The Victorian Gothic in English novels and stories, 1830–1880

Alison Milbank

Alison Milbank

In the gray early morning of June 20th, 1837, the young Princess Victoria left her bedroom in a tumbledown St. James’s Palace, and with it the enclosure of her isolated youth under the authority of Sir John Conroy, to be greeted on bended knee by the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury with the news of her accession to the throne.

The Victorian age began to like the ending of an Ann Radcliffe novel: the bad uncles and despotic guardian give way to the true heir, who is now able to preserve and defend her national inheritance. This moment seemed to fulfil the description of the British constitution by the jurist William Blackstone as “an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry, but fitted up for a modern inhabitant.”

In time the key elements of the Radcliffean Whig Gothic suggested in the above tableau — the politics of liberty and progressivism, freedom from the past, and the entrapped heroine — would indeed be revived in Gothic writing. However, in the early years of Victoria’s reign, that was not possible. To some extent, this was because of the ambivalence of many social groups toward the institution of the monarchy and the gender of the new monarch, all during the 1840s.

The influence of this view of the Queen upon the modes of political and literary sensibility during this time may seem surprising, but it can be amply demonstrated. While loyalists heralded the birth of another Elizabethan age of glory and national achievement, utilitarians questioned the relevance of such an irrational institution, and Chartists and moderates such as writers in Punch deprecated the cost of the royal family, as well as its isolation from social reality.

Victoria’s gender and marriage to an unpopular foreign prince in 1840 compromised her legitimacy in the eyes of some, and this problem combined with working-class unrest and political agitation for representation. The upshot for the Gothic in the Victorian era was a bifurcation of the Radcliffe tradition: the trope of the liberated heroine became separated from the trope of release from the prison of the past, in a fashion that I shall now describe. This bifurcation took many different Victorian Gothic shapes, some of which strove to heal the breach, depending on the political and ideological stances of each author or group who took up the Gothic as a mode of writing.

In early Victorian Gothic the heroine who acts as a focus for social critique is lost in the world of her tale, and the liberation from the hold of the past is replaced in such works by a repositioning of the woman to fix her in an architectural and political space.

From its beginning, the already Gothic historical novel had provided a means of national self-understanding — and indeed self-creation. In particular, Sir Walter Scott’s repeated rehearsals of the shift from a Gothic Highland- or Border-primitive society to commercial capitalism legitimated the Hanoverian dynasty by Gothicizing that transition as the emergence of the modern.

His emphasis on usurpation and the disputed succession in the period of the Jacobite Rebellions and earlier periods in Waverley (1814), Rob Roy (1817), and less politically in Guy Mannering (1815) influenced the later romantic fiction of William IV’s historiographer, G. P. R. James.

The subject of debated succession to the throne dominates his tales of France and England during the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. In Darnley (1830) and Arabella Stuart (1844), James writes in a Gothic vein of the incarceration and tragic lives of two female claimants to the British throne.

The tragic romance mode serves to legitimise the line that leads to Victoria and turns political opposition into a plot calling for sympathy and pity. However, the trope of liberation from the past is separated from the heroine, who is left imprisoned by her fate (like Victoria?), as Radcliffe heroines are not.

William Harrison Ainsworth, an immensely popular writer during the 1830s and 1840s, was drawn to the same period as James, but with directly Gothic interests both in ancient structures and instruments of oppression. His treatment of the title characters in ‘The Lancashire witches’ (1848) is sympathetic, but the story is only Gothic insofar as it delineates an oppressive social system haunting the characters. More consciously Gothic in treatment are his three Tudor novels, ‘The Tower of London’ (1840), ‘Guy Fawkes’ (1841), and ‘Windsor Castle’ (1843). ‘Guy Fawkes’ contains supernatural visions; the Tower is constructed of a dizzying succession of trapdoors to yet more secret dungeons, with a variety of demonic jailers; and the ancient oaks of Windsor Great Park contain the headquarters of a monarch to rival Henry VIII in the supernatural figure of Herne the Hunter.

This pagan anomaly holds court in a series of underground caves and spites Henry at every turn: “You are lord of the castle, but I am lord of the forest” (Windsor Castle, book 2, chapter 8). Despite paeans of praise to Victoria’s golden rule in Windsor Castle, all Ainsworth’s novels imply that human power is contingent and unstable, in a manner appropriate to the “hungry forties” and the rise of Chartism.

He plays upon the dual role of the Tower and of Windsor as royal palaces and as prisons: Lady Jane Grey enters the Tower in state at the beginning of volume I of ‘The Tower of London’, but she ultimately reenters it in volume ii as a traitor. Similarly, Ann Boleyn enters Windsor in a cloth of gold as Henry’s paramour but leaves it to be executed.

It is the buildings that endure in Ainsworth’s fiction, and his lavishly illustrated ‘Tower of London’ often shows a scene of Lady Jane Grey’s cell, or the torture chamber, with a contrasting engraving of the same chamber in 1840, now furnished elegantly with sofas and a cheerful fire.

Ultimately, one could use Ainsworth’s novels as actual guidebooks to the relics of Britain’s violent and contested past. That he also intended the reader to draw conclusions about the state of the nation from his contrasts is made plain in his conclusion to the historical survey of Windsor Castle: “the Horse-Shoe Cloisters consistently repaired, Windsor Castle would indeed be complete. And fervently do we hope that this desirable event may be identified with the reign of Victoria” (book 3, chapter 5).

The use of capitals for the Queen’s name serves to render it monumental and to include her within the fabric of the restored edifice, as victor over time and Gothic ruination. Only thus, by organic assimilation to her country, will Victoria evade the supersessions of power. Here, the function of Ainsworth’s topographical Gothic is revealed. In order for Victoria to gain legitimacy as both monarch and woman, she must become one with Britain, culturally and naturally. However, with her being thus assimilated as a principle of continuity, there ends up being no space for the heroine apart from the structure, and no possibility for critique.

The Gothicizing of Victoria inaugurates the nineteenth-century after 1837 as a “Gothic cusp.” Robert Miles uses this phrase in his study of Ann Radcliffe to describe the Renaissance setting of much earlier Gothic writing, as poised between the feudalism of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment (Miles, Ann Radcliffe, p. 5).

In replaying the trauma of the Reformation from the perspective of a later parallel cultural revolution, the Gothic writers of the 1790s could narrate and thereby recuperate the crisis of their own time. The royal Gothic of the early Victorian era brings the setting of this genre to British shores, but in stressing legitimacy and continuity, it loses the ability to narrate change.

By contrast to this projection of the present upon the past, one novel feature of later Victorian Gothic is its contemporary and localised setting in the Britain of its own century. This shift does not mean that the reference to the past, and the “already having happened” character of the Gothic cusp, has simply disappeared.

To the contrary, the Gothic mode remains itself by continuing to evoke the past, and so to clothe the contemporary in Gothic garb is to perpetrate an anachronism, deliberately or not. The point of this device for the novelist G. W. M. Reynolds — as for Charles Dickens — is to speak of the present as if it were already the vanquished past and hence of current tyrants as if they were as archaic as the old defeated ones. This lends a sense of inevitability to calls for social transformation.

In such a way Reynolds moves from James and Ainsworth’s Gothic of liberation to a new Gothic of subversion. However, the new subversive twist to the theme of liberation still leaves no place for Radcliffe’s liberating heroine.

Reynolds was by far the most popular writer in the Gothic genre during the early Victorian period, apart from Dickens. A Chartist supporter, he was the scourge of the aristocracy, whose extreme wealth and irresponsibility he regarded as the direct cause of social misery and crime.

His most influential production was ‘The Mysteries of London’, published in weekly instalments from 1844 to 1856 at the cost of a penny each. Like eighteenth-century chapbooks (many of which described the trial confessions of famous criminals), Reynolds’s Mysteries reached working-class readers, whereupon the literate among them could read his salacious, violent, and cunningly plotted narratives to a wider illiterate audience.

Reynolds was a shameless but creative plagiarist, who based his form on Eugène Sue’s ‘Mysteries of Paris’ (1844), but with significant differences. Sue’s long tale does indeed wend its way through a labyrinth of threatening side streets, and his working-class heroine is revealed to be the long-lost daughter of an incognito prince, but generally, Sue’s treatment of Paris is neutrally realist, with the main emphasis on the protagonists.

In contrast, Reynolds centres his vision Gothically, around buildings and institutions which are viewed as producing fear and embedding chains of secret connections. Like Ainsworth’s, Reynolds’s is a double London that hides underground passageways and secret hideaways behind bland facades.

One spectacular fac¸ade penetrated for future burglary is that of Buckingham Palace. Hidden under a sofa, the potboy Holford takes illicit peeps at the diamonds on Victoria’s bosom and overhears her conversation. Visiting the empty throne room, he removes the velvet cloth that protects “the imperial seat,” and “the splendours of the throne were revealed to him” (chapter 59).

The implication of a royal striptease is, perhaps, deliberate.

Having penetrated the privacy of the queen in a manner analogous to Ambrosio’s invasion of Antonia’s apartments in M. G. Lewis’s ‘The Monk’, the narrative proceeds to add to the delineation of Victoria as a Gothic heroine. First, her ignorance and seclusion are indicated, so that, immured in the luxury of her palace and surrounded by courtiers, she is unaware of the reality outside and the plight of the poor.

Secondly, two ladies-in-waiting discuss her tainted inheritance of madness and scrofula from George III. On a second visit, Henry learns that she may not even be a legitimate claimant to the throne, since George III contracted a marriage with a commoner before a bigamous union with the Princess of Mecklenburgh.

Reynolds employs Gothic here to render Victoria as either an imprisoned heroine or a usurper. His uncertainty mirrors the oscillation of opinion among radicals at the time, such as Thomas Cooper who in his ‘Purgatory of Suicides’ of 1845 both “breathed devotion” at the sight of Victoria as a bride but also warned her of the fate of her executed predecessor, Charles I, if she remained “the dupe /Of tinseled traitors who would thee ensnare / To ease and grandeur” and ignored the poor.

The presence of Victoria as ruler thus explains, in part, the eclipse of the entrapped heroine: Victoria can become a heroine only if she undoes the entrapment of others.

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