Gothic Literature

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Representative Authors

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William Beckford (1760–1844)
William Beckford, known as both the richest and most eccentric man of his time, was born September 29, 1760, in London, England. By all accounts, Beckford was brilliant, musically gifted, and highly artistic. He was also scandalous and hedonistic. He had no desire to follow in his father’s political or business footprints, much to his father’s dismay. Rather, young Beckford preferred to travel, write, spend money, and collect art. Because of improper relationships with his cousin’s wife, Louisa, and a young man named William “Kitty” Courtenay, Beckford was sent by his mother to the Continent to give the scandal time to die down. Indeed, young Beckford’s life followed this pattern repeatedly. He would remain in England until the scandals mounted and then would retreat to the Continent for a cooling-off period. He married in 1783 in a movement to save whatever was left of his reputation; however, his wife died in childbirth in 1785. During this time, Beckford built and rebuilt Fonthill Abbey, considered either the most amazing building or the greatest folly in England at the close of the eighteenth century. Like Horace Walpole, only much, much wealthier, Beckford indulged his passion for the Gothic and for collecting art with his domicile. Another important trait of Beckford’s was his fascination with Oriental mysticism. At an early age, he read and reread The Arabian Nights. This passion led directly to his composition of Vathek in 1786. Beckford died on May 2, 1844, at Lansdowne Crescent, after battling fever and influenza.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)
The first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, was born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia on January 17, 1771. Although he began his education with the intent to become a lawyer, the law soon lost its appeal for him. Apparently, the task of the lawyer to defend a client whether the client was innocent or guilty bothered Brown’s sense of morality. This sense of morality often led Brown to take socially radical stances. In this, he seems deeply connected to and influenced by William Godwin. For example, Brown’s novel Alcuin (1798) explores the ambiguities of marriage and the rights of women. It is for Wieland (1798), however, that Brown earned his reputation as a Gothic writer. Considered Brown’s best novel, Wieland explores the roles of religion and rationality. Clearly, Brown’s insistence on a moral stance separates him from some of the earlier Gothic writers such as Beckford and Lewis. Nevertheless, Brown’s intense fascination with the inner workings of a character’s mind deeply influenced later writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Brown died in Philadelphia on February 19, 1810, from what was believed to be tuberculosis.

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818)
Born in London on July 9, 1775, M. G. Lewis attended school in Westminster and Oxford. He traveled to Germany in 1792, where he learned to speak German. While there, he became well-acquainted with German Gothic fiction. He stated to his mother that the reading of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho inspired him to write his most famous work, The Monk , published in 1796. Tradition has it that he completed the work in ten weeks and that it instantly made him a literary star at the age of twenty. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Lewis was referred to by his contemporaries as Monk Lewis. Lewis introduced graphic horror into the Gothic genre, describing in great detail physical torture and putrefaction, as well as steamy sexual encounters. Whereas Radcliffe relied on suspense, or the fear of violence, to motivate her readers, Lewis abandons the fear of violence for...

(This entire section contains 1667 words.)

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the violence itself. Unlike Radcliffe, Lewis used supernatural devices without feeling compelled to offer rational explanations for uncanny events. It was through such techniques that Lewis incorporated German popular literature into the mainstream of English literature. Lewis died of yellow fever on May 16, 1818, on the way home from Jamaica, where he was visiting his inherited holdings on the island.

Charles Robert Maturin (1780–1824)
Charles Robert Maturin was born in Dublin, Ireland, on September 25, 1780. Maturin attended Trinity College, Dublin. His family, noted Huguenot refugees active in the Anglo-Irish community, met with reversal when his father was dismissed from his civil service job. Maturin, who had taken orders in the Anglican church in 1803, attempted to augment his living by writing. Although his drama, Bertram, met with success on the London stage, Maturin’s financial prospects continued to diminish. Some attribute his growing eccentricities to his attempts to deal with poverty. Certainly, both his nationalism and his criticism of the Anglican church did not endear him to the Anglo-Irish community. The author of several novels, Maturin is best known for Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). There are many historians and literary critics who call this both the last and the greatest of the Gothic novels. His work attracted admiration from such literary figures as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Makepeace Thackeray. The French writer Honore de Balzac even wrote a sequel to Melmoth the Wanderer. Maturin died at the age of forty-four on October 30, 1824, in Dublin.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
Born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most well known of all American writers. He was orphaned at three and raised by John Allen, with whom he had an uneasy lifelong relationship. Poe was a victim of depression; he turned to alcohol for relief and eventually became an alcoholic. His marriage to his beloved cousin Virginia Clemm ended with her death in 1847. While many critics suggest that Poe is a post-Gothic writer, he nevertheless uses many of the conventions of the Gothic form in his own work, including medieval settings, supernatural occurrences, terror, and ruins. Certainly, “The Fall of the House of Usher”(1834) has all of the Gothic ingredients. Moreover, Poe is particularly important to the ongoing influence of the Gothic on contemporary literature, moving the genre from an external to an internal focus. Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, from complications related to a brain lesion.

Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823)
Ann Radcliffe, born Ann Ward in London on July 9, 1764, wrote a series of Gothic romances that set the course of the genre for years to come. Indeed, Radcliffe’s name is nearly synonymous with a particular style of the Gothic, one that uses the supernatural but generally provides a rational explanation at the end. Young Ann Ward married William Radcliffe, a well-to-do Oxford graduate, in 1787. They had no children and traveled extensively. Radcliffe’s diaries of her travels seem to have provided settings and detail for her novels. Unlike other more notorious Gothic writers, Radcliffe lived in relative obscurity, although she achieved immense success with her novels. In 1794, Radcliffe published what was to become the most popular of her novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Like other Gothic novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho is set in rugged mountains. Radcliffe’s novel, The Italian (1797), written in response to Lewis’s The Monk, is generally regarded as the superior novel, however. Alastair Fowler in The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature credits Radcliffe with establishing “wild landscape as a standard feature of romance; even if, as she wrote, the full terror of landscape was already fading.” Fowler further argues that Radcliffe’s technique was deliberate: by interspersing elaborate description into her narrative, Radcliffe “keeps delaying the action and distancing it into perspective.” Perhaps the most influential of all Gothic writers, Radcliffe retired from writing at the height of her career, unhappy with the uses to which her writings were put. Ann Radcliffe died suddenly in London on February 7, 1823.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, born in London on August 30, 1797, to feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, moved in the most radical literary circles of her day. At sixteen, she became the mistress of the poet Percy Shelley and a close personal friend of George Gordon, Lord Byron. The death of her mother when she was ten days old haunted her all her life. Mary Godwin, as the daughter of two intellectuals, was well educated and self-taught, able to hold her own against some of the best minds of her time. In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin, her lover Percy, and her stepsister Claire traveled to Switzerland, where they took up residence near Lord Byron on Lake Geneva. It was here that the well-known ghost story competition among the young literati produced Mary Shelley’s best-known novel, Frankenstein. In December of 1816, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin married. Six years later, Percy Shelley died by drowning in the Ligurian Sea. Mary Shelley died in London from a brain tumor on February 1, 1851. Her work continues to exert influence on contemporary fiction and criticism.

Horace Walpole (1717–1797)
Born September 24, 1717, in London, Horace Walpole was the Earl of Orford. Educated at Eaton and Cambridge, Walpole became friends with Thomas Gray, Richard West, and Thomas Ashton, early members of the so-called Graveyard School of poetry. Gray in particular influenced Walpole in his development of a Gothic imagination. In 1739, Walpole toured the Continent with Gray, crossing the Alps, another important influence on his development as a Gothic writer. In 1747, Walpole purchased Strawberry Hill, a home on the Thames River in Twickenham. For nearly thirty years, Walpole built and rebuilt the house, turning it into a “little Gothic castle,” in his own words. Walpole also established a private press at Strawberry Hill, and it was from here that he published his most famous work, The Castle of Otranto, in December 1764. Initially, Walpole hid the fact that he was the author of the work, saying that it was a translation by William Marshall of a medieval Italian text. The book met with success, however, and in the second edition, Walpole revealed his own authorship. He told a friend in a letter that the idea for the novel had come to him in a dream. The Castle of Otranto is particularly significant because it was the first Gothic novel written. Indeed, the novel provided for later writers nearly every convention found in subsequent Gothic writing. After a long life of letters, politics, and architectural innovations, Walpole died at Berkeley Square, London, on March 2, 1797.