The gothic novel is a living tradition, a form that enjoys great popular appeal while provoking harsh critical judgments. It began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), then traveled through Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,Edgar Allan Poe,Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and many others into the twentieth century, where it surfaced, much altered and yet spiritually continuous, in the work of writers such as William Faulkner, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, John Gardner (1933-1982), Joyce Carol Oates, and Doris Lessing and in the popular genres of horror fiction and some women’s romances.
The externals of the gothic, especially early in its history, are characterized by sublime but terrifying mountain scenery; bandits and outlaws; ruined, ancient seats of power; morbid death imagery; and virgins and charismatic villains, as well as hyperbolic physical states of agitation and lurid images of physical degradation. Its spirit is characterized by a tone of high agitation and unresolved or almost-impossible-to-resolve anxiety, fear, unnatural elation, and desperation.
The first gothic novel is identifiable with a precision unusual in genre study. Walpole (1717-1797), the earl of Orford, began writing The Castle of Otranto in June, 1764,; he finished it in August and published it in an edition of five hundred copies in early 1765. Walpole was a historian and essayist whose vivid and massive personal correspondence remains essential reading for the eighteenth century background. Before writing The Castle of Otranto, his only connection with the gothic was his estate in Twickenham, which he called Strawberry Hill. It was built in the gothic style and set an architectural trend, as his novel would later set a literary trend.
Walpole did not dream of what he was about to initiate with The Castle of Otranto; he published his first edition anonymously, revealing his identity, only after the novel’s great success, in his second edition of April, 1765. At that point, he no longer feared mockery of his tale of a statue with a bleeding nose and mammoth, peregrinating armor, and an ancient castle complete with ancient family curse. With his second edition, he was obliged to add a preface explaining why he had hidden behind the guise of a preface proclaiming the book to be a “found manuscript,” printed originally “in Naples in the black letter in 1529.” The reader of the first edition was told that The Castle of Otranto was the long-lost history of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. The greater reading public loved it, and it was reprinted in many editions. By 1796, it had been translated into French and Spanish and had been repeatedly rendered into dramatic form. In 1848, the novel was still active as the basis for successful theatrical presentations, although the original gothic vogue had passed.
Close upon Walpole’s heels followed Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin. These three authors, of course, were not the only imitators ready to take advantage of the contemporary trend (there were literally hundreds of those), but they are among the few who are still read, for they made their own distinctive contributions to the genre’s evolution. Radcliffe (1764-1823) was born just as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was being published. She was reared in a middle-class milieu, acquainted with merchants and professionals; her husband was the editor of The English Chronicle and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She lived a quiet life, was likely asthmatic, and seems to have stayed close to her hearth. Although she never became a habitué of literary circles and in her lifetime only published a handful of works, she is considered the grande dame of the gothic novelists and enjoyed a stunning commercial success in her day; she is the only female novelist of the period whose work is still read.
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