Regency Literature: Gothic

Ok, I will admit it.  I went through a half-hearted goth phase in the mid-90s.  A few things have still stayed with me, too:

  • My love of ghosts and hauntings.  (What a fun way to learn about history!)
  • Gothic architecture.  I am pretty much an architecture buff anyway, but Gothic Architecture is so fantastical and whimsical.
  • Supernatural motifs for addressing very real topics.  I was a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for its writing–I loved that they tackled real teen issues under the veil of the supernatural (ie the Hulk Potion stands in for steroids/gf abuse, the Watcher as mentor/surrogate father)
  • Mysteries (also a mystery junkie!)

My goth phase was really no more than an embrace of darkness as metaphor.  And, I liked to listen to goth music and wear black.

But I didn’t realize in my formative years that I owed my fascination with the rejection of rationalism to a slew of authors writing during the Gothic Revival.

I owe that lesson to the school of hist-ro.

Satirically treated by Austen, the Gothic novel came to literature in the late 1700s with Horace Wadpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  Its melodramatic plot featured elements later set as foundations for the Gothic genre: dark mood, curses, mystery, castles, villains, supernatural, death and decay.  This ran in opposition to neo-classical quests for clarity and rationality, instead taking an extreme approach to the highs and lows of life in almost parody format.  The horror genre in film and fiction owes much to these foundations which allow authors to explore reality through the lens of fantasy.

While some may credit the Gothic thematics to historical superstition and medieval torture as found in events like the Inquisition and the plague, a less obvious influence on Wadpole and those authors to follow were contemporary climates.  In many ways the Regency was the last frenzy of excess, leisure and privilege as old family fortunes began to give way to a new class of cits.  The audiences of the Gothic novel (those who could read) were the same who watched with real horror as The Terrror swept through continental Europe.  The Age of Enlightenment threatened the very real models for Gothic castles and characters by challenging hierarchy and access to information.

What is arguably fascinating, is that the neo-classical spin off the Age of Enlightenment undermined it by suggesting that true art needed a solid grounding in the classics.  Therefore, Enlightenment was only for those of a certain class.

In this way, the Gothic novel with its pop-culture sensibilities and complete disregard for conventions of classics (ie its pulp fiction factor) parodied this paradox.  In its extreme melodramatic twists and turns, it also addressed the very real crumbling and Terror of a changing world.

The Regency Romantics took the Gothic out of the aristocracy and placed it in the proletariat.  They also added gore, which ran concurrent with new discoveries in biology and science.  Later, Victorian authors (like the Great Charles Dickens) would take the Gothic formula a step further by directly juxtapositioning affluence with abject poverty.

It is nowhere but in the most melodramatic stories that we can realize how art is meant to tell the story of the human condition…which is perhaps why I have always been a fan of the troupes of Gothic.  Today, I see these elements reflected in pop culture–and how these seemingly mindless entertainments are truly expressing the deeper psyche of our culture.

Reading list:

The “Northanger Horrid Novels”

The Romantics

Victorian Goths

I also heart the late Victorian Gothic Revival…The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde had a huge impact on me, I L O V E Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and also am a fan of:

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