Gothic Novel or The Novel of Terror

Broadly speaking, the first half of the eighteenth century was a period of realism and didacticism in literature. The two new genres created in this period-the periodical essay and the novel-are particularly steeped in the realistic and didactic spirit.

The note of realism in fiction which started with Daniel Defoe continued even in the second half of the century. It was carried forward by Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. The novel all along was essentially concerned with life and society as they were, and often with the exploration of the ways and means to make them better. In addition to didacticism and realism, a note of sentimentalism can also be discerned in later fiction under the influence of Richardson. But sentimentalism was only a secondary characteristic; the primary and essential characteristics of the novej from Defoe to Fanny Burney are realism and didacticism.

But after Fanny Burney, and even some time before her, the English novel seems to have grown out of the grooves of conventional realism and didacticism. The last years of the eighteenth century are often dubbed as the age of transition—transition from the neoclassicism of the school of Pope to the romanticism of the early nineteenth century. In these years we find a shift of emphasis in the novel too. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765) was the first work of fiction which broke away completely from the traditions of the realistic and didactic (and often, sentimental) novel and started the vogue of what is called “the Gothic romance” or “the novel of terror.” Walpole and his followers created in their novels a blood-curdling and hair-raising world of haunted castles, eerie ruins, macabre ghosts, harrowing spectacles of murder, and a hundred other elements calculated to strike terror in the reader and to make him perspire all over. Mostly, the “terror novelists” were crude sensationalists whose works were mere schoolboy exercises devoid of any artistry. Most of them transported themselves to the medieval Europe supposedly full of the spirit of chivalry, romance, and mystery. As most of them turned to the Middle Ages for their material, they are called “Gothic” novelists (Some of them, like William Beckford, however, looked to the Orient for their material). Very few of these novelists showed any appreciable knowledge of human psychology, perhaps because no such knowledge was at all required for the kind of work they were up to. Most of them turned to the supernatural to add to the atmosphere of awe and terror. All this goes to show that the terror novelists were of the nature of crude and thrill-hungry romantics who came before the true efforescence of romanticism in the early years of the nineteenth century. But some of them like Horace Walpole were in fact hard-boiled intellectuals who indulged in Gothic romance as an escape from the oppressive boredom of the world of reality. Their medievalism was, thus, a sham, a mode of escape. For the true romanticists like Coleridge and Keats the hazy and romance-bathed Europe of the Middle Ages was a real world: they lived and breathed in it; they did not escape into it, as they were always there. But the terror novelists like Walpole were dilettantes and pseudo-medievalists who did not believe a word of all that they wrote. Their world was a make-believe world created just to kill a few idle hours which happened to be free from any intellectual activity.
After these preliminary remarks let us consider individually the work of the more important of terror novelists.
Horace Walpole (1717-97):
Horace Walpole was the pioneer of the Gothic novel in England. Just as Percy with his Reliques and Macpherson with his Ossianic poems heralded the romantic movement in English poetry, Horace Walpole with his novel The Castle ofOtranto (1764) heralded the romantic movement in English fiction. He reacted against the realism, didacticism, and sentimentalism of the followers of Richardson and Fielding. He did not think higly of even Richardson and Fielding themselves. After reading the fourth volume of Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison he set it aside saying :”I was so tired of sets of people getting together, and saying, ‘Pray, Miss, with whom are you in love?’ His desire was to shake arid shock such niminy-priminv sentimentalism and to give a story altogether chilling and thrilling. He said good-bye to his own age and chose for the scene of his novel Italy of the twelfth or thirteenth century, full of the spirit of mystery, supernatural ism, and crime. It is of interest to note that he was something of an antiquarian very much interested in the art of the Middle Ages, particularly Gothic architecture. Ifor Evans in A Short History of English Literature observes; “Walpole carried out the medieval cult more completely than most of his contemporaries, and at Strawberry Hill he constructed a Gothic house, where he could dream himself back into the days of chivalry and monastic life.” Horace Walpole was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, the famous Prime Minister of England. He was a witness to the boredom of higher political life, and his medievalism was perhaps an escape from this oppressive boredom.
The Castle of Otranto was first published in 1764 and was given out to be the English translation of an old Italian manuscript. In the second edition, however, Walpole admitted that it was all his own work. The events narrated are supposed to belong to Italy of the twelfth or thirteenth century. The scene of action is the castle situated at Otranto. Manfred, the villain-hero, is the grandson of the usurper of the kingdom. He intends marrying his son to the beautiful Isabella; but on the day of the marriage his son is mysteriously killed, and he himself decides to marry Isabella after divorcing his wife. But Isabella escapes with Theodore, a young peasant. Manfred decides to kill Isabella, but mistakenly kills his own daughter who loves Theodore and is at that instant accompanying him. The castle is thrown down by the spirit of the true ruler who had been killed by Manfred’s grandfather. Theodore is revealed to be the son of that ruler. He marries Isabella and establishes himself as the ruler of the realm in place of Manfred.
The story is puerile in the extreme. Its Gothicism and supernaturalism are also crude and unconvincing. Even the most naive reader will fail to believe such events as the walking of a picture, coming out of three drops of blood from the nose of a statue, and the descent of a huge helmet apparenly from nowhere—not to speak of the account of ghosts and the mysterious fulfilment of a prohecy. Walpole’s supernaturalism is not at all psychologically convincing like Coleridge’s for example, or Shakespeare’s. It is strange to find Walpole comparing himself to Shakespeare in his use of the supernatural. He wrote: “That great master of nature, Shakespeare, was the model I copied.” Ifor Evans observes about this claim: “It is as if all the poetry and character had been removed from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, only to leave the raw mechanism of melodrama and the supernatural.” What in reality Walpole sincerely tried to copy from Shakespeare was the mixing of the tragic and comic elements by punctuating the very sombre narrative with instances of the naivete of domestic servants. But Walpole does not succeed here either. As George Sherburn points out, Walpole draws the domestic servants “so feebly that they fail almost totally in comic power.”
Walpole’s medievalism is also sham.He never shows any real knowledge of the times and places which he handles in the story. As a historical novel The Castle of Otranto is, thus, worthless. His “medieval escape,” as George Sherburn puts it, “simply provided a no man’s land where startling, thrilling, sensational happenings might be frequent.” Everything, however incredible, passes muster in a Gothic setting. No explanation of the supernatural incidents is considered desirable by Walpole at all, and none is offered.
The Castle of Otranto became, in spite of all its absurdities, quite popular, and was imitated by a large number of writers including Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe. Walpole with his own example set the tradition of Gothic romance which was obliged to him for numerous “conventions.^’ According to Moody and Lovett, these conventional elements are:-
(i)                 “a hero sullied by unmentionable crimes”;
(ii)               “several persecuted heroines”;
(iii)             “a castle with secret passages and haunted rooms”;
(iv)              (iv) “a plentiful sprinkling of supernatural terrors.”
Mrs. Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823):
Though Mrs. Radcliffe was an imitator of Walpole yet her attempts at the Gothic romance were much more successful and artistic than Walpole’s. She was in fact the ablest and the best of all the practitioners of this kind of writing. She was the loving wife of a journalist, and wrote five romances just to while away her leisurer-The most famous among them are The Mysteries ofUdolpho (1764) and The Italian (1797). The scene in both of them is the mysterious land of Italy: in the former Italy of the sixteenth century, and in the latter that of the eighteenth. Mrs. Radcliffe almost always wrote to a formula. A beautiful young woman is kept imprisoned by a hardened, sadistic villain, in a lonely castle, and is ultimately rescued by a somewhat colourless hero. These heroes and heroines are all modelled after the same pattern. The only variety the heroines admit of is of their complexion. Otherwise, all are sentimental, and, in Compton-Rickett’s words, “ar»true sisters of Clarissa, both in emotional expression and in moral impeccability.” Add to all that the usual paraphernalia of terror elements. “She”, observes L*ouis I. Bredvold, “availed herself to the fullest of loathsome dungeons, secret vaults and corridors, all essential features of the castles of Gothic romance.” Let us consider the main points of her work, in most of which she differs from Walpole
(a)        She is quite timid in her use of the supernatural. Just before the end of a novel she tries to explain away all the supernatural incidents as misunderstood versions of quite natural phenomena She works very well through subtle suggestion, especially through the description of eerie sounds.
(b)        She introduces in her novels the element of scenic description which was altogether neglected by Walpole. She is perhaps the first of English novelists in her interest in the scenery for its own sake. She never visited the countries she dealt with in her novels, but her descriptions are vivid and entirely credible.
(c)                 Her grasp of real history is as poor as Walpole’s. On the very first page of The Mysteries ofUdolpho she expressly tells us that the incidents of the story belong to the year 1584. However, this year could easily be substituted by another without any difference.
(d)                 In her novels she reconciles didacticism and sentimentalism with romance, whereas Walpole had entirely forsaken the realistic, didactic, and sentimental tradition of eighteenth-century novel.
Matthew Lewis or “Monk” Lewis (1775-1818):
Matthew Lewis, nicknamed “Monk” Lewis on account of his Gothic romance of that title, seems to have completely neglected the lesson of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe. The Monk is a blood-curdling nightmare of macabresque ghosts, rotten corpses, weird magic and witchcraft, and a thousand other horrifying elements. According to Samuel C. Chew, “in The Monk (1797), a nightmare of fiendish wickedness, ghostly supernaturalism and sadistic sensuality, there is almost indubitably something else than mere literary sensationalism: it gives evidence of a psychopathic condition perhaps inherent in the extremes of the romantic temperament.” He further observes that “The Monk may be considered the dream of an ‘oversexed’ adolescent, for Lewis was only twenty when he wrote it.” Lewis never made any attempt like Mrs. Ann Radcliffe to rationalise his supernatural. He was out for the crudest sensationalism, and therefore he cannot be ranked high among the terror novelists, in spite of being the most terrifying of all.
Miss Clara Reeve (1729-1807), Charles Robert Matnrin (1782-1824), and Mrs. Shelley (1797-1851):
They were the most important of the rest of Gothic novelists. Miss Clara Reeve’s Champion of Virtue, afterwards entitled The Old English Baron, was obviously inspired by Walpole. She laid the scene in England of Henry VI, but, like Walpole, she did not show much genuine knowledge of the age she handled. Compton-Rickett observes : “Miss Reeve thought to improve upon the original and economised with her supernatural effects; but she only succeeded in exceeding Walpole’s tale in its tedium, repeating most of his absurdities and showing even less acquaintance with medieval life.”
Maturin wrote his romance The Fatal Revenge (1807) as a follower of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe. However, his masterpiece is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) which, according to Samuel C. Chew, is “the greatest novel of the school of terror.” It differs from most novels of this type in its well-patterned structure and its attempt at the analysis of motive.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) is, in the words of Samuel C. Chew, “the only novel of terror that is still famous.” It is the story of the ravages of a man-made monster equivalent to the modern “robot”. Decidedly, Mrs. Shelley’s work gave many hints to the future writers of science fiction such as H. G. Wells. She may with equal justice be considered the first of the writers of science fiction as the last of the novelists of the terror school.
William Beckford (1760-1844) the Oriental Romance:
Beckford, in Compton-Rickett’s words, “was certainly a man of considerable force of intellect and brilliant though hectic imagination.” Though he was a novelist of the terror school yet we cannot include him among the Gothic romancers, as his novel Vathek (1786) had for its background not a European country of the Middle Agess but the Arabia of yore. He was probably influenced by the Mass of translated versions of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Chinese tales which were flooding the England of his times. In Vathek there is, to be sure, the usual presence of a good quantity of the terror apparatus. Vathek is a caliph, a kind of Moslem Faustus, who sells his soul to Eblis (the Devil). The description of his end and the fiery hell is, indeed, the most terrifying. In league with Eblis Vathek commits the most blood­curdling crimes, and his end is as horrifying as his deeds. Beckford succeeds in conveying a rich impression of Oriental magnificence and splendour combined with unchecked sensuality. Vathek was immensely popular for the exotic thrills offered by it.

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