In this section we are interested in the chronology of the Gothic, its origins, the contexts in which it originated, and its development from its beginnings to the present day. The discussion of Gothic in terms of chronology yields a number of insights. Most obviously, it foregrounds the development and adaptation of Gothic motifs. Gothic, though it is implicated within numerous other intellectual discourses, is somewhat disturbingly discrete, possessed of a number of recurring motifs, set characters and typical plots, and it is this conventional aspect of the Gothic that has been responsible for much of the critical denigration it has received from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth. One of the things that the authors in this section are interested in is the constant new inflection of Gothic material. Various stalwarts of the eighteenth-century plot (persecuted heroines, labyrinthine castles, young heroes) persist, as do certain structural relations, most notably, as Chris Baldick points out, the relation of the past to the present and the relation between history and geography (Baldick 1992: xix). However, Gothic is also dynamic and endlessly reinvents itself. In her essay Emma McEvoy discusses the development of the Gothic villain and the addition of new Gothic figures – Frankenstein’s monster and the vampire, for example – during the Romantic period. Alexandra Warwick considers the course of Gothic in the Victorian era, following it into the confines of the bourgeois home, into the metropolis, and, in terms of its generic expeditions, into the forms of the sensation novel and detective fiction. Dickens, she argues, is crucial to the development of the Gothic in the period, his contribution lying ‘not, however, simply in the emptying of the form, but in the construction of new possibilities for it’.
The chronological approach helps us to situate Gothic in terms of history. As in other fields of literary study, within Gothic studies there has recently been some revived interest in history as a lens through which to view Gothic, partially as a result of the influence of French theorist Michel Foucault. As Robert Mighall remarks ‘That which is Gothicized depends on history and the stories it needs to tell itself’ (Mighall 1999: xxv). The historical approach is both a more traditional way of looking at Gothic – Gothic has long been studied in terms of the history of ideas, placed somewhere midway between the eighteenth century proper and Romanticism – and one that is currently dominating critical investigation. Prominent examples of recent historicist readings of the Gothic (not all influenced by Foucault) include those of Victor Sage (1988), Kate Ferguson Ellis (1989), Robert Miles (1993), E. J. Clery (1995), Kelly Hurley (1996), Robert Mighall (1999) and Catherine Spooner (2004). Indeed, in this book Warwick argues that Victorian Gothic is used ‘explicitly to articulate the questions of the present … setting them in that same recognizable present’, as she traces Gothic themes of ambivalent desires in the claustrophobic home, money, the city and the metamorphic body. Similarly, Robert Miles considers the engagement with and the re-moulding of the concept of Gothic in the works of eighteenth-century Whigs, dissenters and radicals.
The essays also consider Gothic within more traditional categories of periodisation – Romanticism, modernism, postmodernism and so on – demonstrating both how these categories can aid in reconceptualising Gothic and how Gothic exceeds and might help to rewrite the terminology of accepted literary histories. Catherine Spooner takes on the ‘common-sense’ view that modernism and Gothic are incompatible in a way that aids our understanding both of the Gothic in modernist texts and the (pre-)modernism in fin-de-siècle Gothic. For Spooner, the way such categorisation occurs is in some degree arbitrary, and related to the way criticism has constructed epistemological breaks. This also leads in turn to an interrogation of the way we categorise what Gothic is, so that in much twentieth-century writing, ‘Gothic becomes, rather than the determining feature of the texts, one tool among many employed in the service of conjuring up interior terrors’. In related fashion McEvoy considers how examining Gothic through the lens of Romanticism and vice versa might aid our understanding of both, and of the dialogic interplay between them. Both Miles and McEvoy suggest that perhaps our understanding of the terms Gothic and Romantic is at times unnecessarily sundered; indeed, Miles points out, for some eighteenth-century writers Romantic poetry was a kind of Gothic. For Miles, Gothic was a style, an aesthetic revolution which made certain works possible.
This section commences with the essay by Miles which focuses on the changing fortunes of the term ‘Gothic’ in the eighteenth century, examining the political connotations of a word which was, at one point, associated with Germans and British liberties, and was adopted as a useful political mythology by the Whig party. Miles stresses the ambivalent and often contradictory origins of a concept and an aesthetic that has continued to elicit ambivalent and contradictory responses. As such, he sets the tone for the rest of the volume, which seeks to emphasise the complexity and variety of Gothic in all its forms and throughout its history.
Baldick, Chris (1992) ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clery, E. J. (1995) The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ellis, Kate Ferguson (1989) The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology , Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Hurley, Kelly (1996) The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mighall, Robert (1999) A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miles, Robert (1993) Gothic Writing 1750–1820: A Genealogy, London: Routledge.
Sage, Victor (1988) Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Spooner, Catherine (2004) Fashioning Gothic Bodies, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Writing on Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges argues that every significant writer invents his or her own precursors. A paradoxical feature of this law of criticism is that the phenomenon strengthens with the writer’s originality. Franz Kafka’s style is startling and new; critics therefore search for influences; as they do, hidden aspects of earlier writers emerge that appear to anticipate the later ‘original’. The process is reciprocal. Calling Bleak House Kafkaesque brings out the Kafka in Dickens, and vice versa. Literary history is thereby altered: new lines of affiliation become set, obscuring the appearance of things prior to the arrival of the strong writer (Borges 1964).
The conventional history of eighteenth-century Gothic is the story of Ann Radcliffe and her precursors. Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Sir Walter Scott both edited a series of British novels and as such were decisive figures in the canonisation of the newly emerging form. Both agreed that Ann Radcliffe was the founder of her own style of romance. Barbauld, who was first to make the claim, may speak for both:
Radcliffe was the best-selling novelist of the 1790s, earning copyright fees several times those of her nearest competitors; her imitators filled the book-shops, so that the Gothic romance accounted for a third of novels sold; and as her reviewers agreed, her works were original, startling and powerful. In accordance with Borges’ law, readers set out to find her precursors. The assessment of the age’s leading critic, William Hazlitt, reflects the orthodoxy that quickly arose. ‘The Castle of Otranto (which is supposed to have led the way in this style of writing) is, to my notion, dry, meager, and without effect’, he writes in 1818. The Recess and The Old English Baron were ‘dismal treatises’. Only in Radcliffe do we find ‘the spirit of fiction or the air of tradition’ (Hazlitt 1907:165). Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777) was a professed imitation of Horace Walpole’s Otranto (1764), and both influenced Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783–5), but until Radcliffe, imitations of Walpole’s ‘experiment’ were few and scattered. Radcliffe was the first to invest the new subgenre of terror fiction with the feel of the classic (Hazlitt’s ‘air of tradition’), and as such Otranto was transformed from originator to precursor. When we regard eighteenth-century Gothic, it is easy to let our eyes run along the critical grooves that take us back from Radcliffe, to Lee, to Reeve, and from there to Walpole, whose Otranto is generally recognised as the first ‘Gothic’ novel. He also provided the new subgenre with its future name when he subtitled the second edition ‘A Gothic Story’. S. T. Coleridge sketches a more expansive view of the same genealogy in his hostile review of C. R. Maturin’s Gothic play, Bertram (1816). It includes the German materials that flooded into 1790s London, such as the plays influenced by Schiller’s electric The Robbers, or the novels Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland as being perfectly ‘horrid’ in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818).1 But as Coleridge argues in Biographia Literaria (1817), such materials are themselves imitations of English originals. Coleridge concedes that Schiller’s Robbers started the so-called German drama, but Schiller himself had simply recycled English Graveyard poetry and the minutely self-reflexive introspections of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, to which he added ‘horrific incidents and mysterious villains’, plus ‘ruined castles, the dungeons, the trap-doors, the skeletons, the flesh-and-blood ghosts, and the perpetual moonshine of a modern author’ (presumably Radcliffe), themselves ‘the literary brood of the Castle of Otranto’ (Coleridge 1983: II, 211). However, if we wish to see the eighteenth-century Gothic fresh, we need to look beyond Radcliffe and her precursors. And while Walpole’s ‘literary brood’ is a particularly strong constellation, there were others that faded from sight, as Radcliffe’s star waxed brighter.
One such constellation revolved around the dominant sense of the word ‘Gothic’, which was ‘Germanic’. Focusing on the contemporary meanings of ‘Gothic’, our attention will naturally shift from literary to historical, political and ideological issues. Germania, by the Roman historian Tacitus, is the key text. According to Tacitus, the Goths were simply the most visible, and influential, of the German tribes. Tacitus provided an arresting, even charming, picture of a pre-modern society, where the Goths lounged around waiting for war, while the women worked. Nevertheless, from a Roman perspective, the Germans were unusual in holding women in high regard, viewing them as close and even sacred companions. The Goths worshipped the deep woods, the locus of their gods. They were, moreover, ‘democratic’, in that they elected their chiefs at a communal gathering, a Witan, or parliament. The Goths, and Tacitus, were important, because the English houses of parliament and traditions of constitutional monarchy were understood – at least by some – as having their origins in the Gothic Witan (Smith 1987:26). As the French philosopher, Montesquieu, put it, in his hugely influential Spirit of the Laws (trans. 1750), the English derived their ‘idea of political government’ – that is, of constitutional monarchy – from the Germans, from their ‘beautiful system … invented first in the woods’ (cited in Clery and Miles 2000:63).
Politically, eighteenth-century Britain was divided between Tories and Whigs. Believing in the divine right of kings, Tories regarded the unbroken blood line of the monarchy as a sacred tie, whereas the Whigs argued that parliament was ultimately sovereign, and that the king ruled only so long as he abided by the compact inherent in the ancient or ‘Gothic’ constitution. For the eighteenth century the decisive event that tested the ideological differences between Whig and Tory was the deposition, in 1688, of the Catholic James II in favour of the Protestant William and Mary – the ‘Glorious Revolution’, as it was dubbed by the victorious Whigs. The followers of James, or Jacobites, did not go away, but tested ...