History of the Gothic Novel

History of the Gothic Novel

The word “Gothic” conjures a host of imagery to us these days. For the moment let’s set aside visions of black painted fingernails and being garbed like Marilyn Manson. Instead, let’s delve into the history so as to learn what the term meant in the Regency Era, specifically in relation to the “Gothic Novel.”

The Goths, one of the many Germanic tribes, fought numerous battles with the Roman Empire. According to their own myths, (as recounted by Jordanes, a Gothic historian from the mid 6th century), the Goths originated in what is now southern Sweden, but their king, Berig, led them to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. They finally separated into two groups, the Visigoths (the West Goths) and Ostrogoths (the East Goths). They reached the height of their power around 5th century A.D. when they sacked Rome and captured Spain. Their history eventually melded with that of the countries they conquered, and centuries passed before “Goth” or “Gothic” meant anything other than the people groups long since integrated with various Europeans.

During the Renaissance, Europeans rediscovered Greco-Roman culture and began to regard a particular type of architecture, mainly those structures built during the Middle Ages, as “gothic.” This reference had no direct connection to the Goths, however. Rather it was due to a general opinion that these buildings were barbaric in appearance, and definitely not the refined, Classical style so admired. Another several centuries passed before “gothic” came to describe a novel where the plot took place inside Gothic-styled architecture — mainly castles, mansions, and, of course, abbeys.

gothic architecture
Exeter Cathedral (L) – Melrose Abbey ruin (R)

The Gothic novel took shape in England from 1790 to 1830, but is not limited to this time period, as it takes its roots from former terrorizing stories that dates back to the Middle Ages. During this time period, however, many of the highly regarded Gothic novelists published their writing and the novel’s form was defined.

The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.

Along with the setting and atmosphere, elements to a proper Gothic novel include an ancient prophecy connected with the castle or its inhabitants, disturbing dreams or omens, supernatural or unexplainable dramatic occurrences (ghosts, for instance), high emotions, and a heroine in some sort of extreme distress at the hands of a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. All of this is conveyed with vocabulary specifically “gothic” in tone.

Udolpho EmilyThe Gothic hero becomes a sort of archetype as we find that there is a pattern to their characterization. There is always the heroine, usually isolated either voluntarily or involuntarily. Then there is the villain, who is the epitome of evil, either by his/her own fall from grace, or by some implicit malevolence.

Romance, while not universal to the Gothic novel, is very common. If present, the romance contains similar Gothic elements, such as: powerful love with uncertainty of reciprocation, tensions of an extreme nature, the lovers forced apart dramatically, a lover’s triangle or an evil man’s threatening lust for the virtuous heroine, and so on.

Even though the Gothic Novel deals with the sublime and the supernatural, the underlying theme of the fallen hero applies to the real world as well. Once we look past the terror aspect of this literature, we can connect with it on a human level. Furthermore, the prevalent fears of murder, rape, sin, and the unknown are fears that we face in life. In the Gothic world they are merely multiplied.


~ Gothic Novels of the Era ~

1765: Horace Walpole. The Castle of Otranto
1778: Clara Reeve. The Old English Baron
1786: William Beckford. Vathek
1794: Ann Radcliffe. The Mysteries of Udolpho
1794: William Godwin. Caleb Williams
1796: Mathew Lewis. The Monk
1798: Regina Maria Roche. Clermont
1806: Ann Mary Hamilton. Montalva or Annals of Guilt
1807: Charlotte Dacre. The Libertine
1810: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Zastrozzi
1811: Percy Bysshe Shelley. St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian
1816: Lady Catherine Lamb. Glenarvon
1818: Mary Shelly. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
1818: Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey
1818: Thomas Love Peacock. Nightmare Abbey
1819: John William Polidori. The Vampyre
1820: Charles Robert Maturin. Melmonth the Wanderer
1826: Ann Radcliff: Gaston de Blondeville
1826: William Child Green. The Abbot of Montserrat or The Pool of Blood

Any titles I missed that you have read? How about the ones above? Your impressions would be fascinating to hear, especially in comparison to more modern Gothic novels or horror novels.



17 Responses to History of the Gothic Novel

  1. I’ve not read any from your list except Northanger Abbey. I have often thought I should read Udolpho, because it seems like it was so popular back then. Thanks for the informative post! 🙂

  2. I’ve never read a Gothic novel and didn’t actually know why they were called that. I always pictured terrified young women running through crumbling and scary keeps, but that’s as far as I got before now. So, I went and read the plot lines of some of the ones you listed. They seem much more exciting and interesting than I’d anticipated. Some of the plots are quit Shakespearean and much more involved than I’d guessed they would be. They sound like a lot of fun. Thank you for the education 🙂

    • I do suspect that true Gothic novels, as in those written during the Regency Era and before when the genre was new, were more involved and deeply plotted than modern Gothic-style novels. Perhaps in part that is because in the past 100 years or so thrillers and horror novels (and movies) have become so common that they are almost blasé. Readers are better critics of what is scary and how plot lines are connected. Original Gothic novels were for an audience completely fresh and much more superstitious, and they were written during an age when spiritualism was just beginning to gain notice. Plus, the language used was far more flowery, colorful, and evocative. Writers today can’t get away very easily with anything remotely “purple prose”!

  3. One of the things that makes Northanger Abbey so charming to me is Jane’s satire of the Gothic novel, though I think it’s pretty clear she enjoyed them as a kind of secret vice. I’m not a big fan of gothic literature, but I do like to sometimes imagine myself wandering through the mist on the moors – if that’s not Gothic, what is!

  4. This was such an interesting post! I’ve only read Northanger Abbey but do mean to try some of the other ones sometime. I’m also wondering if I can classify one of my upcoming releases as Gothic now.

    • I don’t see why not, Rose. If the setting is in an old abbey or castle, that is half the battle. Something supernatural helps, but does not have to be a part of it. Like in Northanger Abbey where there wasn’t anything actually supernatural or threatening, the menace and mystery can be imaginary. Go for it!

  5. I tried to read The Monk but didn’t get very far. The closest I came to a gothic novel was Northanger Abbey and I love that book.

    • Northanger Abbey, of course, is more satirical in nature than a “true” Gothic novel. Jane was poking fun at the literary style, thus the actual terror and high drama was muted compared to The Monk, etc. Still, it is an example of the literary genre in a general sense – an abbey, mysterious death, menacing villain (General Tilney), innocent heroine, a few dark stormy nights – so has to be given its due on the list. LOL!

  6. Your interesting article brought back memories of my youth when I could find modern Gothic novels in the library. I anxiously awaited the release of new books from such authors as Phyllis A. Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, and Mary Stewart. I can sympathize with Catherine Morland.

    • I was the same, Renata. The only “romances” I ever read were of the Gothic variety. I can’t recall the first one, but it may have been Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I read every Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart book published, several times, and have most of them still inhabiting my shelves. Then I read Mary Stewart’s King Arthur series and that sent me down a path of fantasy leading to Tolkien, and before long fantasy replaced romance. LOL!

Your thoughts are precious!