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.
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.
The 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.