The Gothic

(Today I have a video chat up at Diary of an Eccentric, so you should drop by!)


Horace (Horatio) Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, passed away on 2 March 1797, leaving behind a literary and architectural legacy that would help shape the nature of Regency England and even the Victorian era.

NPG 3631; Horace Walpole

Walpole was the (initially anonymous) author of first English Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. This started a craze for all things Gothic – art, architecture, tourism — in a stylized version of neo-Gothic (sometimes spelled “Gothik” to demarcate it from the original) that lasted all the way through the Regency and reached new heights in the Victorian era. These works were so fashionable and beloved that Jane Austen couldn’t help mocking them in her novel Northanger Abbey, which has its heroine Catherine Morland a little more influenced by a love of the Gothic than she reasonably should be.

Although we tend to call modern neo-Gothic novels “mystery/suspense” or “romantic mystery/suspence” or “horror”, the eerie setting and whiff of the supernatural is not really different from the so-called “horrid” novels of the later 18th and early 19th centuries. I was addicted as a teenager to this sort of writing, and I checked out  every single book of masters like Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt that I could find in my high school library. I would eventually write an academic essay, Raising Veils and Other Bold Acts; The Heroine’s Agency in Female Gothic Fiction, for the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Gothic Fiction arguing that Gothic works are surprisingly feminist in content … which may be why mainstream literature has sneered at them since their inception.

The Gothic novel was a way for Walpole, a deeply conservative member of the upper-crust, to push back against the sociopolitical philosophies of the Enlightenment, which he considered dangerous. In a way, he was right; in that Enlightenment beliefs and its arguments for the rights of man led directly to the revolutions in France and America. The Gothic, with it’s gloomy settings and its reliance on the arcane and supernatural, stood in direct contrast to the rationalist underpinnings of the newfangled ideas.


Walpole was also a great one for neologism, which is creating or popularizing new words. Some of the words he spun out of thin air and became embedded in the English lexicon are (according to Bill Bryson in his book At Home)  the words airsickness, anteroom, bask, beefy, boulevard café, caricature, fairly tale, falsetto, frisson, malaria, mudbath, nuance, somber, and serendipity. It’s not quite as many neologisms as Shakespeare came up with, but it is a respectable number nonetheless. It must be noted, however, that new words don’t always catch on, and Walpole created some real duds – like gloomth, betweenity, and muckibus.

Writing wasn’t Walpole’s only outlet for Gothic expression. He also designed a villa, Strawberry Hill House, in a neo-Gothic style. The building, which is located in Twickham, quickly became a famous early tourist attraction in the Regency period.


In Mansfield Parsonage, my heroine Mary Crawford and her brother Henry are both great admirers of horrid novels and Strawberry Hill House. Mary declares, ““I will not, cannot, deny my enjoyment of horrid novels, or novels in general for that matter. I also cannot deny that I relish the poetry of Cowper and Pope and suchlike. To read work that quakes the nerves, that breeds fancies in the mind; who could not be fond of such titillation?” Furthermore, she confesses that, “It is some perversity in my makeup that I should be blessed with a naturally sanguinary temper, but revel in the melancholy and horrid.”  Henry, likewise, was “delighted to find that the Grant’s library was in possession of several horrid novels which he had not yet had time to read, and had installed himself in the study with the first volume of Mrs Roche’s The Monastery of St Columb.”

It is strange to think that this Regency love for the macabre and eerie owes its inception to that odd antiquarian and reactionary Whig politician, Horace Walpole.


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