Gothic and the medieval revival

Origins of the term
The term ‘Gothic’ originally refers to the Goths, an ancient Germanic people, and then comes to mean ‘related to a style of architecture of the twelfth-sixteenth centuries’. However, in literature it is usually associated with an aspect of the English Romantic movement, and especially to the renewed interest of that time (late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century) in all things medieval.

A fashionable style
The fashion for ‘Gothic’ permeated almost every aspect of life, and lingered on well into the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901), when much new architecture reflected the Gothic Revival: many parish churches, village schools and railway stations were built in sham medieval style. Old castles such as Windsor and Belvoir, which had been modernised, had their ancient battlements restored at great expense, and the writer Horace Walpole turned his house, Strawberry Hill, into a mock medieval mansion, complete with ornate plaster vaulting. This became so fashionable that he was inundated with visitors wanting to see it. The fashion for ruined castles was so strong that those who had new estates without real ruined castles on them would sometimes build themselves a ‘ruin’ as an interesting feature of landscape gardening.

The effect on interior design
The taste for everything medieval led to household objects being designed in the ‘Gothic’ style: the pointed arch with ornamental tracery, so common in fourteenth and fifteenth century English church architecture, was reproduced everywhere – on the backs of chairs, the bases of vases, the fronts of cabinets, or in purely decorative panels. Everything from clocks to candlesticks, fans to fish-slices, might be covered with Gothic tracery and medieval ornamentation.

Gothic literature
In literature, too, the taste for medievalism was constantly indulged, and especially its association with the strange, the weird and the exotic. The work which is generally considered to be the forerunner of the vogue for the ‘Gothic horror’ novel in Britain is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, ostensibly as a translation of a medieval tale. It is set in medieval times in a strange, gloomy and haunted castle in Italy. Walpole unashamedly makes fantastical and imaginative use of the supernatural, which was to become a feature of Gothic novels. This was in itself a reaction against the stress in much late seventeeth to mideighteenth century writing on the importance of reason. The castle of Otranto is riddled with dark vaults, subterranean passages, trap-doors, caverns – and ghosts.

Contemporary gothic horror
Walpole’s success was quickly followed by the novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794:
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Her tales do not take place in the distant past, but are set amongst medieval castles and monasteries in France, Switzerland and Italy She makes use of fear of supernatural horrors without supernatural events actually occurring She suggests horrific discoveries which turn out to be harmless: for example, the ghastly sight behind the black veil which Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland (in Northanger Abbey) is so frightened of when reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, turns out to be not a real skeleton but a wax model.

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Female suffering
Generally the sufferings of heroines in Gothic novels are not allowed to be slight. Imprisonment, rape, murder – often at the hands of perverted nuns or monks – such things are commonplace, especially in the novel The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796, which earned him the nickname ‘Monk’ Lewis. (Lewis, incidentally, was a guest of Lord Byron at the Swiss villa where Byron started a ‘competition’, among friends staying with him, to write a Gothic novel, which resulted in Mary Shelley’s

Frankenstein.)

Mere escapism?
Such novels today might well be regarded as sheer escapism and to Jane Austen, writing in the early nineteenth century, the fact that such works appeared to be totally divorced from reality made their immense popularity suspect. She mocked such novels in Northanger Abbey, warning young ladies of being too easily taken in by the pleasures of the ‘circulating library’. The sensible Henry Tilney’s gentle rebuke to Catherine questions the public taste for improbable horror: Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you … what ideas have you been admitting?

Ongoing influence
If the taste for medievalism went hand in hand with the unbelievable in the Gothic horror novel, it also strongly influenced more serious 19th century writers such as the Brontës and Dickens, and 20th century and 21st century writers such as Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. In other areas of literature it fostered a growing interest in ‘true’ medievalism: many writers saw medieval life as offering an ideal of nobility and harmony, where feudal ties linked people together in a way which was impossible in their contemporary, factory-based economy. Attempts were made to reconstruct the glories of medieval existence, and authenticity became the keyword. The nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement was another outworking of this. In literature, this can be seen in:
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The novels of Sir Walter Scott, who, in works such as Ivanhoe or The Talisman, endeavoured to reproduce as faithfully as possible the language, dress and manners of the historical period he was representing, without falling into the error of being merely obscure Keats set his poem The Eve of Saint Agnes in a medieval castle,

and he reinforces the setting by choosing archaic terminology such as ‘liege-lord’, ‘beadsman’, ‘well-a-day’ and ‘mickle’ % Later, Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King – a poetic rewriting of the story of King Arthur and his knights. So it is a mistake just to see the taste for ‘Gothic’ as merely the precursor of such later horror stories as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In fact it had a huge impact on the imagination, beliefs and attitudes of writers of all genres and on artists of all kinds. This impact was just felt at the time of its main flowering, but is still influential today.

Gothic fiction
Gothic fiction emerged in the late eighteenth century as a sub-genre within the larger field of the novel. It was initiated by Horace Walpole with The Castle of Otranto (1764) and reached the height of its popularity towards the end of the century with such novels as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796).
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It was called Gothic because it employed settings and / or plots that were associated with the medieval period, when the Gothic style of art and architecture developed. Gothic fiction is notable for its use of historical or remote settings to dramatize the ways in which events in the past may affect individuals in the present. It was usually set in a remote country and in the past. As the genre developed, it began to employ more modern settings, as in The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) by Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. It described events that were often fantastic or supernatural. However, as in Godwin’s novel and in Frankenstein, the Gothic genre began to explore contemporary philosophical, political and scientific preoccupations. Its heroines were usually young women threatened by tyrants, rescued from their fate by determined and brave men; its heroes usually acting alone against overwhelming odds. In some Gothic novels, the heroine is responsible for her own fate and these books include some of the earliest autonomous female characters in English fiction. The villains were usually powerful men: cruel and tyrannical

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aristocrats or corrupt priests. The novels were set in castles or large houses full of dungeons and secret passages (many of the devices of the modern horror genre), and often involve stories of torture and persecution. The authors deliberately set out to create tension, fear and the anticipation of violence or horror. The atmosphere of the novels was gloomy and claustrophobic and the action often included physical and sexual violence. The plots usually revolved around issues concerning wills, inheritance and dynastic marriages. Such novels were often seen as providing readers with a kind of thrill, a delight in being frightened that is perhaps similar to that derived from contemporary horror films. As well as evoking anticipation and fear in its readers, Gothic fiction seeks to explore the psychology of terror, guilt and the divided self. Jane Austen, who enjoyed reading Gothic novels, satirizes them in Northanger Abbey (1818).

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Sensation fiction
Sensation fiction was a literary sub-genre of Gothic literature, which was at the height of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins is usually regarded as the first sensation novel.
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Sensation fiction is sometimes regarded as domesticated Gothic in that it uses many of the devices of the Gothic novel, but places them in a contemporary English setting. They dispense with the supernatural element of Gothic fiction and even their most extraordinary events are given a rational and natural explanation. Women (usually wives) suffer at the hands of men (usually husbands); the heroes are young men who are sometimes helped by resourceful women. Their plots concern issues of identity and inheritance. Insanity (real or supposed) plays a large part in the plot, with the private lunatic asylum taking the place of the locked room or dungeon in a Gothic novel, and the use of drugs taking the place of physical cruelty.

They often have complex narratives making use of first person statements, diaries and letters, so that the stories are seen from more than one point of view. As with Gothic novels, sensation fiction aims to thrill and frighten the reader.
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Monsters and society
In his book In Frankenstein’s Shadow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), Chris Baldick shows that, during the nineteenth century, the story of Frankenstein and his monster was adapted to a number of purposes:
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One of these was to represent the kind of monstrousness of behaviour created by the French Revolution: the crowd itself was represented as a monster, a fearsome being composed of disparate parts, a force created by the thinkers behind the Revolution, but now out of their control In England, the image of the uncontrollable monster was attached to any large grouping threatening the political status quo, including the working classes, the Irish Nationalists, the Trade Unions and even the inhabitants of Birmingham!

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Images of the monster in literature
Images of the monster can be found in writings by the prophetic historian and social commentator Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), both in The French Revolution (1837), and in his many comments on the growing strength and articulation of the mass of industrial workers and their increasing political demands. The novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) inherited from his reading of Carlyle a strong sense that society was becoming mechanised so that people were beginning to be transformed into a robotic state. Elizabeth Gaskell also uses the image of the monster in her novel Mary Barton (1848), which is about industrial interest in the rapidly growing city of Manchester. Like many other writers, she tends to confuse the name of the monster with that of his creator, but the force of her comment is clear:

‘The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul or a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.’ (Mary Barton, chapter 15).