What does the word “Gothic” mean to you? Gothic cathedrals and castles? Gothic fiction? Teenage goths dressed in black? Horror and the supernatural? This episode explores the origins of the gothic and one man’s lasting influence on this most important of genres.
Prof Dale Townshend is Professor of Gothic literature in the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, where his research interests lie in all aspects of Gothic writing (romance; drama; chapbooks; poetry) of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He has published extensively on a range of gothic topics. You can see all his publications and read his full bio here.
He is currently coordinating a programme called Experiencing Britain’s Ruins: Revenants and Remains at Five Northern English Religious Houses, an exciting programme of public events, tours, workshops and other activities. You can check it out here
Works Referenced and Mentioned
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (I used the Oxford World’s Classic ed, which has an excellent introduction by Nick Groom)
Horace Walpole: The Mysterious Mother
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Matthew Lewis: The Monk
Here’s more on Christ Church Catherdral, in Dublin
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There have been plenty of gothic episodes on WTTE.
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Transcripts: The Origins of the Gothic
S6 Ep4: Gothic Origins
I’m Conor Reid, with Words to that Effect
Stories of the fiction, that shapes popular culture
What does the word “gothic” mean to you?
I’m standing just outside Christ Church Cathedral, in the centre of Dublin. Think of the word “gothic” and for many people, it will be architecture that springs to mind. Gothic cathedrals, in particular, with their pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses.
“Flying buttress” is a great term –there are lots of them behind me here, helping to distribute the weight of the vaulted ceiling of the Cathedral.
Christ Church is a gothic cathedral because it was built in a gothic style in the 12th century. But a lot of what we see today actually dates from the 19th century, when the cathedral was extensively renovated in a neo-Gothic style.
Stroll a few minutes down Dame Street here and you get to a very different building – the Central Bank building, currently a building site as it’s being completely renovated. Growing up in Dublin, though, the plaza outside the Central Bank was where all the Goths hung out. Another, very different type of gothic. No flying buttresses, but plenty of black eyeliner, black clothes, surly teenagers and morbid post-punk music.
It’s not hard to imagine at one point a teenager dressed entirely in black was sitting around, listening to Marilyn Manson’s classic goth tune If I Was Your Vampire. Any maybe they were looking down the street at Trinity College, with its own famous vampire connection.
One of the university’s graduates, Bram Stoker, is the author of that most renowned of Gothic texts –Dracula.
Another type of Gothic, and an association that many will have when the hear the word “gothic”: dark tales of horror and the supernatural, whether in fiction, tv, or film.
Ornate cathedrals, morose subcultures, horror fiction. Gothic, it turns out, means quite a lot of things. And they’re all connected, in one way or another.
It can get all kind of complicated. I think we need a gothic guide:
I’m Dale Townsend. I’m professor of Gothic literature in the Manchester Centre for Gothic studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. And I’m interested in all aspects of the Gothic but my particular field of research is Gothic writing of the 18th and early 19th centuries
So, if you want to understand the history of the gothic, you’ve got the go back to the Goths, who you might recall as that tribe of Northern Europeans who sacked Rome in the 5th century. What we know about the Goths tends to be all from a Roman perspective and, as you might imagine, this is not particularly positive. As with the Vandals, who also clashed with Rome around the same time, and where we get the word “vandalism” from, the Goths were seen as destructive, barbarous, violent.
This sense became particularly common during the Renaissance to describe art and architecture
So, in that context Gothic means something that’s a little deformed, perhaps a little wild, a little uncouth, something that resists the mannered, smooth surfaces and rhythms and perspectives of classical art. Something that is in some ways, unenlightened, something that is associated with darkness, barbarism. And that is how the term circulates negatively in the work of Italian humanists – remember, they’re recovering classical civilization and classical culture. So anything that is anti-classical, like the Gothic, is dismissed and is seen as kind of bad taste.
In Britain, though, in the 17th century, this all gets completely upended. If gothic is the opposite of the beauty and order of classical Rome, then that’s fine when Rome is being held up as this ideal. But what happens when suddenly you don’t want to celebrate Rome because it’s the home of the Pope and Roman Catholicism, and your country has just had a Glorious Revolution and deposed the last Catholic monarch? Well, then maybe Gothic suddenly isn’t such a bad thing after all…
So what happens here is that through several sleights of hand and rhetorical shifts, and some convenient misrepresentation, and mistranslations, the Angles, Saxons and the Jutes – the kind of original inhabitants of Britain or those who came to Britain, are misrepresented as Goths, and part of the ancient Gothic tribe. And it’s believed that these Goths who came to England, established in Anglo Saxon society, early forms of democracy, what we would now call democracy, although in the 18th century the term is kind of freighted with a number of negative meanings. But these Anglo Saxons were Goths and established some primitive forms of government that have persisted right until this day. So the late 17th century believes in what we are doing in this glorious revolution, in vanquishing the Stuart line of kings and the autocracy of the Stuart line of kings, and the Divine Right of Kings, the Stuarts had invoked, all we are doing is re-establishing ancient Gothic liberties.
So now we have another type of Gothic, one connected with politics and an idea that Northern European democracy could be described as gothic.
At this point, we still don’t really have anything that we might recognise as “gothic” today – there are no dark and gloomy castles, no ghosts or supernatural elements, no horror. As we’ll see, this will all soon come, but there is one figure in particular who is important here, William Shakespeare, a man tellingly described as Our Gothic Bard:
Elizabeth Montague calls him our Gothic Bard in her essay on the writings and genius of Shakespeare in the late 1760s. So, what she means by Shakespeare as our Gothic Bard is, well, first of all, he’s natively English. Secondly, he doesn’t derive from a classical tradition in keeping with the anti-classical, anti-Roman impulses of the word Gothic. But thirdly, his plays are replete with imaginary beings, with ghosts, with fairies, with goblins. And you only have to think of plays like Hamlet or Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Tempest, etc. to see this concern with the supernatural. This concern with the afterlife with other worlds with goblins, fairies, imaginary beings. So the term Gothic in the 18th century, although it’s not primarily used as a descriptor of a certain brand of literature, or a strain of literature, does include intimations of the literary, and intimations of the supernatural and horror and terror.
So, leading up to and into the 18th century there are a lot of often wildly contradictory ideas emerging. Gothic is bad: it’s destructive, and barbarous and uncivilised. It is not Roman, in a classical sense. But it’s also not Roman in a Catholic sense, so maybe that’s good. Maybe we need some barbarism, maybe all the classical art and architecture and is too European. We need something that is natively English, like the Gothic (with those Goths, don’t dwell on this for too long, from Germany).
So, there’s a lot going on here, but luckily there is one figure around whom a lot of this comes together: Horace Walpole.
Walpole is a fascinating character. He was the son of what we’d now call the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. And, as you might imagine, he was well-off, well-travelled, and well-educated. Horace Walpole also became an MP, but he is best remembered for his other pursuits in art, architecture and letters. He was a voluminous correspondent, with opinions on absolutely everything, and he wrote letters to practically everyone of importance in the 18th century. He was also an art collector and antiquarian, and a writer. He even had his own private printing press.
In the history of the Gothic, though, he is remembered for two things: a book and a building. Let’s start with the building:
He buys a very unprepossessing house called Chop Straw Hall in Twickenham, on the banks of the Thames, just outside London, as a summer residence, in the late 1740s. And slowly over the next three decades starts, to coin his own verb, ugly verb, I think, gothicizing it, that is turning into a testament to the mediaeval past, or one particular version of the mediaeval past. So, he’s
not the first exponents by no means the first exponents of the Gothic revival in architecture of the 18th century. But he is probably the most prominent Gothic architectural revivalist before I would say, William Beckford’s work at Fonthill in the 1760s. One of the reasons for this is simply because Walpole loved his house, and his house is extraordinarily well documented. He a man of money he could commission artists to reproduce, to print, to produce paintings and watercolours and sketches of his house and there are numerous of these. He also writes and publishes at his own private press, which he establishes, that he in time called Strawberry Hill, his own kind of guidebooks to the house and distributes these to his friends etc.
So, Strawberry Hill, this Gothisized house becomes this magnificent, important tribute to gothic architecture, which he is reviving kind of against the grain of received tastes in the 18th century, being the great age of Palladianism and neoclassicism in architecture, but also in literature.
Not a very gothic name, Strawberry Hill, seems a bit cheery to me, but anyway. I’ve never been, but it’s definitely on my list of places to go to next time I’m in London.
So that’s the building. Before we get to the book, I want to take a quick break to tell you about two other shows. The first is a show which is connected to an episode one I did a while back, all about dinosaurs. I loved making that episode but it was just a single episode. If you feel like you need to know a lot more about dinosaurs, then I’d recommend you check our I Know Dino
The second podcast I want to tell you about is a brand new show on the HeadStuff Podcast Network, called The Late Night Nod. It is so good – it’s got original music and improvised interviews with guests from a fictitious world of arts and culture. It’s like listening to a great late evening radio show that suddenly gets very surreal. And the music is unbelievably good too. Check it out
So back to Horace Walpole, who is the owner of an outrageous Gothic mansion. And in 1764 he decides to publish a story, The Castle of Otranto, a work that is generally agreed to be the first gothic novel. It’s set in a gloomy castle, in Italy, in the 13th century. There are secret passageways and family secrets and a father lusting after his daughter in law, and noble hero and terrible punishments. Crucially, it’s also got the supernatural.
the Castle of Otranto is a short, sometimes funny, sometimes camp, always outrageous, romp through a castle, sometimes said to be Strawberry Hill – although I don’t think that is a particularly convincing reading of the novel – involving the supernatural, introducing a ghost here, normally, to prose fiction, taking the ghost from the Shakespearean stage largely, but also from the romance tradition of mediaeval and Renaissance literature, and injecting it as it were, into short prose fiction. Because Walpole says, you know, the novels of Richardson and Fielding have become dull. They’ve cramped up the powers of the imagination. We are in the shackles of a terrible realism. And we need to invigorate modern literature, he says, with the imaginative capabilities and capacities of ancient Romance. And part of that is introducing the ghost to modern fiction.
Interestingly, and initiating another tradition of gothic fiction, Walpole didn’t publish the text under his own name, but as a translation of an Italian text from the medieval Italy. So this isn’t a modern text, it’s not an English text, this is simply a translation of an ancient, discovered document from medieval Italy.
The novel was a huge success and so Walpole decided to publish a second edition the following year. This time, though, he put his name to it, and he wrote a new preface, explaining what he had done with the first edition and defending his literary hoax.
Most importantly, in a subtitle to this second edition, he calls the Castle of Otranto, for the first time, a gothic story.
I think what is remarkable is to chart the differences in response to the first and the second edition. When readers and critics thought that this was a relic of the ancient mediaeval past, the ancient Gothic past – although the term Gothic doesn’t feature anywhere at all in the first edition, not even architecturally when Walpole is discussing the Castle of Otranto itself – but when people were able to pass this off as an authentic mediaeval document, the response was appreciative. And they saw it as a kind of relic or a trace of Gothic barbarism, quite different from our enlightened modern present. But fascinating. Remember, we’re in the great epoch of antiquarianism. So as a kind of antiquarian fascination, it inspired great admiration.
But when Walpole reveals himself as the author, and by implication the fact that this text has modern origins, the reception changes almost overnight, and the same critics who celebrated the text for the first edition, denounce it as some sort of monstrous aberration that has manifested itself in the present moment. How could culture possibly produce this Gothic devilism, one critic says. So the reception changes enormously across the first and the second edition
The reception may have changed, but that’s not to say the text wasn’t widely read and extremely influential. 30 years later, in the 1790s, there was a flurry of gothic texts. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, and Walpole also published another Gothic work he had written in the 1760s, The Mysterious Mother. These, and many other 18th century authors owed a lot to The Castle of Otranto
I think Otranto remains enormously important there even though I think that Walpole’s influence is eclipsed by Ann Radcliffe, in the 1790s, who is the greatest, most innovative, most influential, most highly paid, most successful, most widely read, Gothic author of the late 18th century. But even in Radcliffe, there’s very much a sense of Walpole’s legacy living on and it being a continuation of Walpole’s legacy despite her own innovations in the Gothic form.
Another very important trope that Walpole bequeaths to later Gothic writing, and one that is still very much around today, is that indecision between facts and fancy. Is this really a discovered document? An artifact, a relic from the mediaeval past or is this a modern confection? You only have to think of modern horror films like The Blair Witch Project where that tension is still very much in place.
Another crucial trope, of course, is the imperilled heroine, and you think of Isabella, running through the subterranean dungeons of The Castle Of Otranto being pursued by her lascivious father in law, Manfred, and that trope of the imperilled heroine becomes crucial to women’s Gothic writing in the 1790s, not only Radcliffe, but a host of other writers, it becomes crucial to Matthew Gregory Lewis and The Monk, and still very much in place in the 19th century. And even today, you think of, you know, a film like Panic Room with the trope of female incarceration, with the trope of anxiety, with women being locked up and abused and threatened. That all goes right the way back to the Castle of Otranto
And then, of course, there’s the architecture. I began this episode by talking about a gothic cathedral, and gothic literature and architecture have always been closely connected, from Strawberry Hill onwards. Haunted castles and other medieval buildings, ruined abbeys and churches, architecture which inspire terror. Ruins in particular are important, as they were connected to the Reformation, in which Catholic buildings had been destroyed and deliberately left derelict.
So, architecture shapes and structures gothic fiction, as in the chapels and bedchambers, secret trapdoors and claustrophobic corridors of the Castle of Otranto.
But it also inspires gothic fiction in a much wider sense. There were debates at the time around what type of architecture was more likely to prompt awe and fear, and flights of fancy – the classical buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, or the castles and cathedrals of medieval times.
Almost invariably, Gothic writers are of the opinion that Gothic architecture, by which they mean mainly the ruins of mediaeval buildings, are the most suited to inspiring imaginative creations and this is why they take their bearings from ruins in the landscape. So, a ruined abbey becomes culturally important in the late 18th century as testimony to England’s deliverance from Catholicism, as they see it, through the English reformation. So what happens in these ruins is Gothic writers project fancies or visions of mediaeval life into them, peopling them with ghosts, with evil friars, with dreadfully imaginings in order to I suppose culturally in the present moment, distance Britain from this benighted, Catholic unenlightened past. A benighted, Catholic unenlightened past, but one that is still very much attractive because of the frisson, of otherness of horror and terror, one that we can’t quite let go of. So that is what happens around abbeys. The same happens around ruined castles many of which had been ruined and slighted during the English Civil War. So, these are, if you like, signs of trauma, these ruins are signs of trauma on the British landscape that become recuperated for aesthetic reappraisal and, in that process become muses to Gothic writers.
There is a much, much longer history of the gothic, from the huge popularity of gothic tales in the 1790s through to texts like Frankenstein or Edgar Allen Poe’s work, mid-century penny dreadfuls to late century tales like Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde, and on to the many, many gothic subgenres and offshoots of the 20th and 21st centuries. But don’t worry, there are WTTE episodes on lots of these areas – go have a listen, if you haven’t already. Gothic has remained a central, and crucial part of our culture for several centuries now.
One of the well rehearsed perhaps over-rehearsed cliches of Gothic scholarship is that Gothic always arises in moments of cultural crisis, be at the French Revolution, be it the fin de siecle, the late 19th century, be it anxieties around war and climate collapse, and immigration in our own cultures. And Gothic always helps to kind of punctuate, work through, embody the anxieties of any particular culture at any particular time. That anxiety model is severely limited, I think, because Gothic is a lot more than just an articulation of cultural anxieties. But nonetheless there is something to say about that way of understanding the Gothic
So there’s always the sense in which Gothic is a kind of dark mirror, to what is happening in any particular historical present at any particular moment in time. And I think for that reason, it is in the Gothic that we uncomfortably recognise ourselves. It’s in the Gothic monster that we see so many of the fears of our own cultures represented, misrepresented, inverted, and made to stand up as examples of virtue and vice. So Gothic is enormously important, even though it’s not written in a mimetic representational mode, even though it draws on fantasy and romance, it is one in which we can catch glimpses of the so called Real all the time. And that’s one of the fascinating paradoxes of gothic fiction and film, from the 18th century, right through to the present day.
Sometimes, when it feels like it did to Walpole all those years ago, that we are “in the shackles of a terrible realism”, the Gothic can be truly liberating.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
A huge thanks this week to Prof Dale Townshend. He has written a massive amount about so many aspects of the gothic so you can check all that out on his academic site, which I’ll link to.
He’s also running a project at the moment called Revenants and Remains, which has all sorts of events, including creative writing workshops inside gothic ruins, which sounds amazing.
I’ve put a link to that as well on the WTTE website, which is wttepodcast.com. You’ll find full transcripts, images, links, and lots more there, as well as the various places you can follow the show on social media
The show is a part of the HeadStuff Podcast Network, and if you would like to support the show you can join HeadStuff+ and get bonus episodes, discounts on merch and live shows and lots more from all the shows on the network.
Artwork is by Matt Mahon and Words To That Effect is recorded in The Podcast Studios Dublin.
And that’s it. See you next time