For centuries, Gothic fiction has provided authors with imaginative ways to address contemporary fears. As a result, the nature of Gothic novels has been altered considerably from one generation to the next. Early Gothic novels such as Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) were set in exotic landscapes and distant times; the action took place in crumbling castles and torch-lit monasteries while the villains tended to be dissolute Catholic noblemen and corrupt, sex-crazed monks.
Later, in the early Victorian period, authors such as Charles Dickens borrowed typically Gothic motifs – the innocent abandoned in a threatening environment for example, or the mysterious stranger with secrets to hide – and adapted them to contemporary Britain to highlight modern concerns. Stories such as ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838) and ‘Bleak House’ (1853) used Gothic imagery as a means of drawing attention to the social illness afflicting the poor in modern London. Urban slums with their dark, labyrinthine streets and seedy areas of vice and squalor supplanted ivy-clad castles and catacombs as the settings for Gothic terror.
Later, still in the Victorian fin de siècle, the scene changes again: it is no longer the physical landscape that provides the location for Gothic tales but rather, more disturbingly, the human body itself. Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886); Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891); Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’ (1894); Herbert George Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ (1895) and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) all explore the theme of the human mind and body changing and developing, mutating, corrupting and decaying; and all do so in response to evolutionary, social and medical theories that were emerging at the time.
Late-Victorian society was haunted by the implications of Darwinism. The ideas outlined in Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ (1859) and ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) had by the 1880s and 1890s been assimilated, initially by the scientific community and then by much of the general public. For many, the balance between “faith” and “doubt” had tipped disturbingly in approval of the latter, and questions about the origins, nature and destiny of humankind had become matters of science, rather than theology to address.
The final chapter of ‘The Descent of Man’ contains a passage in which Darwin concludes that humans are “descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped” which, via several intermediary stages, had itself evolved “from some amphibian-like creature, and this again from some fish-like animal.” Such a nightmarish lineage in which human evolution was portrayed as a disturbing variation on the theme of Frankenstein’s monster, with humanity being assembled from assorted disparate earlier versions, perhaps lies behind the descriptions of Mr. Hyde as “ape-like” and “troglodytic” in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde; the implication is that the brutal and uncivilised Hyde is somehow a reversion to a more primitive stage of human development; a ghastly evolutionary precursor who stands in a direct genetic line behind the eminently respectable Dr Jekyll.
Herbert George Wells, who had studied under the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, examined in his essay ‘Zoological Regression’ (1891) the curious case of ascidians (commonly known as “sea squirts”), organisms that initially have “a well-developed tail” enabling rapid progress through the water but which subsequently regress into creatures capable of nothing more strenuous than attaching themselves permanently to a rock; becoming in effect “merely a vegetative excrescence” on a stone.
In ‘The Time Machine’ set far in the future, Herbert George Wells imaginatively applies a similar level of evolutionary decline onto humans. The Time Traveller (he is never named) discovers that in the year 802,701 Anno Domini (Before Christ) the human race is comprised of the Eloi – the leisured classes have grown elfin and effete through idleness and completely unable to look after themselves, and the Morlocks – the decayed working classes, living underground; brutal, predatory and afraid of the light.
The influential Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) had argued that the “born criminal” could be identified by certain physical characteristics – unusually sized ears, for example, or asymmetrical facial features; particularly long arms or a sloping forehead. Notions that cruelty and criminal intent manifested themselves visible in the features of an individual lay behind Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ No matter how vile Dorian’s behaviour – his callous pursuit and subsequent rejection of the actress Sybil Vane, for example, or his furtive visits to the Limehouse opium dens – he remains ever youthful and beautiful, while the picture of him locked away in an attic bears every visible scar, line and stain of his corrupt behaviour.
Similarly, Mr. Hyde’s troglodytic appearance in Jekyll and Hyde marks him out as a criminal and as someone who is unacceptable in polite society. The fact that Dr. Jekyll, who is highly respected, and Mr. Hyde, who is a social outcast, happen to be one and the same person, it allows Stevenson to simultaneously accept Lombroso’s theory (in the depiction of Hyde) and refute it (in the appearance of Jekyll). This implication that the criminal could lurk behind an acceptable public persona and that presence might provide no real indication of the personality within, rendered Jekyll and Hyde a particularly hard work during the late 1880s as Jack the Ripper carried out his attacks in Whitechapel.
Gothic imagery, given its fantastical nature, allowed authors to explore in indirect fashion themes that were not necessarily acceptable subjects for discussion in respectable society. Count Dracula, for example, is feared for his ability to move unnoticed through the crowds of London, potentially afflicting all in his path with the speck of vampirism. On another level, however, this can be read as a fear of foreign immigrants moving unnoticed through London, spreading crime and disease as they go. Indeed, vampirism itself is often understood in Dracula as an analogy for syphilis – a subject that was not fit for discussion in a novel published in England at the time. Similarly, Mr. Hyde, whose very appearance incites “disgust, loathing and fear” in the staid lawyer Mr. Utterson, is sometimes regarded as a physical manifestation of the Victorian fear of homosexuality: Utterson’s hatred for Hyde then becomes shorthand for Victorian society’s simultaneous fear and fascination with homosexuality. Helen Vaughan, the murderous result of a barbaric scientific experiment in Arthur Machen’s short story ‘The Great God Pan’ wavers “from sex to sex” in nightmarish fashion, mutating rapidly from male to female and back again.
This particularly dark and disturbing idea can be read as an attack on the New Woman – the label for the confident and independent females who emerged into society during the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign. The New Woman was regarded with admiration by some but seen as rather mannish, sexually-threatening and unnatural by others.
Gothic fiction has always possessed the ability to adapt to its environment. It mutates to reflect the times in which it lives, and the Victorian fin de siècle, with its aesthetes and dandies and New Women; its fears as the implications of Darwinism worked themselves through; its theories on the criminal classes and the consequences of old, decayed Dollarspe haunting new Britain in the form of immigration; all these allowed Gothic fiction to reach new heights of imagination and terror.