The imperial Gothic

Mysticism, degeneracy, irrationality, barbarism: these are the qualities that came to define the non-western ‘other’ in 19th-century Britain. Here Professor Suzanne Daly explores the ‘Imperial Gothic’, examining the ways in which ‘otherness’ and Empire were depicted in Gothic novels such as Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Dracula and Heart of Darkness.

The term ‘imperial Gothic’ most commonly refers to late 19th-century fiction set in the British Empire that employs and adapts elements drawn from Gothic novels such as a gloomy, forbidding atmosphere; brutal, tyrannical men; spectacular forms of violence or punishment; and the presence of the occult or the supernatural. In Orientalism (1978), literary critic Edward Said demonstrated how 18th- and 19th-century European scholars influentially defined the ‘Orient’, in stark opposition to the West, as mysterious, barbaric, irrational, seductive and dangerous. Such conceptions of the ‘East’ would prove highly compatible with the conventions of Gothic fiction. Classic examples of the late-Victorian imperial Gothic genre as defined by Patrick Brantlinger include H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887), both set in Africa, Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Phantom Rickshaw’ (1888), which takes place in British India, and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), set in Egypt and London.

She by Henry Rider Haggard

Selected pages from the third edition of Henry Rider Haggard’s She, published in 1891.

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The roots of imperial Gothic

The roots of imperial Gothic may be seen in the 18th-century literature that has come to be categorised as ‘Orientalist Gothic’. The first English-language translations of The Arabian Nights appeared in the early 18th century, and their immense popularity created a public desire for ‘Oriental tales’ in prose and verse that continued unabated into the early 19th century. Drawing on the Nights, these stories frequently featured tyrants, harems, dungeons, abductions, betrayals, and mysticism; much of this material would eventually find its way into Gothic novels such as William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), originally published in English as An Arabian Tale, and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya (1806).

The Arabian Nights Entertainments

The Arabian Nights Entertainments [page: vol. 1 frontispiece and title page]

The first European translation of Arabian Nights, or One thousand and One Nights, was translated in French by the orientalist scholar, Antoine Galland. This translation by G S Beaumont, from 1811, is of Galland’s work.

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The Oriental Moralist

The Oriental Moralist [page: frontispiece and title page]

The Oriental Moralist (1790) was the first selection of tales from The Arabian Nights to be made especially for children.

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In the 19th century, authors increasingly incorporated Gothic and Orientalist elements, including imperial settings, into works of historical and domestic fiction. Walter Scott’s novella The Surgeon’s Daughter (1827), set in Scotland and India, concerns the illegitimate son of a treacherous English nobleman who decoys his Scottish fiancée to India in order to sell her into the harem of a fictionalised Tipu Sultan; he is executed by a trained elephant who tramples him to death at his master’s command.

Imperial darkness and hidden menace in Jane Eyre

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), key plot points map onto specific locations across the British Empire. The hidden menace lurking in Thornfield Hall – Rochester’s dreary ancestral home – is his insane and ‘infamous’ wife Bertha, a Jamaican-born heiress whose ‘dark’ beauty suggests racial mixing, a common element of imperial Gothic (ch. 27). Bertha’s mental and moral degeneration are hereditary, passed down ‘through three generations’, yet they seem to bear some relation to Jamaica’s sultry climate and corrupt planter society, whose wealth derives from slave labour (ch. 26). Jane narrowly escapes the degradation of a bigamous marriage to Rochester, but must fend off her cousin, a missionary who wishes her to accompany him to India as his wife. She gains independence only after inheriting money from her uncle, a Madeira wine merchant. Like most imperial Gothic novels, Jane Eyre makes extensive use of two popular stereotypes regarding the British Empire: it is a place where great fortunes may be made, but often at grave risk to British bodies, minds and souls.

Edmund Garrett's illustrations to Jane Eyre

Edmund Garrett's illustrations to Jane Eyre

Illustration of Bertha Mason by Edmund H. Garrett, a renowned American illustrator, for an 1897 edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

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The Moonstone and the corrupting nature of the imperial

That risk is compounded when the corrupting element returns to England to prey upon unsuspecting Britons. The ‘demoniac’ Bertha, who eventually burns Thornfield to the ground, exemplifies a common imperial Gothic plot device: people and things with imperial origins turning peaceful English homes into scenes of Gothic terror (ch. 15). In Wilkie Collins’s sensation novel The Moonstone (1868), Rachel Verinder’s disgraced, opium-addicted uncle bequeaths her a cursed Indian diamond that he stole from Brahmin priests to whom it was a sacred object. The appearance of the diamond, which Rachel inherits on her 21st birthday, heralds the loss of her lover, the dissolution of her household and the death of her mother. Yet Collins’s treatment of the imperial theme is equivocal; The Moonstone depicts the Indian priests who follow the diamond to England as murderous and superstitious, but condemns the greed of its English characters in biting terms. To the English, the diamond represents Indian wealth that they regard as theirs to plunder; the Brahmins, to whom the diamond represents spiritual values, ultimately reclaim it and return to India unharmed.

The Moonstone’s central mystery is eventually solved by Jennings, a half-English, half ‘Eastern’ physician whose strangely foreign appearance evokes fear and suspicion. Although Jennings is a sympathetic character who is seen to suffer greatly because of English racism, he dies shortly after restoring Rachel to the man she loves. Unmarried and childless, he is the last of his line. Thus The Moonstone, while refusing to pander overtly to contemporary fears of racial impurity and racial contamination, effects narrative closure in part by purging the foreign characters from its pages.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone [page: frontispiece and title page]

Selected pages from an 1868 edition of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.

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Notions of race in Dracula

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), conversely, the vampire is explicitly a figure of foreign otherness, possessed of a terrifying ability to turn the English into members of his ‘race’. Stephen Arata has observed that in Dracula, Stoker frequently uses the word ‘blood’, in the sense of ‘bloodlines’ or ‘foreign blood’, to denote racial or national identity. By draining his victims’ blood, Dracula therefore in some sense deracinates them; by turning humans into vampires, he gives them a new, foreign racial identity.[1] Feeding on the blood of diverse races renders Dracula racially impure as well, a symbol of miscegenation (the interbreeding of those considered to be different racial types). As many critics have noted, Dracula presents a case study in depicting the foreign as Gothic.

Manuscript of Bram Stoker's Dracula playscript

On this page Count Dracula discusses his desire to visit London, a city in which he would be regarded as a 'stranger'. From Bram Stoker's manuscript of the theatre version of Dracula, 1897.

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Degeneration in Heart of Darkness

Yet Dracula also reflects fears that the English ‘race’ might be subject to degeneration, a concept that was widely debated in the last years of the 19th century. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) explores a related anxiety: that under certain circumstances, what Marlow calls the ‘dark places of the earth’ could reveal English civilisation to be an easily stripped veneer.[2] Brantlinger notes that three central themes of late-Victorian imperial Gothic are ‘individual regression or going native; an invasion of civilization by the forces of barbarism or demonism; and the diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world’.[3] In exploring these themes, Heart of Darkness, which represents the imperial Gothic in its most fully developed form, both reveals and enacts the contradictions that structure the ‘civilising mission’ of imperialism. Marlow explains that Kurtz, who was dispatched to Africa by the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to write ‘a report for its future guidance’, has been fatally seduced by

the heavy mute spell of the wilderness that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.[4]

Elsewhere, Heart of Darkness indicts European rapacity and cruelty in King Leopold II’s Belgian Congo, yet the novel’s critique of imperialism has proven difficult for many readers to reconcile with passages that imagine Africa as savage, mystical and dangerous. As in its earlier literary incarnations, the Imperial gothic strain in Heart of Darkness starkly divides the world into Europe and its others while suggesting that it is Europeans who cannot resist seeking out, and attempting to dominate, the 'blank spaces' of an 'unknown earth'.[5]


[1] Arata, Stephen D. ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization’. Victorian Studies, 33.4 (Summer 1990), 621-645 (p.630).

[2] Jospeh Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. by Robert Kimbrough, 3rd edn (New York: Norton, 1988), p.9. 

[3] Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988), p.230.

[4] Conrad, p.50, p.65.

[5] Ibid., p.11, p.8. 

Further reading

Stephen Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization’, Victorian Studies, 33 (1990), 621-645.

Patrick Brantlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880-1914.’ in chapter five of Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988).

Suvendrini Perera, Reaches of Empire: The English Novel from Edgeworth to Dickens (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

Caryl Phillips, “Out of Africa”, The Guardian, Friday 21 February 2003 [accessed 1 April 2014]

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993).

Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre, ed. by Andrew Smith and William Hughes (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003).

  • Suzanne Daly
  • Suzanne Daly is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she specializes in Victorian literature and British Empire studies. She is the author of The Empire Inside: Indian Commodities in Victorian Domestic Novels, and has published articles on Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anthony Trollope.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.