Sunday, June 3, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XIV: Goth Before It Was Cool

If you just glance at the Gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, it's easy to conclude, as H.P. Lovecraft did in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, that the Gothic was nothing more than an early form of the horror genre. Creepy castles. Secret passageways. Ghostly visions. It's all very Bela Lugosi.

But this is a back projection of our modern sensibilities. Yes, the Gothic set out to terrify, and yes, many of the elements it used can still be found modern horror. But that's not all the Gothic was. Gothic novels also featured quivering young ingenues falling into the hands of men of dubious character. Sometimes the men would turn out to be sexy rogues; other times they'd be pure villains from whom the heroine would need to be rescued by a dashing young hero. There's a reason why in modern publishing "Gothic" tends to be a type of romance novel. Similarly, Gothics often involved some kind of investigation -- for instance, the heroine trying to figure out what her captor's purpose is, or the dashing young hero trying to track down the villain and rescue his lady love. It's thus unsurprising that a later Gothic author like Poe is also a seminal figure in mystery fiction.

Thinking of the Gothic as just an antecedent to horror, then, obscures its true import to literary history. It is an ur-genre from which much of modern fiction descends.

Unlike most other genres, the Gothic has a very clear origin point: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. This isn't to say the genre came out of nowhere -- it draws heavily upon Shakespeare and Marlowe for its supernatural elements, particularly Doctor Faustus and the Scottish play, while its preoccupation with persecution and revenge comes from Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge dramas -- but the emphasis it places on terror is new, and for that we have to thank Walpole.

Otranto begins on the eve of a wedding between a young nobleman, Conrad, and Princess Isabella. Festivities come to an abrupt end when a giant helmet falls out the sky and crushes Conrad. Conrad's father, Prince Manfred, the Lord of Otranto, is undeterred by this. He really wants Isabella to be part of his family, and if he doesn't have a son to marry her, he'll do it himself. The fact that he already has a wife ... well, that's nothing that can't be solved with a bit of murder.

At the same time, a mysterious young man named Theodore appears at the castle and makes some observations about the helmet that piss Manfred off, and it's off to the dungeon with him. Theodore escapes with the help of Isabella and Matilda (Manfred's daughter). There's much fleeing and fighting and sneaking about in dark corridors, and, oh yes, there's a ghostly giant in the deep bowels of the castle who seems intent on getting loose and killing people. Matilda and Isabella both fall in love with Theodore, but Manfred helpfully resolves the love triangle by accidentally killing his daughter.

In the end we discover that Manfred's family are usurpers, and both Isabella and Theodore are descended (along separate lines) from the rightful Lord of Otranto, Alfonso the Murderous Ghost Giant. Manfred was intent on marrying Isabella because he believed it would legitimize his usurpation and appease Alfonso. Once the truth comes out, Manfred abdicates and retires to a monastery. Isabella and Theodore get married and rule Otranto in blissful incest.

This then is the template on which later Gothics are based. Later authors certainly introduced innovations -- sometimes the villain is an evil priest instead of a nobleman -- but it's hard to find a Gothic that doesn't contain at least one plot-point that Walpole invented. Even Frankenstein, which is otherwise far removed from the Otranto model, has a wedding that ends in tragedy.

When Walpole first published Otranto, he did so under a double pseudonym, presenting it as a translation by "William Marshal, Gent." of a medieval manuscript by "Onuphrio Muralto". The book was an immediate success, and when the second edition came out, Walpole decided to claim authorship for himself.

This was a mistake.

You see, Otranto came out in 1764, at the height of the so-called Enlightenment. Now the term "Enlightenment" is a deliberate contrast to the "Dark Ages". The idea of the Dark Ages goes back to the Renaissance, when the term was used to describe the period after the fall of Rome when knowledge of Classical Greek philosophy dried up in Western Europe. By the 18th Century, though, the term had expanded, and Enlightenment thinkers in particular latched onto it. According to the orthodox Enlightenment worldview, the Catholic Church was the most vile and corrupt organization in all of human history. Logically then, the period when the Church held hegemony over Western Europe must've been a horrible and backwards time. It wasn't enough that people of the Middle Ages were ignorant of Plato -- they had to be miserable savages who lived in fear of supernatural nonsense that the priesthood foisted upon them. Many of the misconceptions we have about the Middle Ages come from this period, like the idea that Medieval folk were forever burning witches at the stake (in fact, witch trials were unheard of for much of the Middle Ages, and they didn't reach a peak until the Reformation), or that every king employed a crackpot alchemist (alchemy didn't appear in Western Europe until the Late Middle Ages, and the most famous alchemists -- Paracelsus, Trithemius, Agrippa, Faustus, and Dee -- are from the Renaissance and later).

(This isn't to say the Middle Ages were a great time, but they weren't particularly worse than any other period. For the average person throughout history, life was always hell. If you had to choose whether to be reincarnated as a random person in ancient Sparta, medieval England, or colonial Jamaica, you'd be screwed no matter what, but you'd be slightly less screwed in England.)

So when Otranto first appeared and everyone thought it was an actual work of the Middle Ages, it fit right into the Enlightenment worldview. People could read it and snicker at how ignorant those poor, benighted folk had been back then. But when Walpole took credit for it, that changed. This was a modern man writing about superstitious nonsense. And Walpole wasn't some random guy, either. His father, Robert, had been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Horace himself sat in the House of Lords. The fact that he wrote something like Otranto was an affront to Enlightenment orthodoxy.

This partly explains why Otranto's immediate impact was minimal. In the fifteen years following its publication, only a dozen imitations appeared. The pace picked up in the 1780s when around forty Gothic novels came out, most of them in the latter half of the decade, but the real explosion didn't hit until the 1790s. By that time, the Enlightenment was getting to be old and creaky, and the increasing extremism of the French Revolution was causing many Brits to question the underlying assumptions of the movement.

But there was a generational factor in play, as well. While Walpole's early imitators were of a similar generation to him, the authors of the Gothic boom were much younger -- many were in fact born after Otranto came out, like Ann Radcliffe (1764), Francis Lathom (1774) and M.G. Lewis (1775). Undoubtedly many of them read Otranto at an impressionable young age and wanted to read more Stuff Like That, and when they couldn't find any Stuff Like That, they started writing their own.

And it's to these writers that we'll turn next time.

NEXT WEEK: Masculin/Féminin.

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