The Aesthetic Background of Eighteenth-Century Gothic Fiction

The Aesthetic Background of Eighteenth-Century Gothic Fiction
© Credit: Alex Stoddard
As the term “Gothic” turns out to be very important in understanding eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse, it seems relevant in this connection to mention a set of cultural and linguistic changes during the century which largely conditioned the later uses of the word.

The word “Gothic” at the end of the seventeenth-century and in the early eighteenth-century carried a negative connotation. The original meaning was literally “to do with the Goths” or with the barbarian northern tribes; to an age which revered all things classical it was associated with lack of cultivation and taste. In 1697 Dryden stated: “All that hath nothing of the Ancient guest is called a barbarous or Gothic manner.” In his Remarks on Italy Addison described Siena Cathedral as a “barbarous” building, which might have been a miracle of architecture, had our forefathers “only been instructed in the right way.” In defining a “Gothic” style of writing, he mentions “epigram, forced conceits, turns of wit,” having in mind the faults of over-elaboration. In David Punter’s opinion, “The eighteenth-century possessed a somewhat foreshortened sense of past chronology, and from being a term suggestive of more or less unknown features of the Dark Ages, ‘Gothic’ became descriptive of things medieval — in fact, all things preceding about the middle of the seventeenth-century.”

In the middle of the eighteenth-century with the shift of cultural values, the term “Gothic” retained the stock of negative meanings for a while but the value placed upon them began to alter radically. One of the earliest sustained defences of Gothic art appeared in 1762 in Bishop Richard Hurd’s ‘Letters on Chivalry and Romance.’ Richard Hurd is interested in defending what is English against what is Greek. Richard Hurd states: “The fancies of our modern bards are not only more gallant but, on a change of the scene, more sublime, more terrible, more alarming, than those of the classic fables. In a word the manners they paint, and the superstitions they adopt, are more poetical for being Gothic.” As Robert Kiely notes, “ Hurd defends the technical diversity and thematic excess of medieval literature as aesthetic virtues and dismisses the notion that they represent a breach of decorum.”

A very important role in the so called Gothic Revival belongs to Horatio Walpole whose interest in the Gothic resulted in building a “Gothic” castle in miniature at Strawberry Hill and writing the first specimen of the Gothic fiction ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) subtitled as a Gothic story. Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer remarks on Horatio Walpole’s relation to the Gothic: “He brought it into fashion. He was already a well-known connoisseur, an acknowledged arbiter of taste and a man of rank and influence; when he adopted Gothic, talked and wrote about Gothic, built a small but spectacular Gothic house and crammed it with exquisite and precious things, it soon ceased to be regarded as a rather paltry middle-class craze.”

Thus, in the later decades of the eighteenth-century the principal application of the term “Gothic” was, as it still is, in the field of architecture but alongside this usage, it started to be applied to literary works. The description of the supernatural and fantastic in ‘Gothic Tales’ or ‘Gothic Romances’ added to the meaning of “Gothic.” The word “Gothic” started to appear as a synonym to words “supernatural,” “grotesque” and “fantastic;” and it is this sense of the word that Nathan Drake used in ‘Literary Hours:’ “The most enlightened mind, involuntarily acknowledges the power of Gothic agency.”

It seems interesting to point out that in writing ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), Robert Walpole claimed to write as a revolt against all critical rules: “I have not written the book for the present age, which will endure nothing but cold common sense this is the only one of my books with which I am myself pleased; I have given reins to my imagination till I became on fire with those visions and feelings which it excited. I have composed it in defiance of rules, of critics, and of philosophers.”

In the Preface to the second edition of his Gothic story, Robert Walpole tries to explain his desire to create a narrative line that would enable him to bring the past and present together into an aesthetic whole. Robert Walpole says of his ‘Castle of Otranto:’ “It was an attempt to blend two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the later, nature is always intended to be and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if, in the latter species, Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances.”

When Robert Walpole acknowledged the text as his own work, he located its origin in subconscious forces beyond his control. The text came to him in a dream (Gothic writers will often claim that their stories came to them in dreams), and was written nearly subconsciously. “Shall I confess to you, what was the origin of this romance? I walked one morning, at the beginning of last June, from a dream, of which all I could recover was that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands In short I was so engrossed with my Tale, which I completed in less than two months.”

It seems relevant to mention in this connection that the writings of the earlier authors of Gothic fiction are subtitled either as Gothic stories or romances separating themselves from another kind of long prose fiction flourishing in the eighteenth-century, the novel (represented by Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett). In her own study of literary theory and practice, ‘The Progress of Romance’ (1785), Clara Reeve claims that “The Romance is a heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance in lofty and elevated language describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves.”

To most English readers the term “romance” carried implications of the wonderful, the miraculous, and the exaggerated. Many medieval romances are set in distant times and remote places thus making convenient locations for picturesque and marvellous incidents. At the time especially important where Richard Hurd’s ideas defending the genre of romance in his ‘Letters on Chivalry and Romance’ (1762). To Richard Hurd, the romance was not truth but a delightful and necessary holiday from common sense.

By adopting a mode of romance which was recognized as being separate from everyday life, eighteenth-century Gothic novelists were free to create a fictional world which embodied their fears and fantasies and offered, as Coral Ann Howells notes, “a retreat from insoluble problems, while at the same time it rendered their fears ultimately harmless by containing and distancing them in a fantasy.” In Dame Gillian Patricia Kempster Beer’s opinion, the Gothic novelists had rediscovered the power of sensation, which under the names of “wonder,” and “admiration” had always been part of the pleasure of romance. But now “sensation” was linked to the grotesque, the sublime, and the supernatural.

Summing up, we may state that such characteristics of the Gothic like extravagance, superstition, fancy and wildness which were initially considered in negative terms became associated, in the course of the eighteenth-century, with a more expansive and imaginative potential for artistic and aesthetic production.

Sarah Genner
Editor & Proofreader
This article has been edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a successful British Direct Response Marketing Copywriter, voice actor and artist.

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