18th Century English Literature: Gothic Novel

An English genre of fiction popular in the 18th to early 19th centuries, characterized by an atmosphere of mystery and horror and having a pseudo-medieval setting.

18th Century English Literature: Gothic Novel

The term Gothic is associated with all that was felt to be fantastic, grotesque, wild, savage, mysterious and capable of strong appeal to the emotions without any restraint by the reason. The 18th century greatly stressed the supreme value of Reason. But later in the century, it was growingly felt that Reason was inadequate to express experience. This tendency resulted in the publication of works by James Macpherson, Thomas Percy and Chatterton. They aroused a frenzy of admiration for their atmosphere of a vaguely feudal past, which was summed in the epithets ‘Gothic’ and ‘Romantic’.

A new form of literature, popularly known as Gothic fiction, grew up to satisfy a passion for the Middle Ages, the wild, the sensational and the supernatural. The taste for Gothic minority cult, as a sentiment it grew with the popularity of the sensationalism of the Gothic novels and with the rise of the Romantic cultivation of the sensitivity.

Gothic: Meaning

The word ‘Gothic’ has a wide variety of meanings. It is used in a number of different fields. Devendra Verma says, “The Gothic novel is a conception as vast and complex as a Gothic Cathedral. One finds in them the same sinister overtone and the same solemn grandeur.” In a literary context, ‘Gothic’ is most usually applied to a group of novels written between the 760s and the 1820s with characteristics like portrayal of terrifying, archaic settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, the blackly lowering villains, the attempt to deploy techniques of suspense and a style given to ornateness, hyperbole and violent exclamation.

The Gothicness of the 18th century Gothic novels consists in an uncanny atmosphere of wilderness, gloom and horror based on the supernatural. The weird and eerie atmosphere of the Gothic fiction was derived from the Gothic architecture which evoked feelings of horror, wildness, suspense and gloom. The Gothic gloom played upon inherent element of natural and superstitious fear in human life, Fear crept in as a by-product of the union of Gothic with gloom, giving terror a close association with Gothic architecture, which in its turn became the characteristic atmosphere of the Gothic novel. The haunted castles and secret passages, vaults and dark galleries premeated by irksome howling of wind and thunderous noises aroused emotion of fear.

The Gothic novelists took delight in the ‘ruins’ which played a significant role in creating an atmosphere of horror. “Round the nucleus of ruin,” says Davendra Verma, “the Gothic novelists built up such elaborate machinery as accorded with their mood and furthered the purpose of mystery, gloom and terror. The appeal of the ruin like a towering crag contributed to the conception of the ‘picturesque’, which was an essential of the Gothic spirit. Ruins were eminently picturesque for the Gothic writer, surpassingly lovely in decay, as the dark ivy clambered over the crumbling architecture, shutting out the light, a adding to the general gloom, weeds and wild flowers waving alone the roofless aisles. Meditations upon such scenes fed the delicious sensibility of the Gothic enthusiasts.”

It is significant that in 18th century England, one could find ruined monasteries, crumbling melancholy birds creating an uncanny atmosphere of horror and terror. In cathedrals and castles lay unexplored material ready to be pillaged in the Gothic novels.


Influences Contributing to Growth of Gothic Novel and Chief Exponents

A number of influences contributed to the growth of Gothic novels. It owes its origin particularly to sentimentalism, antiquarianism, ruins and the graveyard sentiment. Kenneth Clark says, “The Gothic novelists were the natural successors to the graveyard poets, and nearly all the paraphernalia of graveyard poetry reappear in the novel.” The vogue of the sentimental novel between 1770 and 1800 made a great influence on the Gothic novel and its impact is clearly visible in the early Gothic novelists Radcliffe and her school.

Tobias Smollett was the immediate precursor of the Gothic novelists. His Ferdinand Count Fathom is the first 18th century work to propose terror as a subject for novelistic writing.

Horace Walpole is known as the pioneer in Gothic fiction. Smollett gave to the romance its method of dealing with the superstitious; Walpole gave its machinery, its characters, its castles and its Gothic name. His use of the supernatural showed the path to men of brighter talents. “Other and far greater hands than Walpole’s showed the furrows he had driven; yet to his credit be it recorded that it was he who broke the first clod,” says Dorothy M Stuart. Walpole’s sensitive imagination and dreaming mind absorbed the spirit of nascent romanticism. His Castle of Orlanto (1764) is the storehouse of all horror novels. In this we have walking skeletons, pictures that move out of their frames and blood-curding incidents. The supernatural machinery is often cumbrous, but the work is creditably done and as a return to the romantic elements of mystery and fear the novel is noteworthy. His immortal work left an indelible mark on English literature, shaped the predilection of a number of writers in the domain of the supernatural and pioneered not merely the richer antiquarian interest of Scott, but the fundamental brain-work of the Pre-Raphaelite School of Poetry.

Miss Clara Reeve wrote many Gothic romances, the chief of them being The Old English Baron. The author of this popular novel, though much criticized by Horace Walpole, was the first Gothic novelist to make use of dreams. For the first time she used a new Gothic motif of identifying the hero. However, she lacked vivid imagination. Montague Summers condemns The Old English Baron as ‘a dull and didactic narrative told in a style of chilling mediocrity.’

Mrs Ann Radcliffe has been called ‘the Shakespeare of Romance writers’, and ‘the Great Enchantress’. She represents all the romantic tendencies of her time. Her highly romantic temperament, her passion for music and wild scenery, her love of solitude and the beautiful; her interest in the mysterious, and her ability to arouse wonder and fear helped her in writing masterpieces in Gothic fiction.

During the years 1789-97, she wrote five romances: The Castle of Athlian, A Cicelian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Coleridge called The Mysteries of Udolpho ‘the most interesting novel in the English language’. Mrs Radcliffe’s keen interest in the supernatural and the mysterious was always controlled by reason. Unlike other terror novelists, she rationalized the supernatural. Her contribution to the development of the English novel has been wide and varied. She may be called the first novelist who employed scenery for its own sake. She possessed a talent for masterly dialogues in order to reveal character and to speed up the action. She revolutionized the structure of the novel by adding a dramatic technique which was later adopted by the Victorian novelists. She cultivated the detective interest in the readers.

Matthew Gregory Lewis, now best remembered for his friendship with Scott, achieved a great success on somewhat similar lines with his first book, Ambrosio, or The Monk. Published when he was only twenty, this book owes much to The Castle of Otranto  and The Mysteries of Udolpho, though it outdoes both in the wild sensationalism of its machinery and effects. He made a spine-chilling use of magic and necromancy and painted his grim and ghastly themes in dark and lurid colours.

Gothic novelists enlarged the sense of reality and its impact on the human beings. It became then a great liberator of feeling. The scenes of horror in Gothic fiction may have been the harmless release of that innate spring of cruelty which is present in each of use, an impulse mysterious and inextricable connected with the very forces of life and health.

To sum up, the Gothic novelists made a valuable contribution to the novel. They showed that literature is not merely utilitarian and that outside the real world there is also a world of wonder and delight.