disturbing explanations for family secrets.

    1. To be honest, Gill, I was always hazy about the differences, if any, but it sort of makes sense; and I suppose we instinctively go for the right usage. We would say “I was terrified I’d be found out” (anticipation, conditional) but we’d not use ‘horrified’ in the same way. We might instead say, though, “I was horrified that they’d been told the truth” — and this would be a deed that had actually occurred.

        1. Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall? E F Benson Mapp and Lucia (a compendium of three novels)? Donna Tartt The Secret History? These are all novels I’d like to read this year (in the case of Donna Tartt, re-read). Of course there’s always the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare or that good old standby, The Lord of the Rings

          🙂

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