The gothic novel in Ireland,  c.  1760–1829
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The gothic novel in Ireland, c. 1760–1829

Christina Morin

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eBook - ePub

The gothic novel in Ireland, c. 1760–1829

Christina Morin

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The gothic novel in Ireland, c. 1760 – 1829 offers a compelling account of the development of gothic literature in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Ireland. Countering traditional scholarly views of the 'rise' of 'the gothic novel' on the one hand, and, on the other, Irish Romantic literature, this study persuasively re-integrates a body of now overlooked works into the history of the literary gothic as it emerged across Ireland, Britain, and Europe between 1760 and 1829. Its twinned quantitative and qualitative analysis of neglected Irish texts produces a new formal, generic, and ideological map of gothic literary production in this period, persuasively positioning Irish works and authors at the centre of a new critical paradigm with which to understand both Irish Romantic and gothic literary production.

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Gothic temporalities: ‘Gothicism’, ‘historicism’, and the overlap of fictional modes from Thomas Leland to Walter Scott

In 1762, Thomas Leland, a Church of Ireland clergyman, historian, and Professor of Oratory at Trinity College Dublin, published his only novel, Longsword, Earl of Salisbury. Praised by The Critical Review as ‘a new and agreeable species of writing, in which the beauties of poetry, and the advantages of history are happily united’, Longsword enjoyed both favourable reviews and popular acclaim.1 It was reprinted in 1763, 1766, 1775, and 1790, and twice adapted for the stage as The Countess of Salisbury.2 Yet, the novel remains little read today. In its twinned contemporary approbation and current neglect, Longsword stands in direct contrast to Walpole's The castle of Otranto (1764), which famously provoked controversy, especially on the publication of its revised second edition, and now enjoys the relatively uncontested reputation as the first British gothic novel. However, it is worth remembering that Walpole's tale and its self-description as ‘a Gothic story’ appeared in a context in which several, often competing connotations of the term gothic held wide sway in the British popular imagination. It also bears repeating that, in Walpole's wake, very few writers adopted the terminology ‘gothic’ to describe their fiction, defying the common critical assumption that Walpole began a new literary craze with Otranto and, thus, gave birth to ‘the Gothic novel’ as we now know it. Such thinking fosters a neat and compartmentalised notion of the literary gothic and late eighteenth-century fiction as a whole that is at odds with the reality. The unfortunate effect is the marginalisation of texts such as Longsword that eschewed Walpole's overt supernaturalism while pursuing a similar critical exploration of the fraught transition from pre-modernity to modernity.
Compellingly identified by Montague Summers as an important example of ‘historical gothic’ fiction, Longsword unsettles many of the expectations we now have for ‘the Gothic novel’: the tale is primarily set in England, during the reign of Henry III (r. 1216–72); there are no ghosts, goblins, or witches, and the anti-Catholic element of the story focuses not so much on the abuses of the Church but on a kind of institutional corruption that is seen to plague even the highest realms of the nation.3 In fact, much of the narrative appears to function as a veiled political commentary, lamenting the weakness of a monarch who has allowed himself to be governed completely by an evil minion and urging the return to ‘a wise and virtuous rule’ rooted in England's long history of liberty.4 The restitution of such a rule and the king's regained sovereignty by the novel's conclusion indicates Leland's concern with the past as providing essential lessons for the present, particularly in terms of governmental rule and the security of individual rights and liberties.
With its central interest in British history's relevance to contemporary society, Longsword has readily lent itself to analysis as an early example of the historical novel more commonly associated with Sir Walter Scott.5 The gothic elements of the text indicated by Summers’ terminology have less frequently garnered attention. Rolf and Magda Loeber describe Longsword as a pre-Otranto gothic novel owing to its inclusion of ‘the odious monk, Reginald, the sire of an unholy brood of monastic fiends and baronial tyrants, who appears in scenes of suspense and terror’.6 A more convincing argument for Longsword's ‘gothicism’ lies precisely in the novel's ‘historicism’. Longsword's use of history compellingly speaks to contemporary perceptions of Gothic as evocative of the past, its people, and its traditions. In this, Leland's tale underlines the cross-formal and cross-generic nature of gothic literature as it developed in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Investigating Longsword as an early example of either historical or gothic fiction, not both, does an injustice to the text. It also effectively misunderstands the overlap of historical and gothic literary modes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.7
The same is arguably true for The castle of Otranto. Condemned for its excesses and overt supernaturalism, the second edition of Otranto was associated with a misleading depiction of the past and its relationship to the present. This was the primary source of concern for critics, as noted in this book's introduction: that Otranto's depiction of history might yield misconceptions about Walpole's contemporary England. Even in its first edition, Otranto was understood primarily by way of its relationship to the past and viewed as a kind of antiquarian curio that could reveal much about a bygone society and culture. Tellingly, Scott spoke of Otranto with particular reference to its ‘accurate display of human character’ and its faithful depiction of ‘domestic life and manners, during the feudal times, as might actually have existed’.8 As Maxwell contends, Scott understood Otranto as ‘a landmark experiment in the practice of antiquarian historical fiction’. In turn, Maxwell argues, Otranto became a crucial influence in the construction of history in Scott's own novels.9
Thanks to Scott's pronounced hesitancy to acknowledge his literary influences, the significance of the gothic historicism of texts such as Longsword and Otranto goes relatively unnoticed.10 Critical attention to Scott has encouraged the perception of him as the uncontested progenitor of a new genre – the historical novel – notwithstanding the fact that, as Katie Trumpener observes, ‘most of the conceptual innovations att[r]ibuted to Scott were in 1814 already established commonplaces of the British novel’.11 Georg Lukács simultaneously termed The castle of Otranto ‘the most famous “historical novel” of the eighteenth century’ and dismissed Walpole's treatment of history as ‘mere costumery’ brooking no comparison with the depiction of historical character in Scott's novels.12 Subsequent scholarship has generally followed suit, proclaiming Scott the creator, ex nihilo, of the historical novel with the publication of Waverley (1814). In this scenario, the historicism of Walpole's text is categorised as different in kind from that of Scott's historical novel. Correspondingly, any gothic elements evident in Scott's fiction are accidental, rather than symptomatic of the convergence of historical and gothic modes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Against the abjuration of influence enacted by Scott and modern scholarship alike, this chapter traces the vital inherence of gothic and historical modes from roughly 1762 to 1825. The first section of the chapter focuses on Otranto and Longsword as specific interventions into contemporary discourse concerning history, historiography, and the transition to modernity. Rather than view such engagement with the past as confined to a later historical fiction tradition more commonly associated with Scott, this section insists that the largely retrospective distinction between late eighteenth-century historical and gothic fiction is misleading. Both Longsword and Otranto, it argues, demonstrate how inherently intertwined these terms and the literary forms they have come to connote were for their authors and contemporary society. Both texts similarly underline the very different notions of the term gothic late eighteenth-century writers had in comparison to twentieth- and twenty-first-century constructions. Comparative analysis of these texts as at once gothic and historical thus provides a fresh perspective on the origins of British gothic literature. This is true not just in its re-integration of Leland's tale into the literary history of the gothic, but also in its suggestion of a more nuanced understanding of the formal, generic, and ideological fluidity that produced the literary gothic.
The second section of this chapter further examines the intersection of historical and gothic modes in the eighteenth century, evaluating several texts that might be seen as the direct inheritors of the historical gothicism of Longsword and The castle of Otranto. Published primarily in the period between The castle of Otranto and what has been called ‘the effulgence of Gothic’ that occurred in the 1790s,13 these texts defy the prevalent belief that the literary gothic lay relatively dormant in the 1770s and 1780s.14 Fully engaged in negotiating the relationship between the present and the Gothic past – social, cultural, and political – these texts, including Anne Fuller's Alan Fitz-Osborne (1789) and the works of James White (1759–99), beginning with Earl Strongbow (1789), demonstrate that Irish authors in the wake of Leland and Walpole routinely queried the meaning of a Gothic heritage to eighteenth-centu...

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Citation styles for The gothic novel in Ireland, c. 1760–1829
APA 6 Citation
Morin, C. (2018). The gothic novel in Ireland,  c.  1760–1829 (1st ed.). Manchester University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Morin, Christina. (2018) 2018. The Gothic Novel in Ireland,  c.  1760–1829. 1st ed. Manchester University Press.
Harvard Citation
Morin, C. (2018) The gothic novel in Ireland,  c.  1760–1829. 1st edn. Manchester University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Morin, Christina. The Gothic Novel in Ireland,  c.  1760–1829. 1st ed. Manchester University Press, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.