The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole

Taking the fright to the French

Haunted castles, trapdoors, mysterious recovered manuscripts and diabolical monsters… all are trademark ingredients of a literary form that began to emerge from the depths of authors’ imaginations in the late 18th century: the Gothic novel.

Modern-day readers are well used to consuming grisly tales of the supernatural. Yet 250 years ago the Gothic novel – which derives its name from the ‘Gothic’ architecture of the medieval ruins in which many of its plots are based – was startlingly new. So much so that the first example of the genre, The Castle of Otranto, is widely regarded as a landmark in British literature.

When it first appeared on Christmas Day 1764, the novel claimed to be the work of one “William Marshal, Gent” who had translated a manuscript he had discovered in “the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”.

In his preface to the manuscript, Marshal declares that “Whatever [the author’s] views were,… his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment”. What follows is a story imbued with mystery and terror – the tale of a vicious power struggle over of the princedom of Otranto that involves a tyrannical usurper, a heroine in distress and a mammoth plumed helmet – all set in a Catholic principality in Italy far from Protestant, cosmopolitan, enlightened London.

Of course, The Castle of Otranto wasn’t written by William Marshal at all. Marshal was, in fact, the creation of Horace Walpole MP, who coyly admitted his authorship in the second edition of the novel, where he justified his creation by labelling it “A Gothic Story”.

The reality of what ‘Gothic’ meant to Walpole was complex. His preface to Otranto contained a complaint against the French critic Voltaire, who had attacked England’s cherished Shakespeare. Walpole used ‘Gothic’ as a riposte to Voltaire, and more generally to France, at a sensitive moment – not long after the Seven Years’ War between the two nations had come to an end.

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Horace Walpole evoked “Gothic story” as a patriotic reclamation of Britain’s past – for, at the time, Gothic chivalry was widely regarded as a unique marker of British identity. In doing so, he sought to endear his readership to this unwieldy tale of ghostly revenge.

A Sicilian Romance (1790) by Ann Radcliffe

A one-woman war on tyranny

Published in 1790, during the early months of the French Revolution, Ann Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance, is remarkable for its belief that tyrannical power is merely transient. The book begins with a mysterious wanderer who chances upon the ruins of a castle and reflects upon the demise of tyranny and luxury. “Thus shall the present generation – he who now sinks in misery – and he who now swims in pleasure, alike pass away and be forgotten.”

A tale is given to this wanderer, relaying the story of Julia di Mazzini, an inhabitant of the now-derelict castle, who refuses to obey her aristocratic father’s decision to marry her off to one of his friends. She flees the castle, taking refuge in a convent whose inhabitants prove every bit as despotic as her father.

A Sicilian Romance appeared in the same year that Mary Wollstonecraft rebuked Edmund Burke’s negative Reflections on the Revolution in France with A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Wollstonecraft deplored Burke’s lamentation for the imprisoned Marie Antoinette, and his sympathy with the fallen aristocracy. “Your tears are reserved,” Wollstonecraft addressed Burke, “for the declamation of theatre, or for the downfall of queens”, while thousands of mothers across France were suffering under the ancien régime.

Radcliffe (of whose life little is known) comes down firmly on Wollstonecraft’s side, presenting a remarkably spirited heroine who asserts her equal rights in the face of aristocratic and monastic tyranny. To a contemporaneous readership, its parallels with the aims of the French Revolution would be too striking to ignore.

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley

A monster of Napoleonic proportions

Frankenstein has become synonymous with the Gothic. Mary Shelley later observed that her aim in composing this tale of paranoia and persecution had been to “awaken thrilling horror”. This it certainly did. From the sublime landscapes of Switzerland to the frozen wastes of the Arctic where the tale is told to a doomed explorer Robert Walton, the story involves the pursuit of a feckless scientist Victor Frankenstein by the towering superhuman that he has created and then abandoned.

The nameless creature, crafted from numerous animal and human body parts, is compared by its paranoid creator to a “vampire” and a mummy. Its plight is articulated in the epigraph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost on the title page: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/ To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me?” Here, Adam challenges God about his creation.

These questions haunt Frankenstein too. At the heart of this complex narrative is the creature’s eloquent story that details the consequences of thoughtless creation. He comes into the world with benevolent impulses, but the harsh, judgmental society in which he finds himself soon transforms those into violence.

Frankenstein was begun in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva during a ghost story competition initiated by Lord Byron. The circle gathered there included ardent supporters of Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The creature can be read as a symbol of Bonaparte’s lost potential, of the waning of revolutionary energy across Europe. “Hopes” are “blasted” at the end of the novel for Frankenstein, his creature and the Arctic explorer Walton.

This is a novel born of the anxieties of its time; anxieties created by lost political causes, dangerous scientific experimentations upon human corpses taking place upon the dissecting tables of universities in Europe and hazardous explorations of the Arctic. Through its numerous literary and cinematic reincarnations, Frankenstein continues to speak to our own age’s anxieties about the ethics of scientific and technological progress.

Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker

Stoker sinks his teeth into an ailing Britain

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not the first literary vampire, but it has since become the most iconic example, reappearing in chapbooks, stage, literary and film adaptations, and even making a cameo appearance in Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And yet Dracula remains a shadowy presence in Stoker’s original version, appearing initially as a hospitable and courteous host to the young clerk Jonathan Harker in Transylvania, and then dissolving into a dark threat that infiltrates England, and contaminates the English rose Lucy Westenra.

Dracula speaks to fin de siècle anxieties, epitomised by Max Nordau in his 1892 polemic Degeneration. “Over the earth the shadows creep with deepening gloom, wrapping all objects in a mysterious dimness, in which all certainty is destroyed and any guess seems plausible. […] The day is over, the night draws on.”

Nordau argued that society was in decline due to a loss of morality on personal and national levels. Britain’s waning imperial power is epitomised by the Transylvanian vampire who avails himself freely of old and new forms of power to invade a Britain woefully underprepared for such a threat.

Published in the wake of Degeneration, Dracula touched a collective nerve in its exploration of changing sexual relations, Darwinian accounts of evolution and fading imperial power. The group who finally defeat the vampire come from different nations, suggesting that Britain is no longer strong enough to vanquish its foes alone.

The Historian (2005) by Elizabeth Kostova

The dark shadow of totalitarianism

“To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history,” begins the nameless female narrator of The Historian. The manuscripts that follow are given to her intentionally, updating the ‘found’ manuscript theme that has become such a hallmark of Gothic writing.

In The Historian, Kostova rewrites and updates the Dracula motif. On the one hand it is personal and familial: she involves the narrator’s parents and their friends. On the other, it is geopolitical: her narrator pursues the undead across Europe in the Cold War and in the new, more fluid, Europe of today.

Rossi, a friend of the narrator’s father, has mysteriously disappeared while researching Dracula: his research focused upon the vampire as a ‘Turk-killer’, an invader, a conqueror of empires. He leaves an ancient book and a bundle of ageing letters, which the young girl finds in the possession of her father. The discovery plunges her into her pursuit of Dracula, and a headlong journey across Europe, during which she discovers that her mother isn’t dead, as she previously believed.

Much of The Historian takes place in Cold War Bulgaria, and it is in this country that the tomb of Kostova’s vampire is finally discovered. Here, we meet a Dracula who has thrived on communist Europe’s dark past – one dominated by totalitarianism and militarism. Brutal, acquisitive and ruthless, the vampire embodies chillingly the argument that ‘Might makes right’ in an era so marked by terror and religious conflict.

Dr Angela Wright lectures in Gothic literature and romanticism at the University of Sheffield, and is co-president of the International Gothic Association.


This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine