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Tabula Rasa

The Gothics

Part I -- A Novel Idea

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#4, 1994

Almost exactly two hundred years ago, literature was swarming. Never before had there been such a spread of literacy in English-speaking society. Books and magazines had become economically viable for mass-production; a whole gamut of influences were creating 'reading for leisure'. That two of these influences; religion and the concept of being 'educated'; did not like this development is neither here nor there. It happened, and people were reading novels.

Foremost among these disreputable developments were tales of the macabre. Their sources were manifold -- collections of folk tales and medieval romances, translations of Eastern legends such as The Arabian Nights.

These tales, and the experiments by contemporary authors such as Ontranto and Vathek, coalesced into something new. Novel even, because the medium for this type of fiction just hadn't existed before. This something is still with us, and we even use the name the first critics used to identify it -- gothic.

The structure of the gothic tale is simple. Nothing wrong with the formula -- just ask Doctor Jekyll. A character -- whose sensibilities will be sympathetically familiar and contemporary, no matter the actual setting -- is removed by circumstance from the familiar and 'normal' to another, darker realm. The castle; huge, decaying and surrounded by barriers that make escape near impossible, is the classic. It may be replaced by an old house in the middle of a strange and hostile city, as in Sheridan le Fanu's Uncle Silas, but it is unmistakable.

Then let the terrors commence. This is another world, and it seeks to bring the protagonist under its sway. Supernatural manifestations, manifestations of the villain's usually quite natural designs; though in Dracula of course the two are one. Let the protagonist become intrigued, or desperate enough to voluntarily travel deeper into the castle's mysteries. The crux, the awful truth -- and then the escape, through fortuitous discovery or romantic interest. Unless, of course, you're reading The Monk, in which case the villain recaptures the protagonist, rapes and murders her and is captured by the Inquisition. Or, if it's Lovecraft, everyone goes mad.

I have just made a contentious statement; that the works of Howard Phillip Lovecraft, coming a century and a half after the original gothic craze, are gothic. It is sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line; but I contest that dates are no guideline. By that criteria, even Dracula is a 'mock' gothic. And there is a whole sub-genre of what is called 'degenerate gothic' in the romance writing industry, to further confuse matters; suffice to say, anyone can use the above formula and produce a spy thriller, a fantasy or some Kafka. The difference to my view lies in the attitude of the tale to the realm of darkness.

This plan depends greatly on its verisimilitude; which is why I say the gothic did in fact only generate at that time, along with the whole idea of popular fiction. And the gothic was popular, immediately and spectacularly. In her own day, Jane Austen didn't get a look in. This is conceivably why Ms Austen wrote the parody Northanger Abbey, which provides the most vivid impressions of the craze, how people actually read and discussed the books.

There are also plenty of other contemporary criticisms, and satires such as 'On the New Method of Inculcating Morality', 1798;

A novel now, says Will, is nothing more
Than an old castle, and a creaking door:
     A distant hovel,
Clanking of chains, a gallery, a light,
Old armour and a phantom all in white-
     And there's a novel.
At this point, I had better sum up Walpole and The Castle of Ontranto. In 1765, this is the first gothic novel, or proto-gothic novel. It probably counts because of Manfred, his spectacularly monomaniac villain, and the story about it stemming from a nightmare. Sitting up one night glancing through a collection of engravings known as the Carceri, a nervous, aristocratic young asthete falls into feverish dreams about the labyrinthine corridors and ruinous vistas they depict, and about being crushed by an enormous falling helmet. Horace Walpole was the son of the Earl of Orford, he published it under a pseudonym as a translation of a hypothetical Italian manuscript. But what a translation!
Look, my lord! See heaven itself declares against your impious intentions! -- Heaven nor hell shall impede my designs, said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast.
We later find Mr Walpole turning up his nose at his successor authors and playing the serious politician. One of the most interesting things when studying this epoch is to realise that so many brilliant, essential authors and poets actually belong to it and knew each other. Signposted by the magnificent works themselves is a whole network of rivalry, criticism and sheer bitchiness, colourfully assisted by Lord Byron's habit of summing up his friends in epigrams. Here's one on Lewis [1];
Satan's self with thee might dread to dwell,
And in thy mind discern a deeper hell.
The other proto-gothic is William Beckford, son of the Lord Mayor of London, and later Member of Parliament until forced to leave England through scandal. Written in 1786, Vathek is a recasting of The Arabian Nights, duplicating their action, resources and, above all, style -- which is fine if you like that sort of thing. It is an attempt to fake a myth, rather than to write a novel, and contains none of the essential elements that make it worth while wading through Walpole's mock-medieval prose. Suffice to say, these little novel-ties helped to create a taste, and the reoccuring motif of dreams and, in Beckford's case, interesting oriental herbs not then banned. The real potential of the form had already been recognised and was being developed.

The most widely known pre-Radcliffian novel, sometimes given the position of being the first actual English novel, was The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve, published in 1777 under the title of The Champion of Virtue: A Gothic Story, refreshingly as an original work and under her own name. This is the one referred to in Northanger Abbey;

It is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul, there is not.
The Old English Baron has the formula firmly in place, and bases its secret and revelation around a haunting spectre. It shows great development of the historical side of the gothic. In 1773 Letitia Aikin had published a lesser known and shorter piece, say novella, that had taken the premise of Ontranto in the other direction; Sir Bertrand is a tale that these days would probably be described as Poe-like. It is a genuine attempt, though lacking the essential realistic background, to lure the character into a haunted house and scare the hell out of them; with the lights in the window, the long staircase, disembodied arms and the final apparition of the woman in the coffin. Aikin later became a collector and publisher of weird tales, producing the 6th reprint of The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1810. Neither her nor Ms Reeve's pieces are as easy to get hold of as Ontranto or Vathek; or of course Radcliffe.

Let's face it. In the 1790s, Anne Radcliffe was Stephen King.

For publication in 1794 of her fourth and best known novel, Anne Radcliffe received five hundred pounds; for the fifth, The Italian, six hundred. As an indication, for Northanger Abbey Jane Austen received ten. Not ten hundred, just ten. In two hundred years, Stephen King probably won't be studied in schools either. One wonders why: The Mysteries of Udolpho is superb, wonderfully revealing about its time and, like all superb literature, is perfectly accessible to the modern reader. The frequent comment that it is too slow, or detailed for said reader makes one wonder about said critics.

Mysteries makes magnificent use of the formula, and presents, in Emily St Aubert, the first perfect protagonist, who can carry the reader with her into the depths. But it is location of these chasms that is the secret; the castle of Udolpho, the dominion of the dreadful, charismatic Lord Montoni. Like Castle Dracula, this is the realm of darkness.

Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the sun soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign.
What do I mean by the realm of darkness? In true gothic, evil cannot be a moral cipher, or a psychological bon mot. It must take its place as an active, positive force in the narrative, for the characters as well as the reader. Torture and terror is never enough, there must also be the possibility that this is a genuine alternative with its own rules, own passions and rewards. The character must be able to see themselves as part of it -- perhaps secretly desire it. Thus the vital importance of the potentates such as Montoni and Manfred, who must embody it; and who in books such as The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer can crowd out the heroes and heroines all but completely. Matthew Lewis, who wrote The Monk at age nineteen, did so as the indirect result of reading Udolpho; his first attempt at a novel was a direct sequel, that started off by rescuing Montoni and reinstating his powers.

Ms Radcliffe has been suggested as having deliberately eaten raw meat to induce nightmares, which would then furnish the weird details of her world. At least it shows she was taken seriously. Ms Radcliffe married the editor of a popular literary magazine, and is known to have corresponded with other female writers of the time such as Hester Thrale-Piozzi (Thraliana). It is true that for the most part these authors seem not to be connected with the social whirl of the Lewis', Byron's and Coleridge's, although nothing could stop Mary Shelley, of course. I find it interesting to note that a major theme in the vast part of gothic has always been the restriction of movement suffered by a woman.

Women loved the first gothic novels. They read them; this epoch sees also the advent of the first public libraries; and they wrote them. Writing, at least of letters and journals, was considered a reasonable activity for a genteel lady; and besides, how do you really stop them? The phenomenon can be diagnosed in many ways, and was, generally as a sign of the weakness of female minds. The commonest idea, a possibility I am certainly not going to deny, is that genteel ladies liked to imagine themselves at the mercy of a dæmon lover. This ignores a rather pertinent fact, best exemplified (below) by The Monk's very female dæmon; and would also seem to consider irrelevant the fact that Emily, by the end of her novel, is the mistress of considerable property in her own name, has in fact inherited the castle of Udolpho and lives with the man she has rescued in her own home, sans any interfering relatives. I suspect the fantasy to have more than one level.

There were a thousand Radcliffe imitators. Northanger Abbey mentions the following, 'all horrid'. The Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. All of which are apparently real but, as bad gothic is extremely bad, let their titles suffice. The Monk was the next classic of the genre, and its impact may be gathered by the fact that it in turn inspired Ms Radcliffe, albeit to 'correct' it in The Italian.

Matthew Lewis dove straight to what he saw as the heart of the gothic, the possibility of evil, and his 'Emily' is an innocent and sensitive young man, his Montoni the brilliant and forceful Matilda. To have my word in a debate rather resembling is-Decker-a-replicant?; I found no evidence in the novel that Matilda was anything other than she appeared; a human woman possessed of passion, a will that at all times surpasses that of Ambrosio -- even when he is acting the villain in turn to his own victims -- and occult knowledge. To say she is literally a demon sent to seduce Ambrosio from his path to sainthood makes it much easier to write off the gothic as a man dominates -- woman loves it fantasy, whereas I have, I hope, been pointing out the ambiguities that resist this. The real fuss at the time; assisted by his insistence of printing the novel under his own name and title of MP; was caused by the gleeful way in which Lewis dived into details. At this point I discover, along with rising complaints about the decadence of the aristocracy, the start of the 'terror vs horror argument' that has plagued us ever since. Her own side is put forth by Ms Radcliffe in 'On the Supernatural in Poetry', which appeared in The New Monthly Magazine in 1826.

They must be men of very cold imagination's with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a higher degree of life: the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them...
To which Lewis' reply was;
Sometimes I felt the bloated Toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom : sometimes the quick, cold Lizard roused me leaving his slimy track upon my face, and entangling itself in the tresses of my wild and matted hair : Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with the long worms, which bred in the corrupted flesh...
And massive sales. 'Radcliffe', in any case, had by now become a metaphor. The poet Keats, writing in 1819, described his poems Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil, St Agnes Eve and The Eve of Saint Mark as Radcliffian; in the same year, a well-meaning friend of the Irish clergyman Charles Maturin criticised his Melmoth the Wanderer as `...containing too much attempt at the revivification of the horrors of Radcliffe-Romance...' Maturin criticises the critic in his introduction to the volume.

Maturin's idea came from a sermon he delivered. But mistake him not, what I've said about the others goes for this clergyman -- who received an official reprimand because of his continual indulgence in dancing and fine clothes, and who was a friend of Sir Walter Scott -- about three times over. And he created Melmoth, the three-hundred year old sorcerer who wanders the earth, attempting to seduce others into his pact with the powers of darkness. This is the book considered by some to be the last of the gothic novels.

Its various episodes use all the gothic conventions, the formula being repeated over and over again in a rich multitude of settings, times and guises, as the character introduced in the first chapter slowly reconstructs the legend of the Wanderer. There is the innocent girl, the innocent young man and even a monk. And at their darkest moment, when Moncada is to be burned by the Inquisition, when John Stanton realises he is imprisoned in a mad house; then Melmoth appears to them and offers escape, at the price of joining;

Those who are neither the living or the dead; -- those dark and shadowless things that sport themselves with the reliques of the dead, and feast and love amid corruption, -- ghastly, mocking and terrific.
In Melmoth, there is no challenge whatsoever to the villain's position, as focus of the narrative and the reader's attention. Even more so than The Monk, which is as much a story of the seduced as of the seducer. And at certain points, Melmoth takes advantage of this to explain and justify his nature -- always a villain's prerogative. But whereas Montoni was perhaps too aloof for more than a simple, 'because I can', Melmoth displays the follies and pettiness of the human race in panegyrics that could be considered blasphemous and graphic, even if the author had not been a clergyman. Some would consider this merely a matter of taking the genre to its last possible extremes. And yet, no great stir. Certainly nothing such as was occasioned by The Monk; and likewise no such success. At least in Maturin's lifetime and own country; it was picked up by the French Decadents in translation, and Charles Baudelaire wrote a short sequel entitled Melmoth réconcilié, in 1835.

The period 1765 - 1820 was certainly special; not simply because of new experiments with literature, but because of the sheer, public popularity of the macabre. Novels, for a moment, aside, the most popular plays were those such as Lewis' own The Castle Spectre, and The Forest Demon, and Fitz Ball's The Devils Elixirs; all titles fairly self-explanatory. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and John Polidori's The Vampyre were swiftly adapted upon their appearance, again to great success. The then Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy was Henry Fuseli, whose work The Nightmare has illustrated dissertations on the gothic ever since. He was another supposed to eat raw meat to induce weird dreams -- eventually we get Bram Stoker claiming Dracula was a matter of slightly off crab: just where the kudos comes in I am unsure. Perhaps it sounds more genuine.

Mary Shelley, Polidori and the rest of the crowd at the Villa Diodati I intend to treat in Part II. Perhaps examining this group in detail will turn up some clues as to the spirit of this age -- gothic, the store-house of all our gothic props and manners, and yet not the only incarnation of the gothic. For the gothic novel continued to be written, and continues to this day.


* Three Gothic Novels, Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Mary Shelley, introduction by Mario Praz, Penguin Classics, 1988.

* The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, introduction by Bonamy Dobree, The World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1980, c1794.

* The Italian, Ann Radcliffe, introduction by Frederick Garber, The World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1991, c1797.

[149] The Monk, Matthew Lewis, introduction by Howard Anderson, The World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1980, c1796.

* Melmoth the Wanderer, Charles Maturin, introduction by Chris Baldick, The World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1992, 1820. Love those introductions.

[109] Supernatural Horror in Literature, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Dover, New York, 1973, c1927. Though do watch out for the spoilers.

[145] The Gothic Quest, A History of the Gothic Novel, Montague Summers, The Fortune Press, London, 1969 (1968). Very lengthy, very chatty. You'd think he knew them.

* Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, The Golden Heritage Series, Gallery press, 1988 (1818).

* Northanger Abbey, BBC. This is one of the few attempts to adapt early gothics to the screen. It dramatises episodes from Udolpho, as well as Ms Austen, and is quite entertaining.


[1] If you're wondering what Byron's comment at the end of The Monk files actually means, Lewis owned a number of sugar plantations in the Indies and died of yellow fever caught whilst in the country.


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