Gothic Conventions (Daniel Serravalle de Sá, 2006)

There is a relative consistency of conventions that make the gothic novel recognisable as a distinct genre. The gothic novel is a hybrid manifestation, a link between novel and romance, in which an atmosphere of mystery, thrill and terror pevails. This pre-Romantic, pseudo-medieval type of fiction was intensely produced and avidly consumed from late 18th century to early 19th century. By taking its inspiration from medieval constructions and exploring a darker side of Nature, these novels put in doubt the certainties of Cartesian thought. Investing in a more gloomy disposition to overcome the sentimental/rational discourse, gothic novels presented a literary problem which challenged the project of Enlightment.

In opposition to neoclassical philosophy, these novelists invested in obscure images and symbolic representations such as: disintegrating abbeys where malevolent priests dwell, sinister castles inhabited by tyrannical aristocrats, people moving through secret passages and hiding behind concealed doors, dark forests where bandits stalk, sublime sights of vast wilderness where persecuted heroines fear the worst.

Fantastic literature[1] in its origins can be traced back to the popular and oral tradition, stemming from myths, legends and folklore, these narratives set foot in the 18th century by means of a literature of the irrational and the terror. In its European forms the fantastic novel seems to stem from a French branch, represented by Jacques Cazotte's Le Diable Amoreaux (1772), and an earlier English branch started by Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto, a gothick story (1764-5). This last novel is considered to be the founder of the branch we intent to apprehend for discussion. [2]

Semantically the term "gothic" needs some attention, as it meanings will vary depending on the context it is brought up. Initially, the adjective referred simply to the tribes that lived near the Danube and which helped to overthrow the Roman Empire. But at the same time it also meant anything that denoted medieval or post-roman. In that sense, keeping these two ideas in mind, the word “gothic” begun to be constructed in the decades following the Glorious Revolution (1688), coming into being as a controversial category.

It was an attempt by the English to distinguish themselves from a Greco-roman culture, designating an idealised democratic and freedom-loving British heritage, basing these suppositions on a historical registry which could be found in the Gothic architecture.[3] Despite this more positive interpretation, gothic also stood for antiquate, barbarous, feudal, irrational, chaotic, non-civilised. In short, the opposite of “Classical”. These two meanings were object of dispute, signalising conflicting political stands, that only found a clearer formulation much later, summarised in conflicting positions.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), used the metaphor of a ruined gothic castle in support of the English heritage and monarchy.[4] His point of view was connected to an aristocratic or conservative part of the society. Defending long-standing, ancient relations within the social fabric, he expressed a rejection of the revolutionary upraises in France. On the other hand radicals as Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, defended a gothic associated to a despotic government, arbitrary power and aristocratic hereditary privileges. For them it represented worn out ideals that could no longer exist in the new world that was being formed. This approach was related to the Whig party, the middle class and the row of society who shared a progressive opinion. The political tension and duplicity these ideas raised reflected in literary grounds.

From the aesthetics perspective contesting the supremacy of neo-classic ideals, exploring sensorial aspects of human sensibility that were placed aside by the Enlightment, started to make way for a new “structure of sentiment”, in the expression of Raymond Williams. Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1760), by Richard Hurd, made apology to a re-appropriation of the past defending the rescue of links related to an old British legacy, the ballads, English medieval poetry, Spencer, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. It was a reaction against the dominant Augustan principles, translated in the literary plan by Essay on Criticism (1711) by Alexander Pope, who defended a poetry based on control, reserve and reason. Also the graveyard poets, a marginal manifestation which took place around the 1740s decade, contested rationalism and the equilibrium upheld by the Illuminists, producing a poetry of defiance and divine inspiration, bringing into play the themes and settings which would become very dear to the gothic novels: death, graves, the night, fear. (Even though these elements were not a breakthrough to British literature and can be traced back to Shakespeare and further back to the popular imaginary)

A third element came to add to those renewed interest for things of the past, and to the admiration of that kind of melancholic poetry. The theory of the sublime traces back to a text frequently (but apparently wrongly) attributed to Longinus. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke provided a theory for the gothic machinery drew an aesthetic reading. The treatise which provided the foundation to establish relation between literature and terror, proposing an aesthetics constituted of vastness, obscurity, magnificence, ignoring technical perfection and the organic structure of neoclassic poetry and counteracting with the ideals of balance, harmony and rationality. Burke states that most of the ideas which are capable of making a strong impression on the mind may be reduced nearly to two heads: self-preservation and society. To the ends of one or the other, all our passions are calculated to respond. The passions that regard the preservation of the individual turn chiefly on pain and danger, and they are the most powerful of the passions. You could extract pleasure from experiencing a menacing situation from a distance. According to Burke it is possible to extract delight from terror.

These ideas, which were already present in his treatise, became clearer in his later discussion on the revolution. This nostalgia about the past and the lament for the end of the chivalric age constituted indexes of an idealization of a medieval era as an “organic” world in detriment of a modern bourgeoisie society.

As a reaction against the Humanistic beliefs and its narratives of progress, promoting changes by means of rational revolutions, gothic emerges to disturb the calm waters of realism, bringing about the fears that surrounded the upcoming bourgeois society. From the margins of a Enlightment culture, dramatising conflicts and uncertainties in face of a fast-changing social and economical world, gothic became the vehicle to address aesthetics and political questions raised by the 1789 issues in France. The English re-interpreted the ghost of the 1688 revolution through the French Revolution, displacing their anxieties to far countries and past times, making predominantly Italy, but also France and Spain, a scenery of horror stories.

The development of capitalism, in this period of internal realignment and external revolutions, would explain the success of this fiction which questions the constitution of “real”, making way for a blend of fear and attraction, anxiety and desire, which seems to have characterised the relations between bourgeoisie and aristocracy.[5] The gothic novel exposes its ambivalences, the intention of consolidating burgeoise values, like, domesticity, sentiment, virtue, family; side by side with a fascination for medieval architecture, customs and values. Expressing admiration for a feudal world which was at the same time a source of tyranny, barbarism, autocracy, this disapproval was projected in the creation of aristocratic or religious cruel and malevolent villains.

It was Sir Horace Walpole who first gave shape to a regicide narrative, a hybrid between old and modern, novel and romance, bringing about monstrous helmets, invisible hands, labyrinth-like dungeons, ghastly pictures, giant swords and all the paraphernalia which would make the success of the genre.[6] He coined the use of the word in literature by naming his narrative The Castle of Otranto, subtitle: a gothick story. A man of many interests among other things Walpole was a MP, occupation which at that point meant to be implied in the birth of capitalism, a stranger paternity which he seems to have abdicated later in life by retiring into his medieval world to his replica castle Strawberry Hill.

Thinking the gothic as a manifestation affiliated to the Romance tradition (or vice-versa), some system of codes (representation of time and place) and methods of composition (structuring and development) are shared between the two. The key elements of both traditions, which will be developed later, can already be found in Walpole’s five meagre chapters: a story set in past ages (often medieval) and in far away countries (usually Italy, Spain or France), stemming from the translation of a remote document or manuscript, the presence of vast and confined spaces, a narrative which progresses on an endless sequence of amazing circumstances, involving the heroine in breathtaking perils, lots of travelling around the country and the presence of a vicious villain. From this concise story, of simultaneous re-affirmation, in that sense paradoxical of aristocratic and individual values, the gothic romance would emerge as a hybrid form that blends idealised medieval proprieties with late 1800s manners and concerns.

His merit also consists of conscientiously mixing romance and novel, initiating what would be known as gothic fiction, but the story was considered far too incredible by his successors, and for that reason later authors chose to reform his unsophisticated dream-like tale. Clara Reeves’ The Old English Baron (1777) brought the novel back home and invested in a less extravagant, more down-to-earth romantic and melodramatic form. Other writers like Charlotte Smith and Sophia Lee, also pursued a more ‘domestic’ kind of writing, where the represented situations were far more probable and the supernatural circumstances were due to imaginary fears. But they also used heroines set in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, and represented the past in terms of a rational and moral present.

Interest in the Orient and in the depiction of “otherness” became popular in Europe with the translation of Les Mille et une Nuits early in the 1700, followed by Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721), Voltaire’s Zadig (1747) and the exotic American adventures Candide (1759). Attracted by the extravagant, stereotyped side of the Orient, William Beckford invested in a luxuriant portray of a despot to create his infernal narrative of the caliph, Vathek (1786), using the same gothic discourse to encode the foreign/aristocrat as corrupt and threatening.

A more established/consolidated gothic fiction came out with the publication of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). It is generally accepted/considered that Ann Radcliffe’s writings stands for the zenith of a “canonised” gothic production. She certainly represents the heyday of a commercial gothic. “The great enchantress” had a prodigious imagination, she was acquainted with the works of those previous novelists who also developed the cult of suspense, and those who invested in sentimental stories, “persecuted innocence” and character, like Richardson and his infamous Lovelace. She masterfully used the Burkean thesis of sublime to achieve thrilling effects in her works.[7] In short, she kept the fire of gothic burning much more steadily than the candles in her novels, always blown out by a cold draft in a moment of excited apprehension, while sneaking in the damp corridors of haunted abbeys.

Her work influenced a subsequent generation of illustrious writers, namely Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Charles Maturin and Charlotte Brontë. Quite conservative in her views, Radcliffe was not a writer who aimed at questioning the established order, and by the end of her romances she would have conveyed a message of bourgeois moral, naturalistic values and domesticity, according to the 18th century historical understanding. In between her two successful romances Matthew Lewis published The Monk (1796), which dialogued with her “explained supernatural” narrative solutions and as a result helped to consolidate the “core” of genre. Mathews trend of gothic fiction was based on the German type of novel, Schauerroman (horror-romance), introducing blunt terror and heavy handed violence to contrast with the subtle thrills of the Radcliffean mode. Still in the heat of the moment the Marquis de Sade, wrote his famous preface Les Ideés sur les Romans (1800), stating his preference for Lewis’ work and marking the tradition of linking the gothic romance to the French revolution.[8]

Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey (1818) operates within the limits set by Radcliffe’s stories, parodying and exposing her structures. She satirizes the absurd fantasies of gothic romances and its taste for a imaginary universe in detriment of a realistic perspective. On the other hand, the book insinuates the contagious force of fiction in real life, manifested in the vicissitudes of Catherine Morland who surrounds herself with the, sceneries, moods, symbols, plots and all the conventions that make the gothic novel recognisable as such. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth, the wanderer (1820) is considered to be the last breath of this gothic era. Further landmarks of this “Gothic body” are Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897) which exploited a more scientific and modern fear, involving the new gadgets and technology, like telegraphs and typewriters.

The decade of l790s was the gothic novel’s peak, it had become a vogue and an obsession among admires who could not seem to read enough of this genre. It had also developed into a very profitable business for booksellers and professional writers, who were kept constantly busy trying to meet the public demand and providing for the circulating libraries. This frenzy for gothic fiction occasioned an enormous production, most of it directed to boost sales with very little preoccupation for literary innovation. The popularity of Ann Radcliffe’s novels was attested by the many imitators of her work, who would change a few words in the title and come out with pearls like: The mysteries of the forest, the Monk of Udolpho, Italian Mysteries, or even pseudonyms as little original as Mary Ann Radcliffe.

The gothic novel was the space to discuss political questions, though, placing these anxieties in other countries and time. It embraced the liberal values of sentimentalism, virtue and family mingled with an aristocratic past; however, marked by refutation of tyranny, mishandling of power. In that sense, Gothic can be read as a reaction against industrialization and scientific revolution. However short lived, circumscribed by the temporal boundaries 1764-1820, the gothic phenomenon delineated a response to a mutating society in a specific period of time. In trying to conciliate these social disputes, the genre adopted the figure of a chivalric hero, a romantic knight who behaved according to the bourgeoisie values. His antagonist was the gothic villain, the embodiment of evil itself, representing the dark side of nobility and of the religious institutions. Many reasons are appointed for the decline of the genre as such, including misevaluation on the narrative’s complexity, making plots too intricate and confusing, along with an overexploitation of the genre by the increasing culture of consumerism.

[1] Tzvetan Todorov says that “fantastic” relates to a literary genre that raises ambiguities between reality and dream, that is, proposing a insoluble doubt in the nature of the events narrated, allowing both a rational explanation, or another one which presupposes the existence of the supernatural: “Le fantastique mène donc une vie pleine de dangers, et peut s’évanouir à tout instant”.

The French story, Le Diable Amoreux, will inspire Hoffman, Nerval, the onirical fantastic writers, from Nodier to Kafka. While from The Castle of Otranto will derive the literature of Ann Radcliffe, Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker, the gothic literature in the 19th century, as well as detectives stories and contemporary thrillers.

[3] The structural innovation promoted by gothic buildings constituted a technical advancement in relation to the Romanic form, bringing and end to dim churches. Liberating the wall for the penetration of light, high and sharp towers, broken arches are some of its distinctive features. This new conception, later denominated gothic, is attributed to the French abbot Suger (1081-1151), a Benedict monk from the church of St. Denis near Paris, who was searching for epiphany, or sublime elevation by painting coloured glasses and coloured afrescos.

[4] He believed that French monarchy was one of the best in Europe and its mistake was not to make concessions to the uprising bourgeoisie.

[5] Stefan Andriopoulos associates Adam‘s Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776) to the gothic novel using the invisible hand as metaphor of intervening power. See: ANDRIOPOULOS, S. “The Invisible Hand: Supernatural Agency in Political Economy and the Gothic Novel,” ELH 66 (1999): 739-58. IN: http://www.lib.sfu.ca/researchhelp/subjectguides/pol/classes/poli033356.htm

[6] Victor Sage points to a discrepancy in The Castle of Otranto between the highly emotional subject matter and the dry, rational language employed by the narrative voice. SAGE, V. “The Gothic Novel”. IN: MULVEY-ROBERTS, Marie (ed.). The Handbook to Gothic Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998. (p.82)

[7] She delighted in descriptions of scenery, usually drawn entirely from her inner consciousness but many painters receive mention in the novels of Ann Radcliffe. One of her references was Salvator Rosa, a 17th century Italian landscape painter, who created dramatic landscapes peopled with peasants and banditti. Like Ann Radcliffe, he intended to create a feeling of awe and sublime in the minds of his audience. The landscapes of another Italian artist, Giambattista Piranesi, also influenced many English Gothic writers, especially with his powerful black and white figurative engravings of Roman ruins, spectacular landscapes where banditti would lurk in ambush and his Carcieri fascinated the English mind.

[8] Sade preferred the philosophical debate to the aesthetics creation. From the point of view of debating with Illuminist, questioning the existence of God and the morals of sentiment, Radcliff’s naturalistic stories worked mere cautionary tales.

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