An Eldritch Miscellany
WHAT IS GOTHIC?
by Raymond Humphreys
Previously in Writers' Monthly and Living Words
First, perhaps, ‘who were the Goths?’ It is a matter of history that, as the Roman Empire crumbled away, Germanic tribes invaded the Imperial lands. Foremost among these tribes were the Goths, recorded in such early English writing as King Alfred’s translation of the Venerable Bede’s History.
Both the western and eastern branches of the Goths, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, founded significant civilisations.
Equally with the Romans, they could be said to be the fathers of medieval and so modern Europe. But, as the centuries passed, and Europe entered its ‘Age of Enlightenment’, their name came became associated with the barbarous strain in European history
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It was particularly associated with the style of architecture prevalent from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, characterised by the pointed arch, flying buttress, and lofty, ornate interiors.
But not everyone was content with the new age and its rationalist values. Then, as now, some were ready to look back to times when, they believed, the social fabric was stronger and more stable. These beliefs found expression during the eighteenth-century Gothic revival in architecture. Not only public buildings, but private follies and mansions were increasingly built in the Gothic style.
One of the wealthy men who followed this fashion was Horace Walpole, youngest son of the British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. In 1749, on the foundations of a small villa he had bought the previous year, he laid his plans to fashion what he described in a letter to a friend as ‘a little Gothic Castle’. This ‘castellino’, as he also called it, was Strawberry Hill, between Twickenham and the start of the tidal Thames at Teddington.
Strawberry Hill belongs to St Mary’s Roman Catholic training college [In this Millennium, Strawberry Hill is managed by the National Trust]. But, to Walpole in the mid-eighteenth century, it was his Gothic fantasy, an extension of his melancholic personality. He set about furnishing it with antique curiosities and period pieces, including the dagger worn by Henry VIII, spears and long-bows from the Crusades, coats of mail, and shields made from rhinoceros hide.
In the early June of 1764, when the building works at Strawberry Hill had been complete for only a year, Walpole awoke from a dream set in an ancient castle, his mind seething with the images for a new kind of novel, a dark medieval romance, which he would start to write that same day. He completed it in less than two months, working in solitude among the Gothic surroundings of his own creation.
That romance was The Castle of Otranto, the story of the tyrant Prince Manfred, whose unlawful claim to the throne is revealed through a series of series of mysterious events and supernatural manifestations. The first edition was published anonymously on Christmas Eve, 1764, and the Gothic novel was born. It is fair to say that this birth owes much to Gothic architecture.
Today, although still readable, Walpole’s novel must be said to appeal more for its quirky entertainment value than any literary merit, although it was reviewed respectfully enough at the time. What is hard for us now to imagine is the book’s popular impact, and the way it opened the floodgates for other writers in the genre. It was to become the dominant one in popular literature for the rest of the century and into the beginning of the next.
Few writers from the high water mark of the Gothic novel had more than a passing appeal. Two exceptions were Ann Radcliffe and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. Mrs. Radcliffe developed Walpole’s themes to heights it would be extravagant to call art, but her work bears all the marks of a genuine craftswoman. Her strengths were in the lyrical portrayal of eerie landscape, light effects, and spectral atmosphere. Although her sense of plot was as wayward as Walpole’s own, she better knew how to create and maintain suspense in a readership wide enough to enable her to command the then huge advance of £500 for her best-remembered novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
No less a writer than Jane Austen saw fit to borrow from this work in her own Northanger Abbey. That novel may have been written in parody of Mrs. Radcliffe’s story, but Austen pays an oblique tribute when she has her character Henry Tilney reading Udolpho in two days, his hair standing on end all the time.
With Matthew Lewis, the Gothic Romance becomes the Gothic Horror. Lewis, heavily influenced by German writers during his stay in that country, claimed the reader’s attention with sudden shocks, detailed description of horrifying acts, and an unsubtle use of the supernatural owing as much to dark old folk tales as to the Gothic tradition established by Walpole. In The Monk, the novel that gave Lewis his sobriquet, he has his once-saintly protagonist Ambrosius indulging in rape and murder before making a compact with the Devil (a compact which, in true folk tradition, proves to be his final undoing).
As the eighteenth century passed into the nineteenth, the Gothic romance began to lose its leading place in popular fiction, though not without a final flourish, in the shape of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In a passage of the purest Gothic, Victor Frankenstein descibes his creation’s awakening in the early hours of a dreary November morning:
‘...the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.’
The real conception of the monster that was to haunt the twentieth-century imagination as well as that of the nineteenth was during the wet Swiss summer of 1816, passed by Mary Shelley in the company of her poet husband, Lord Byron.
Confined to the house, Mary and the others spent hours reading Gothic romances, like The History of the Inconstant Lover, who found himself in the arms of the ghost of his deserted wife rather than those of his new bride, and the story of the patriarch whose fate was to walk the grounds of his castle as an armoured spectre, bestowing the kiss of death on the younger sons of the family. Such stories inspired Byron to propose that each member of the party should write one of their own.
Late one night Byron and Percy Shelley were discussing the ideas of the physician and free-thinker Erasmus Darwin, who had reportedly animated a piece of vermicelli preserved in a glass case. Mary took little part in this discussion, but went to bed with her mind alive to the possibilities of Darwin’s experiments, and echoing with the themes of the stories she had been reading.
That night, in a half-dreaming state, but with what she later described as “acute mental vision” she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside...the hideous phantasm of a man”. She saw this student fleeing from the horror of the thing he had created, only later to be awoken by the creature at his bedside “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” All the key elements of the novel that was to bring her lasting fame, in fact.
The legacy of the nineteenth-century practitioners of the Gothic art like Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley herself was bequeathed upon twentieth-century cinema rather than twentieth-century literature. But, with the impact made by talented writers like Emma Tennant and Angela Carter, and more recently with Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, perhaps we are due for yet another Gothic revival.