The late nineteenth century was a great era in which the seeds of the genre of fantasy were planted, a time when books chronicling magic, mayhem, and dark mysteries found fertile soil in the imaginations of thousands of educated, book-hungry middle-class men and women. This was the emergence of the Gothic Novel.
Gothic novels have common themes consisting of incidents of physical and psychological terror, remote, crumbling castles, seemingly supernatural events, a brooding, scheming villain, and (most importantly) a persecuted heroine.
The Castle of Otranto is a novel written in 1764 by Horace Walpole. Many consider it to be the first gothic novel, the beginnings of the literary genre that would spawn the likes of Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne du Maurier. Walpole chronicles the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding-day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Just before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet (!) that falls on him from above. This strange, unexplained event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy “that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.” This sets into motion terrible events.
It also suggests that decking your halls with heavy armor may not be a good idea, for all you medieval Martha Stewart(s) out there.
So anyway–Manfred decides the only way for him to avoid destruction is to marry Isabella himself, but first he must divorce his current wife. Isabella runs away, aided by a peasant named Theodore. ” It’s all very melodramatic and exciting, with Isabella hiding in caves, and the fortuitous appearance of mysterious knights, and dark curses. Theodore is revealed to be the true prince of Otranto and Manfred’s daughter, Matilda, dies, leaving Manfred to repent. Theodore becomes king and eventually marries Isabella “because she is the only one who can understand his true sorrow.”
Even Jane Austen loved Gothic novels.
Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed for publication, written circa 1798–99. It was originally written as a send-up of the gothic novel, the Mysteries of Udolpho. She died in 1817 and her book was posthumously published.
The book details the adventures of seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland. She is one of ten children of a country clergyman. Although a tomboy in her childhood, by the age of 17 she has read so many Gothic novels that she considers herself to be in training to be a heroine. Catherine reads voraciously, and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho is a favorite.
She meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney and after a bit of drama, is invited to visit at his family’s home. Catherine, because of her love affair with Gothic novels, expects the abbey to be exotic and frightening. Sadly, it turns out that Northanger Abbey is a pleasant home and decidedly not Gothic. However, (cue the dramatic music) the house includes a mysterious suite of rooms that no one ever enters. Catherine learns that they were Mrs Tilney’s, who died nine years earlier. Catherine decides that, since General Tilney does not now seem to be affected by the loss of his wife, he may have murdered her or even imprisoned her in her chamber.
I LOVED this novel when I read it while in college in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s. I wore out three hard-bound copies of it!
So what inspired Jane Austen to write a Gothic novel? It was her own love of a work written an Englishwoman who, in turn, was inspired by the Gothic work of Horace Walpole. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, was published in four volumes on May 8, 1794. Walpole began the genre, but Radcliffe made it popular.
Set in the year 1584 in southern France and northern Italy, the novel details the plight of Emily St. Aubert, a young French woman. Her mother is dead, and while journeying with her father, she meets Valancourt, a handsome man who also feels an almost mystical kinship with the natural world. Emily and Valancourt quickly fall in love. After the death of her father she is sent to live with her aunt, Madame Cheron. Emily suffers imprisonment in the castle Udolpho at the hands of Signor Montoni, an Italian brigand who has married her aunt. Emily’s romance with the dashing Valancourt is frustrated by Montoni and others. Emily also investigates the mysterious relationship between her father and the Marchioness de Villeroi, and its connection to the castle at Udolpho.
Radcliffe’s fiction is characterized by apparently supernatural events that are then provided with rational explanations. She was a forward-thinking woman, as was Jane Austen, in that in all Radcliffe’s works traditional moral values are reinforced, the rights of women are strongly advocated, and reason always prevails. Sir Walter Scott was quoted as saying, in regard to Ann Radcliffe’s work, “Her prose was poetry and her poetry was prose. She was, indeed, a prose poet, in both the best and the worst senses of the phrase. The romantic landscape, the background, is the best thing in all her books; the characters are two-dimensional, the plots far-fetched and improbable, with elaboration of means and futility of result.”
The roots of our modern fascination with all things dark and mysterious goes back to the first stories told by our tribal ancestors, under the stars around campfires. Every tribe (and in later millennia, every family) had a storyteller who wove tales of darkness, of good triumphing over evil, of sin and redemption. When written languages were invented, the upper classes in early societies had literature written for them by the likes of Homer and Li Fang .
In western societies, the renaissance began the great lust for books. With the advent of the printing press and the emergence of an affluent, educated middle-class, reading novels became a popular way to while away one’s well-earned leisure hours in the evening or on a Sunday afternoon. This habit survived, despite frequent, intense puritanical censure of such frivolity.
It is because of those nineteenth century pioneers of early popular literature that we modern readers have such a wide variety of work to entertain us. Kindles and other ebook-readers show up among the patrons of every coffee shop and in every airport-lounge and every doctor’s waiting room.
Much may have changed how we take delivery of that content–few books arrive at my house with thick paper and leather bindings nowadays, but nothing has changed in the desire to just quietly enjoy a good story when one has a little downtime.