The very word Gothic conjures up images of crumbling castles, things that go bump in the night and unexplained happenings. Whilst the genre is all of these things, it’s also a lot more complex and sophisticated than it might seem on the surface. Gothic fiction has maintained an enduring appeal, as appetites for being scared witless from the comfort and safety of our own armchair have grown over time.
But where did this desire to be unnerved come from? Where did the genre come from?
The youngest son of the former Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Horace Walpole was a man of leisure. There was nothing about him to suggest that he would become the father of one of the most popular fiction genres for the next two hundred years.
His father had ensured that Horace was set up financially, arranging him several sinecures (salaried positions requiring very little work). Horace and his friend Thomas Gray embarked on a grand tour of Europe together, travelling France, Italy and Switzerland – far off lands which would later feature in his writing.
On his return, Walpole was elected to Parliament for a rotten borough in Cornwall and maintained a somewhat dubious parliamentary career for the rest of his life.
Walpole was a collector, an aesthete with a particular interest in antiquarianism. In 1749, he set about creating Strawberry Hill House – a fanciful neo-Gothic house in Twickenham. Ramshackle, with towers, battlements and deliberately gloomy interiors, Walpole built Strawberry Hill to house his collections, and it remains a tribute to his eccentric and theatrical style today.
The style is not considered full Gothic, and is often known as Strawberry Hill Gothic or Georgian Gothic to differentiate it from later examples. Walpole’s masterpiece inspired various other similar buildings of the time, and it was certainly unusual compared to contemporary Georgian architecture.
The first Gothic novel?
In 1764, Walpole published ‘The Castle of Otranto – A Gothic Story’ which is widely accepted as the first novel in the Gothic movement. First published under a pseudonym, the novel presented itself as a supposed translation of a 1529 Italian manuscript rediscovered in the library of an old Catholic family in England.
The story follows Manfred, lord of the Castle of Otranto, as he attempts to avoid a prophecy. Unsurprisingly, the story contains murder, supernatural elements, mistaken identity, beautiful young maidens, castles, and things that go bump in the night.
At the time, Walpole viewed his novel as a ‘romance’, and in second and subsequent editions published under his own name. It met mixed reviews from critics at the time, particularly following Walpole’s confession that it was not a manuscript translation but his own slightly satirical take on romance novels.
Today, however, Otranto is perceived by many to be the start of Gothic fiction, and many of the ideas in it can be seen as tropes occurring throughout later work.
Later Gothic fiction
Gothic and Romanticism are closely linked – both inspire emotions of awe and often terror, and Gothic novels frequently feature romantic subplots and beautiful virginal maidens. Gothic has often been rubbished as sensationalism or simply too fantastical to be considered ‘good’ literature, yet its appeal has endured.
The late 18th and most of the 19th centuries saw Gothic literature remain a permanent and popular genre. But why did its audience have such an appetite for the unsettling, dramatic and supernatural? Many consider it – not unreasonably – to be a way of coping with a fast-changing world around them.
Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, new social structures and technological advancements were a cause for concern for many. Gothic frequently pushes our limits, the bounds of what we think is possible: in context, it allows us to realise our fears safely, in the pages of a book rather than seeing them acted out in real life.
Often the Gothic juxtaposes the ancient and the modern, letting two worlds collide dramatically. As readers saw extreme examples of their fears materialising (for example, a centuries-old Transylvanian vampire arriving in Victorian Whitby in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), what was going on around them proved slightly less terrifying.
The Castle of Otranto may have been the start of the Gothic fiction genre, but it was far from the last. From the overtly supernatural to the subtly sinister, Gothic explores the full spectrum of human emotions, and gives us a thrill of unease that is rarely found in the mundanity of every day life – it allows us to escape.
Henry James said ‘the most mysterious of mysteries, [are] the mysteries which are at our own doors’, and it is often fear of the supernatural rather than the supernatural itself which terrifies readers: the horrors of our own imagination are incredibly potent.