Contents Index

Contexts -- Gothic

Horace Walpole is often credited with establishing the Gothic novel in England with his Castle of Otranto (1764); its medieval castle with its secret doors and subterranean passages established many of the conventions of the genre.

The term Gothic is derived from a medieval style of architecture suggestive of a passionate and barbarous world, filled with evocative ruins of abbeys and castles. The setting above all marked a departure from the domestic fiction popularized by Samuel Richardson, and although there are noteworthy continuities in the plots and themes -- sensitive heroines in distress being threatened with respect to their virtue and even their lives -- the Gothic gave greater emphasis to the Sublime and the supernatural.

Clara Reeve followed Walpole's lead with The Old English Baron (first published as The Champion of Virtue) in 1777, and William Beckford combined a Gothic atmosphere with Oriental romance in Vathek (1786). But the heyday of Gothic fiction came in the 1790s, the decade of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) by Anne Radcliffe and The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. William Godwin Played against conventions of the the Gothic novel in Caleb Williams, in 1794, and Mary Wollstonecraft even more strongly set her final work, the naturalistic novel Maria; or, the Wrongs of Woman, which was published posthumously in 1798, in determined opposition to the mode. But such opposition could not dampen the enthusiasm either of the public or of writers for the genre. Percy Bysshe Shelley began his serious writing career with two Gothic novels penned in his late adolesence, Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811).

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey -- one of her first pieces of writing (begun around 1798 but published posthumously in 1818) -- parodies many Gothic conventions, as her heroine, Catherine Morland, is seduced into believing that the events described in Gothic novels (particularly those in Radcliffe's works) are to be found in real life. The year 1818 also saw the publication of another parody of the Gothic, Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey in which a figure modelled after Shelley plays a prominent part.

Later masters of the Gothic include Charles Robert Maturin (Melmoth The Wanderer, 1820), Edgar Allen Poe, and Bram Stoker. Gothic elements have long been a part of the work of such science fiction writers as H. G. Wells.