The origins of the Gothic

Professor John Mullan examines the origins of the Gothic, explaining how the genre became one of the most popular of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the subsequent integration of Gothic elements into mainstream Victorian fiction.
Gothic fiction began as a sophisticated joke. Horace Walpole first applied the word ‘Gothic’ to a novel in the subtitle – ‘A Gothic Story’ – of The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. When he used the word it meant something like ‘barbarous’, as well as ‘deriving from the Middle Ages’. Walpole pretended that the story itself was an antique relic, providing a preface in which a translator claims to have discovered the tale, published in Italian in 1529, ‘in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England’. The story itself, ‘founded on truth’, was written three or four centuries earlier still (Preface). Some readers were duly deceived by this fiction and aggrieved when it was revealed to be a modern ‘fake’.

The novel itself tells a supernatural tale in which Manfred, the gloomy Prince of Otranto, develops an irresistible passion for the beautiful young woman who was to have married his son and heir. The novel opens memorably with this son being crushed to death by the huge helmet from a statue of a previous Prince of Otranto, and throughout the novel the very fabric of the castle comes to supernatural life until villainy is defeated. Walpole, who made his own house at Strawberry Hill into a mock-Gothic building, had discovered a fictional territory that has been exploited ever since. Gothic involves the supernatural (or the promise of the supernatural), it often involves the discovery of mysterious elements of antiquity, and it usually takes its protagonists into strange or frightening old buildings.

Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole [page: frontispiece and title page]

Illustration featuring typical Gothic motifs from the 1765 edition of The Castle of Otrantro, first published 1764.

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The Mysteries of Udolpho

In the 1790s, novelists rediscovered what Walpole had imagined. The doyenne of Gothic novelists was Ann Radcliffe, and her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) took its title from the name of a fictional Italian castle where much of the action is set. Like Walpole, she created a brooding aristocratic villain, Montoni, to threaten her resourceful virgin heroine Emily with an unspeakable fate. All of Radcliffe’s novels are set in foreign lands, often with lengthy descriptions of sublime scenery. Udolpho is set amongst the dark and looming Apennine Mountains – Radcliffe derived her settings from travel books. On the title page of most of her novels was the description that was far more common than the word ‘gothic’: her usual subtitle was ‘A Romance’. Other Gothic novelists of the period used the same word for their tales, advertising their supernatural thrills. A publishing company, Minerva Press, grew up simply to provide an eager public with this new kind of fiction.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho [page: vol. I frontispiece and title page]

The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe was one of the most popular and influential Gothic novels of the late 18th century.

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Northanger Abbey

Radcliffe’s fiction was the natural target for Jane Austen’s satire in Northanger Abbey. The book’s novel-loving heroine, Catherine Morland, imposes on reality the Gothic plots with which she is familiar. In fact, Radcliffe’s mysteries all turn out to have natural, if complicated, explanations. Some critics, like Coleridge, complained about her timidity in this respect. Yet she had made a discovery: ‘gothic’ truly came alive in the thoughts and anxieties of her characters. Gothic has always been more about fear of the supernatural than the supernatural itself. Other Gothic novelists were less circumspect than Radliffe. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), was an experiment in how outrageous a Gothic novelist can be. After a parade of ghosts, demons and sexually inflamed monks, it has a final guest appearance by Satan himself.

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Matthew Lewis, The Monk [page: frontispiece and title page]

This frontispiece illustration and title page summary from an 1818 edition of The Monk by Matthew Lewis (first published 1796) provides a flavour of how extreme and dramatic the novel was.

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The Bleeding Nun, of the Castle of Lindenberg; or, the history of Raymond & Agnes

Illustrations of the Bleeding Nun from the Gothic novel, The Monk (1796), written by Matthew Lewis.

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Frankenstein and the double

A second wave of Gothic novels in the second and third decades of the 19th century established new conventions. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) gave a scientific form to the supernatural formula. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) featured a Byronic anti-hero who had sold his soul for a prolonged life. And James Hogg’s elaborately titled The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is the story of a man pursued by his own double. A character’s sense of encountering a double of him- or herself, also essential to Frankenstein, was established as a powerful new Gothic motif. Doubles crop up throughout Gothic fiction, the most famous example being the late 19th-century Gothic novella, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This motif is one of the reasons why Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny (or unheimlich, as it is in German) is often applied to Gothic fiction. In his 1919 paper on ‘The Uncanny’ Freud drew his examples from the Gothic tales of E T A Hoffmann in order to account for the special feeling of disquiet – the sense of the uncanny – that they aroused. He argued that the making strange of what should be familiar is essential to this, and that it is disturbing and fascinating because it recalls us to our original infantile separation from or origin in the womb.

Extreme psychological states and horror

Another writer who commonly exploited doubles in his Gothic tales was the American Edgar Allan Poe. He used many of the standard properties of Gothic (medieval settings, castles and ancient houses, aristocratic corruption) but turned these into an exploration of extreme psychological states. He was attracted to the genre because he was fascinated by fear. In his hands Gothic was becoming ‘horror’, a term properly applied to the most famous late-Victorian example of Gothic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The opening section of Dracula uses some familiar Gothic properties: the castle whose chambers contain the mystery that the protagonist must solve; the sublime scenery that emphasises his isolation. Stoker learned from the vampire stories that had appeared earlier in the 19th century (notably Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu, who was his friend and collaborator) and exploited the narrative methods of Wilkie Collins’s ‘sensation fiction’. Dracula is written in the form of journal entries and letters by various characters, caught up in the horror of events. The fear and uncertainty on which Gothic had always relied is enacted in the narration.

First edition of Dracula

Cover for the first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897.

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The Gothic in mainstream Victorian fiction

Meanwhile Gothic had become so influential that we can detect its elements in much mainstream Victorian fiction. Both Emily and Charlotte Brontë included intimations of the supernatural within narratives that were otherwise attentive to the realities of time, place and material constraint. In the opening episode of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the narrator, Lockwood, has to stay the night at Heathcliff’s house because of heavy snow. He finds Cathy’s diary, written as a child, and nods off while reading it. There follows a powerfully narrated nightmare in which an icy hand reaches to him through the window and the voice of Catherine Linton calls to be let in. The vision seems to prefigure what he will later discover about the history of Cathy and Heathcliff. Half in jest, Lockwood tells Heathcliff that Wuthering Heights is haunted; the novel, centred as it is on a house, seems to exploit in a new way the Gothic idea that entering an old building means entering the stories of those who have lived in it before.

Illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Barnett Freedman

Illustration of Lockwood’s nightmare vision where Cathy reaches through the window. By Barnett Freedman, estimated 1940.

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Copyright: © Estate of Barnett Freedman

Two of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, feature old buildings that appear to be haunted. As in the Gothic fiction of Ann Radliffe, the apparition seen by Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall, where she is a governess, and the ghostly nun glimpsed by Lucy Snowe in the attic of the old Pensionnat where she teaches, have rational explanations. But Charlotte Brontë likes to raise the fears of her protagonists as to the presence of the supernatural, as if they were latterday Gothic heroines. Gothic still provides the vocabulary of apprehensiveness. Similarly, Wilkie Collins may have introduced into fiction, as Henry James said, ‘those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors’, but he liked his reminders of traditional Gothic plots. In The Woman in White, all events turn out to be humanly contrived, yet the sudden appearance to the night-time walker of the figure of ‘a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments’ haunts the reader as it does the narrator, Walter Hartright (ch. 4). The Moonstone is a detective story with a scientific explanation, but we never forget the legend that surrounds the diamond of the title, and the curse on those who steal it – a curse that seems to come true. The final triumph of Gothic is to become, as in these examples, a vital thread within novels that otherwise take pains to convince us of what is probable and rational.
  • John Mullan
  • Professor John Mullan is Head of Department for English at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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