History of Gothic Literature: 18th Century

I have been sitting on this series for a while: The History of Gothic Literature.

For the definition of gothic literature and its tropes check out this post first

In the 18th century novels were either boring or silly. You had two choices, medieval romances or “modern novels” which were very strict to reality and more than a little dull, or at least that is what Horace Walpole thought.

He wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764 which was a combination of the two genres, but not too silly and not too boring. Personally I think he found romances dull because historians believe he was gay due to his lack of wife, effeminate behaviour, questionable relationship with an Earl and he was besties with a lot of famous historical lesbians, but anyway…

(We could probably start a “history is gayer than you thought” counter for this series)

The Castle of Otranto created a lot of the modern gothic story tropes: a threatening mystery, a curse, hidden passages in a pretty building and fainting heroines. Walpole disguised the novel as a found medieval romance from Italy and claimed to simply be the translator. Everyone loved it and literary reviewers praised it, until Walpole revealed he actually wrote the book, then everyone suddenly hated it.

The novel still had some fans though. Clara Reeve loved the idea, so much so that she wrote a book of her own and dedicated it to The Castle of Otranto for inspiring her:

“This Story is the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto, written upon the same plan, with a design to unite the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient Romance and modern Novel, at the same time it assumes a character and manner of its own, that differs from both; it is distinguished by the appellation of a Gothic Story, being a picture of Gothic times and manners.”

Her novel, The Old English Baron, had similar tropes to The Castle of Otranto but it was more grounded as she tried to make it a more believable ghost story. It was not well received, especially by Horace Walpole who called it boring.

Poor reviews or not, gothic literature started taking off and spreading across Europe. France called them Black Novels and Germany referred to them as Shudder Novels. Gothic novels were getting increasingly dark until it blossomed into the gothic horror genre thanks to Matthew Lewis.

Before he was 20 years old Lewis quickly wrote the novel The Monk in 1796 in ten weeks. Unlike other gothic writers, who liked to hint at horrible details in their books, Lewis liked to give all of gory details which quickly turned his work into horror. His depiction of members of the clergy caused his novel to be criticised as immoral. The Monk became the Marmite of books. Some critics loved it while others thought it was an immoral, extravagant mess.

In rolled Ann Radcliffe. A brilliant lady who turned gothic literature into a respectable genre and liked to take her dog on holiday with her.

Radcliffe wrote five novels during her life time, many of which were in the gothic genre. Radcliffe was not a fan of how women were depicted in gothic literature. Tired of swoony damsels in distress she invented the trope of gothic feminism. Gothic heroines who were the focus of the novel, powerful and equal to the male characters. She created roles for women in fiction that did not exist before. She hated The Monk though, thinking it was simply written for shock factor and abused the gothic genre that normally had subtle horror. It annoyed her so much she wrote The Italian in response to The Monk.

Ann Radcliffe became the highest paid author of her generation, which is a big deal for a woman in the 1790s.

Radcliffe’s popularity and success made her the inspiration of many famous gothic writers in the future, which brings us on to the 19th century…(Coming soon)

Reading List:

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Italian (or The Confessions of the Black Penitents) by Ann Radcliffe

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

Das Petermännchen by Christian Heinrich Spiess

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Justine by Marquis de Sade

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