Grim and Grandiose: The Gothic Novel

Audio Edition Coming Soon!

For the last few weeks, I’ve been living in the world of Jane Austen. As of today I have read all of her novels except for Emma, which I’m about halfway through. She is not my favorite 19th century author (that distinction goes to Charlotte Brontë), but I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the literary mastery and elegance of craft that her work exhibits.

However, I will admit that I prefer seeing the film adaptations of her novels, particularly the ones with the screenplay written by Andrew Davies: Pride and Prejudice (1995) with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, Northanger Abbey (2007) with J.J. Feild and Felicity Jones as Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, and Sense & Sensibility (2008) with Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Right now I’m just a little bit obsessed with Northanger Abbey (and yes, I am totally blaming that on J.J. Feild’s Mr. Tilney.)

An interesting side effect of that obsession was exposure to an area of literature that I had left virtually unexplored up until this point: traditional Gothic novels.

The entire subgenre of Gothic story-telling combines medieval romanticism with elements of mystery, horror, and the supernatural. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1764, is considered the first of its kind and quickly gained a following. Something about the combination of melodrama, mystery, and lurid settings caught the public imagination, although critics usually didn’t take them at all seriously. Gothic novels became very popular and gave rise to all kinds of variations on similar themes and narrative formulas. This gave other authors the opportunity to write parodies of Gothic literature. One of those was Jane Austen, who wrote Northanger Abbey as a direct refutation of the melodramatic artifice of Gothic novels. Although the set-up for the traditional Gothic tale is there with the ominous Abbey and its equally frightening owner, it is made clear that Catherine Morland’s imagination has run away with her as she indulges in all sorts of fantastical notions about the supposed secrets of the old house. In the end there is no real mystery, no secret passages or grisly murders, no ghosts with clanking chains or (many) fainting heroines. Reality triumphs over fiction.

Image result for the mysteries of udolphoThis is where things get a little meta. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine often references a book called The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. At first I thought this was just a made-up title for the purpose of the story, but a little more research led to me realize that Udolpho was real, as was another “horrid” book that the characters mention called The Monk by Matthew Lewis. I was curious to see what kind of literature was influencing Catherine in Northanger Abbey, so I decided to read them. Plus, horror and romance often cross over with speculative fiction, including fantasy, and it’s always good to learn about the origins of your chosen genre. I’m about halfway through The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is actually a rather seminal work that influenced many later authors, including the Marquis de Sade and Edgar Allen Poe.

It’s interesting to see how very different the focus and structure is for novels from the 1700s and 1800s as compared to the 21st century. The hallmarks of the Gothic genre are almost alien to a modern reader. The emotions expressed by the characters are almost ludicrously over-the-top, the pacing is glacial in some parts and far too fast in others, and there is an over-abundance of description of the landscape. I swear, I have never seen so much sighing and weeping and carrying on in a novel before, by both the women and the men! The descriptions are quite lovely, even poetic, but the main character, Emily St. Aubert, doesn’t set foot in the titular Udolpho Castle for almost 200 pages!

By modern standards The Mysteries of Udolpho is rather strange, often clunky, and unrealistically emotional. But it also forces the reader to slow down and really consider the relationship between setting, atmosphere, plot, and the emotional state of the characters. Gothic fiction showcases the landscape and setting as its own character, which is something that can get overlooked in fast-paced modern fiction. And if the melodrama is toned down a bit, many of the scenarios are quite chilling and work well to add suspense or raise the stakes. While I wouldn’t recommend recreating the original style of Gothic novels in all their particulars, they still have elements that can be a great asset in crafting the atmosphere of your own stories.

Just don’t forget to include the black veil… especially if it’s made of muslin.

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