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The Eighteenth-Century Expansion in Gothic Literature

The Eighteenth-Century Expansion in Gothic Literature
© Photograph by Alicja Dębek

As David Punter points out, in a literary perspective the term “Gothic” is generally related to those novels written between the 1760s and the 1820s by authors such as Horatio Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, John William Polidori or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley1. This group of literary works is characterized by common features such as an interest in the terrifying, the use of ancient settings, the frequent description of some supernatural event, the employment of stereotyped characters and the ability to create expectation and tension. This is the reason why these Gothic novels are usually set in ghostly castles where the hero or heroine is prey to appalling terrors and horrors caused by supernatural events or by a villain who may be a human but also a vampire, a ghost, a werewolf or even a monster.

According to David Punter, originally, the word “Gothic” meant “to do with the Goths”, that is to say with a Scandinavian tribe who played an important role in the closing stages of the Roman Empire and whose language, the oldest in Germany, was Gothic2. This first meaning changed during the eighteenth-century when the interest shifted from geography to history and the term began to be associated to the medieval period thus contrasting what was perceived as classical. The Gothic was related to chaos, excess and embellishment, it was the consequence of the uncivilized and associated to the wild, while the classical was the result of a set of norms and had a preference for order, simplicity and purity. The middle of the eighteenth-century marked another shift of interest, from history to cultural values. This change was perceived in various fields since the medieval, and its main features became fashionable literary, architecturally and artistically thus acquiring a positive connotation. In this period the medieval found its main expressiveness in architecture, especially in churches and abbeys but also in other kinds of buildings such as Horatio Walpole’s ‘Strawberry Hill’ which was modelled on an ancient castle.

Contextually, as David Punter underlines, the authors of Gothic fiction were influenced by the ancient British tradition, the ballads (such as ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge), English medieval poetry (Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance) and the Elizabethans. In particular, the most influential poem for Gothic fiction is certainly Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ which was published in 1816, and it is divided into two parts. The first section opens in the middle of the night describing the sounds of the animals awakened by the clock in a castle. The owls, the rooster and an old mastiff all answer with their cries to the strokes. It is a cold night brightened up by the moonlight that turns the clouds grey. It is April and Christabel, a lovely lady, is walking alone in the wood praying that the knight she loves will come home safe from the war. She stops under an oak but, suddenly, she hears a moan coming from the other side of the tree. At first, she believes it to be the sound of the wind, but it is a silent night and no leaf moves on the trees. Christabel’s heart is thudding. Nevertheless, she decides to find out what is causing those sounds. The young lady turns around the oak where she sees a damsel dressed in white with shining jewels entangled in her hair and whose skin is even paler than her robe.

The white lady, with a slow and feeble voice, explains that she is Geraldine, the daughter of a nobleman and that five warriors have abducted her the previous morning. The men tied her on a white horse, and then they left her under the oak promising that they would come back soon. After Geraldine’s story, Christabel decides to hide her in her castle where her father, Sir Leoline, will take care of her. Once in the castle, Christabel encourages her pale friend to pray the Holy Virgin, but Geraldine maintains she cannot speak since she is too feeble. The old mastiff continues to sleep while the girls are walking and, while they are passing near the embers in the fireplace, there comes a burst of flames that light up Geraldine’s hypnotic eyes. Once in Christabel’s room, the damsel falls to the floor due to her weakness and, consequently, her host makes her drink a cordial wine made by her mother who, as she explains afterwards, died giving her birth. Geraldine responds with a strange voice exhorting the ghost to leave the castle, and her eyes seem to be able to see the death at that moment. The lady chases away Christabel’s mother with her words claiming the lady as her property.

Christabel undresses herself and lies down on her bed leaning on her elbow to admire the beauty of her friend. Geraldine undoes her belt, and her suit slips to the ground leaving uncovered half her side and her bosom, “a sight to dream of, not to tell!” Then the damsel reaches Christabel on the bed, and she hugs her casting, at the same time, a spell with the touch of her bosom. The lovely lady, as a consequence of the evil spell, will not be able to tell anyone what has happened during the night but that she has found a poor damsel under an oak in the wood. When Christabel arouses from her trance, she smiles and weeps at the same time, and her face is both sad and peaceful.

The second part of the poem opens with the awakening of Sir Leoline due to the sound of the bells. Soon after, Geraldine wakes Christabel whose first thought is about her sin.

Later, the ladies meet Sir Leoline in his presence-room where they tell him what have happened but, when the Baron hears the name of the damsel’s father, Lord Roland de Vaux of Triermain, he turns pale since they had been friends in youth but, then, they have argued heavily. However, Sir Leoline decides that the time has come to make peace with Lord Roland and offers to help Geraldine by sending his knights to her castle if it is needed. While the baron is hugging the white lady, Christabel, mindful of the evil spell, hisses like a snake, but she is not able to warn her father of the threat. The Lord of the Castle resolves to send his bard, Bracy, to his friend’s chateau to inform him with his sweet singing, that his daughter is safe. However, the bard tells his lord that he cannot make the journey immediately due to a dream he had during the night about a dove that was moaning under an old tree because a green snake was strangling it. The baron, believing the dove to be Geraldine, swears to protect her from the snake but, in that moment, Christabel perceives the damsel’s reptilian eyes. The young lady falls into a sort of trance in which she cannot do anything but imitate her enemy hissing and acting like a snake. When she recovers, she preys her father to send Geraldine’s away. Although Sir Leoline feels dishonoured since he believes that his daughter is simply jealous of the other lady, he orders his bard to walk her to her castle. The poem ends in this way raising many questions about the future of Geraldine and Christabel.

As David Punter notes, the influence of Christabel and of others literary works, which was most likely completed by the 1780s, can be considered as a revival of the Gothic that produced a standardised body of writing thus presenting the same style, themes and ideologies. Beyond the traditional features of Gothic, which enabled the genre to rule the novel market, these novels presented other characteristics less connected to old Gothic such as the description of mysterious events that create a sense of terror and fear both in the characters and in the reader, the attempt to evade everyday vocabulary and the use of fixed characters. Usually, the main character is a retiring and fearful heroine who has to face a series of dangers which she is surprisingly able to endure. The Gothic revival also managed to restore the figures of the ghost and the phantom, typical of the ancient ballads, but which had vanished during the beginning of the eighteenth-century rejected by the Augustans3.

The birth of Gothic fiction is strictly connected to the beginning of the novel during the eighteenth-century. While the authors of the previous century wrote almost exclusively for an aristocratic élite, the rise of a trading middle class and the development of urban areas enlarged the reading public. Moreover, the appearance of the circulating libraries facilitated this growth by loaning books for a membership payment so that the novels were affordable even for the middle classes. This new and larger public showed the same taste for realistic novels and Gothic fiction. Those readers who had previously supported realism must have somehow altered their tastes thus privileging ancient settings and romances. Punter argues that the eighteenth-century opposition between official culture and actual taste can explain this change. This period, better known as the Enlightenment, put an emphasis on rationality that was strongly supported by French philosophers such as Denis Diderot and François-Marie Arouet who then influenced English thinkers as Hume. The most remarkable result of this period was the publication of the Encyclopédie, the first systematic compendium of every human knowledge in alphabetical order, which described men as rationally omnipotent, able to grab the truth through science and reason. The Enlightenment, therefore, elevated the role of men’s rationality to the detriment of religion since God was perceived mainly as the creator of the universe, who, nevertheless, was completely indifferent to every human event.

During the eighteenth-century, Samuel Richardson had the merit of denying the official principles of the Enlightenment by emphasising the role of emotions in the life of men. Samuel Richardson’s sentimentalism permeated the eighteenth-century fiction and influenced the early Gothic novels. This interest on human feelings was reflected in the novel market and explains the opposing tastes during the century. Obviously, there were those who criticised this new trend as the Augustinians who maintained that reason should control every emotion and passion. Despite this critical attitude, sentimentalism continued to pervade every literary field, from prose to poetry, which, in this period, began to be called “graveyard poetry”. This name implied an obvious relation to death and grief, but it also provided a critique of rationalism by supporting passions and, in this way, it greatly influenced Gothic fiction. Furthermore, the stress on death and grief caused an interest on fear and terror which were considered as the principal means to evade reason and which are also one of the main features of Gothic novels and poems.

In 1764, Horatio Walpole published ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ which is widely considered the first Gothic novel. The story revives the tradition of romance, and it is a clear attempt to fuse elements of the novel to that of the ancient English literature, but the result is a prevalence of fancy on realism. The novel is set during the twelfth-century, and the main location is a castle, modelled on Horatio Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, which is haunted by the ghost of the former owner. The description of a series of supernatural events conveys a tinge of irony to the story rather than generating fear or terror. History, however, is perceived as a serious matter. Horatio Walpole manages to depict a feudal and aristocratic society realistically thus influencing an important feature of Gothic fiction, that is to say, the emphasis on the sins of the ancestors upon their progeny. Moreover, ‘The Castle of Otranto’ presents another characteristic, which is typical of Gothic fiction since the story is said to be taken from a real manuscript found by the author who re-edited it. The manuscript device allows Horatio Walpole to give credit to his novel by creating a plausible story.

1.
David Punter, ‘The Literature of Terror: The Gothic Tradition.’ Great Britain, Longman Group Limited,1996, Vol. I, pp. 1, 2.
2.
David Punter. Ibid., p. 4-6.
3.
David Punter. Ibid., p. 27. As David Punter notes, Augustanism was named after the Augustan period of the Roman Empire and it was characterized by a conservative and rational attitude meant to safeguard civilization.



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