Gothic novel

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The Gothic novel is a form of fiction which became popular in England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Gothic novels often involve elements of the supernatural and were designed to give a pleasing frisson of terror to the reader.


One can trace elements of the Gothic novel in earlier novels such as Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett, published in 1753; but the first full-fledged Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which appeared in 1764. Set in the thirteenth century, this tale involves princes, a castle, murder and a ghost, and purported - a common Gothic convention - to be a translation from an Italian original. The novel quickly created a new fashion in novel-writing, in which a large element consisted on playing on the emotions of the reader. Gothic fiction is thus a part of the wider movement of romanticism in literature and the arts, and of the reaction of the more measured "classical" style which had dominated literature in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Other writers jumped on the Gothic bandwagon, and Gothic novels stayed very popular well into the nineteenth century. Jane Austen made affectionate fun of them in Northanger Abbey, as did Thomas Love Peacock in Nightmare Abbey. Among the key writers in the genre was Ann Radcliffe. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe incorporate many Gothic elements, as does much of the popular fiction - including many of the so-called "penny dreadfuls" - of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the Titus Trilogy of Mervyn Peake is a major example of Gothic fiction.

Gothic literature influenced more mainstream writers, including Lord Byron and John Keats (especially in Isabella). The ghost story and the horror novel are direct descendants of the genre.

Characteristics of the Gothic novel

All Gothic novels introduce an element of terror, suspense and mystery. They generally incorporate many of the following:

  • cliff-hanger chapter endings
  • supernatural elements such as ghosts, magicians, werewolves, monsters and devils
  • a medieval setting, often with a castle, dungeons, ruins, or a monastery
  • mad characters
  • merciless, flamboyant villains
  • persecuted damsels
  • curses which pass down the generations
  • dark secrets
  • the Inquisition

Gothic authors and their novels

Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) can be considered the first true gothic novel. The tale - a real horror story - is about the tyrant Manfred who has taken possession of the principality of Otranto. In order to secure an heir, he wants his son to marry Isabella, but his son Conrad dies mysteriously and Manfred decides to marry the girl himself. A demon tries to thwart him. The entire medieval setting and nightmarish atmosphere is Gothic. Walpole gave the new genre its name, with the subtitle "A Gothic Story" in the second edition.

Clara Reeve

Clara Reeve (1729-1807) was the author of several novels, but only one of them became famous: The Old English Baron (1777). The book first appeared anonymously under the title The Champion of Virtue and only in 1778 as The Old English Baron. She was clearly inspired by Walpole's Castle of Otranto. Her novel would on its turn influence Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe had already written three novels that established her reputation as a writer, but it was only with the gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) that she earned 500 British pounds, considered to be an enormous amount of money in her days. The publisher must have had confidence in her, for he paid her in advance, which also gives proof of the popularity of the gothic literature in the years following 1790. Three years later, in 1797, she found success with The Italian, that yielded up to 600 British pounds. This was also the last novel she wrote in her life, she then withdrew and nothing more was heard of her. Christina Rosetti, a great admirer of her work, even had to give up her plan to write Radcliffe's biography due to lack of information. Ann Radcliffe died in 1833. She was followed by less gifted imitators whose gothic books soon filled the shelves. Gothic novels novels were indeed very popular and accounted for roughly one third of total book sales. Both Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Walter Scott were involved as publishers in the development of the new genre. Both acknowledged that Ann Radcliffe had found an own romantic style.

Matthew Lewis

"The Monk", a gothic story, was written by Matthew Lewis when he was only 19 years old, and as soon as it was published in 1796 it became an incredible success. Sir Walter Scott expressed his astonishment as follows: "It seemed to create a new epoch in our literature". Lewis' story, however, shocked many readers, not only because of the depraved monks, sadistic inquisitors and ghosts of nuns who played their part in it, but mostly because of the mockings and irreverent remarks about the Catholic Church.

The hero of the story, Lorenzo, longs for the beautiful Antonia. A monstrous being however intervenes and drags the innocent girl away. Ambrosio, "the monk", helped by the witchcraft of Matilda, takes possession of the body of the creature. Lewis describes the horrific events, including the torture and rape of Antonia by the monster, in a very visual way. He also takes his time describing the ultimate eternal punishment of the monk:

"He stifled her cries with kisses, treated her with the rudeness of an unprincipled Barbarian,... and in the violence of his lustful delirium, wounded and bruised her tender limbs."

Many contemporaries found the explicit sexuality and violence distasteful, and the writer of the infamous horror story soon became known as "Monk Lewis" Even Ann Radcliffe, who had inspired Lewis to write a gothic novel, criticized the shocking scenes depicted in The Monk, and allegedly wrote The Italian as a protest against Lewis' book.

Mary Shelley

The circumstances under which Mary Shelley 's novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) came about speaks as much to the imagination as the story itself. In the summer of 1816 Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed with other guests in Lord Byron's Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva. One evening they decided to hold a story telling contest: they all had to come up with the most terrifying ghost story they could imagine. Initially, Mary did not have much inspiration, but then, during a sleepless night, she had a vivid dream with powerful imagery:

"When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. . . . I saw--with shut eyes, but acute mental vision--I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together"[1]

The author presents the play of her creative mind as if she were a mere medium receiving these terrible images. Mary Shelley began writing the story when she was 18 years old and the novel was published anonymously in London when she was 20. Only from the second edition did her name appear on the cover.

Some Gothic novels

Gothic novels include:

The full text of many of these can be found on The Gothic Bookshelf at Project Gutenberg.

Sources and references

  1. Mary Shelley, from her introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein
  • David Stevens: The Gothic Tradition, Cambridge University Press (2000)
  • Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Gothic, Routledge '(2007)