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GOTHIC FICTION

Introduction

by Peter Otto

4 - Gothic revolutions

1789 was also the year in which the French Revolution began, marked by the convocation of the Estates-General, the establishment of the National Assembly, and the fall of the Bastille. These events, along with the reign of Terror (1792-95) inaugurated by Robespierre, provided the most important of the catalysts that transformed early Gothic into the "high" Gothic of the 1790s and first decades of the next century. In the often quoted words of the Marquis de Sade, Gothic fictions were "the necessary fruit of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe".

Although De Sade was not alone in holding this view, the precise relation between the events in France and "high" Gothic is a matter for dispute. For De Sade, the misery that became commonplace in the aftermath of the French revolution, coupled with the democratisation of writing, had made the novel "as difficult to write as it was monotonous to read". Misfortunes were commonplace and "there was not an individual left" who was unable to depict what s/he had suffered. "In order to confer some interest on their productions, it was necessary to appeal to hell for aid and to find chimeras in the landscape".

On the level of form, Hazlitt proposes a relation of partial congruence between disorderly literatures and disorderly times (in contrast to De Sade's belief that, in the case of the Gothic, the former amplifies the latter). He writes, for example, that "Mrs. Radcliffe's 'enchantments drear', and mouldering castles, derived part of their interest ... from the supposed tottering state of all old structures at the time". Yet this symmetry enables a more profound dissymmetry:

“It is not to be wondered at, if amidst the tumult of events crowded into this period, our literature has partaken of the disorder of the time; if our prose has run mad, and our poetry grown childish.”

Gothic fictions afford a retreat from the chaotic events of the real world.

"A JACOBIN NOVELIST", the anonymous author of a "Letter to the Editor" published in the Monthly Magazine in August 1797, agrees with De Sade that the writers of Gothic fictions were attempting to maintain interest in the novel. The relation between the French revolution and the Gothic novel is, however, much closer than De Sade allows: the latter imitates and is directly taught by the former. According to "A JACOBIN NOVELIST", by the last decade of the eighteenth century the events presented by novelists as "a description of human life and manners" had become either stale or outmoded: "There are", for example, "but few ways of running away with a lady, and not many more of breaking the hearts of her parents". Just when novelists "were threatened with a stagnation of fancy", Maximilian Robespierre "arose ... with his system of terror" to teach them "that fear is the only passion they ought to cultivate, that to frighten and instruct were one and the same thing". The prime agent of this influence is imitation. Indeed, "A JACOBIN NOVELIST" writes that

“alas! so prone are we to imitation, that we have exactly and faithfully copied the SYSTEM OF TERROR, if not in our streets, and in our fields, at least in our circulating libraries, and in our closets. Need I say that I am adverting to the wonderful revolution that has taken place in the art of novel-writing, in which the only exercise for the fancy is now upon the most frightful subjects, and in which we reverse the petition in the litany, and riot upon 'battle, murder, and sudden death'.”

In the late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries, perhaps the most sustained reflection on the relation between Gothic fictions (along with the reading habits, tastes, and communities they fostered) and the French Revolution is conducted by Gothic novelists themselves. Lewis's The Monk and Radcliffe's novels (from A Sicilian Romance to The Italian), are deeply and self-consciously concerned with social and aesthetic matters made problematic by events in France. For Radcliffe in particular (and for many of her followers), a key theme is the problem of how one should read books, characters and events in a world where traditional sources of authority are suspect.

Charles Lucas's The infernal Quixote. A tale of the day (London: Minerva, 1801) is a bitter response to the "Jacobin" sentiments of Gothic novelists such as William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft. Francis Lathom's The midnight bell, a German story, founded on incidents in real life (London: H. D. Symonds, 1798) and Carl Grosse's The dagger capitalise on popular interest in the heroic/shocking scenes of the French revolution and the Terror. In Charlotte Smith's The banished man (London: T. Cadell, jun. and W. Davies, 1794) and Mary Pilkington's remarkable The subterranean cavern; or, Memoirs of Antoinette de Monflorance (London: Minerva, 1798), the fictional horrors of the Gothic become political, converging with the horrors of revolutionary turmoil. As Frank notes, "Pilkington's heroine is caught up in the dangerous flux of revolutionary ideas and is called upon to demonstrate her heroism by investigating all of the violent possibilities released by the revolution".

It is important to note, however, that the "revolutionary tremors felt" in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century emanated from sources more diverse than the preceding discussion has implied. There were three other "great" revolutions in this period - the agrarian, the industrial, and the American – and all played a role in producing "the tumult of events" reported by Hazlitt and to which Gothic was in part a response.

One should also add that Gothic fictions are the first genre designed for a mass, popular market; they are a product of yet another revolution, "The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-century England" and of improvements in book production and circulation. Indeed, a large measure of the anxiety provoked by the Gothic is related to the perceived difficulty of keeping the fictional worlds and experiences enjoyed by the rapidly growing reading public in a "proper" relation to the "real" world sanctioned by authority.

For conservative writers, such difficulties were thought most likely to arise amongst the often female readers of popular genres, where reading was a leisure activity ungoverned by accepted protocols. It was often assumed that Gothic was such a genre and that circulating libraries, which had proliferated from the middle of the eighteenth century, had helped create the new reading audience that hungered for this kind of popular, recreational fiction. In Sheridan's The Rivals (1775), Sir Anthony Absolute claims that

"a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! – And depend on it ... that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last".

Certainly, as Jacobs notes, "By the time Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian appeared in 1797, British reviewers routinely complained that circulating libraries were degrading literature by pandering Gothic romances and other generic hack fiction to female readers".

By the end of the eighteenth century there were many publishers of popular literature and hundreds of circulating libraries to distribute it. In London, the most well-known was William Lane's Minerva Press and Circulating Library. "In its heyday the Minerva Library had a stock of nearly seventeen thousand books and circulated thousands of volumes throughout Britain, both to individual subscribers and in collections loaned to shopkeepers in provincial and seaside towns. In 1791 Lane was advertising complete circulating libraries of one hundred to ten thousand volumes for sale to shopkeepers interested in a sideline to their business".

The appetite of Lane's Minerva Press for Gothic fictions made plausible the rumour that he would pay five pounds for any unpublished work of fiction. Owing in part to his interest in new writers (their manuscripts were less expensive than those produced by established authors), Minerva published "twice as many works by women as by men". The Minerva authors included in this collection include, apart from those recommended by Isabella: Sophia Francis, Ann Julia Hatton, Thomas Pike Lathy, Anna Mackenzie, John Palmer, Mary Pilkington, Regina Maria Roche, and many others.

Minerva brought William Lane wealth and a degree of notoriety. George Daniel writes, for example, in The Modern Dunciad (1814) that:

“Although, in raising spirits and the rest,
Lewis without a rival stands confest.
Though sprites appear obedient at his will,
Ghosts are but ghosts; and demons, demons still;
Alike in matter, and in form the same:
Hobgoblins differ only - in the name:
Yet Lewis trembles lest his fame be won,
And Mistress Radcliffe fears herself outdone.
But these are harmless, Satire must confess,
To the loose novels of Minerva’s Press;
Such melting tales as Meeke and Rosa tell;
For pious Lane, who knows his readers well,
Can suit all palates with their diff’rent food,
Love for the hoyden, morals for the prude!
Behold! with realms of nonsense newly born,
Th’industrious pack who scribble night and morn;
Five pounds per volume! an enormous bribe,
Enough, methinks, to tempt a hungry scribe.”

Daniel's complaint is, in essence, that Minerva is willing to feed indiscriminately the debased appetites of the public. At one pole of the Press's promiscuous mix of publications one might place Mary Meeke's Mysterious husband. A novel (London: Minerva, 1801), a story of subdued terrors, domestic sentiment, and happily resolved genealogical puzzles. Writing to support herself, Meeke ("Gabrielli") published 34 novels of this kind (twenty-eight with Minerva), all closely attuned to public taste. At the other pole is Rosa Matilda's (Charlotte Dacre) Zofloya; or, The Moor (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806), replete with neurotic obsessions, sadistic passions, sexual transgressions, supernatural terrors and eternal damnation. The notoriety of this novel was no doubt augmented by the fact that Dacre was the daughter of John King, the well-known radical writer, money-lender and blackmailer.

Minerva's novels are "loose", it seems, not merely because some include sexually explicit writing but because the Press and the Library make no attempt to discriminate between novels of "Love for the hoyden" and of "morals for the prude". Both kinds of fiction are treated as commodities to be bought and consumed.

Hazlitt implies, as does "A JACOBIN NOVELIST", that the fictional worlds propagated by Gothic fictions have not merely eclipsed the real, but conditioned our sense of what constitutes the real. The sense that the border between fictional and actual realities is shifting (and even that reality is conditioned by fantasy) conditions Gothic satires such as Austen's Northanger Abbey, Mary Charlton's Rosella, or, Modern occurrences (London: Minerva, 1799), Eaton Stannard Barrett's The heroine, or Adventures of a fair romance reader (London: Henry Colburn, 1813), and Ircastrensis's Love and horror; an imitation of the present, and a model for all future romances (London: J. J. Stockdale, 1815).

No matter how one explains the phenomenon, by the close of the eighteenth-century Gothic fictions were one of the most widely-read genres. The extent of its popularity is suggested by Mayo's claim "that about a third of all fiction published in volume form between 1796 and 1806 was frankly 'Gothic' in character, or at least included important scenes of sentimental terror".

5 - The Northanger Novels

6 - Radcliffe and her Imitators

7 - Lewis and her Followers

8 - Terror and Horror Gothic

9 - Gothic Echoes / Gothic Labyrinths

 

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