imagesIt all began as a sort of joke. Horace Walpole gave the subtitle A Gothic Story to his The Castle of Otranto when he published it in 1764. As John Mullen at the British Library site (with many illustrations) tells us “When he used the word it meant something like ‘barbarous’, as well as ‘deriving from the Middle Ages’. . . Gothic involves the supernatural (or the promise [or fear] of the supernatural), it often involves the discovery of mysterious elements of antiquity, and it usually takes its protagonists into strange or frightening old buildings.”

There’s a marvelous bookish circularity to the gothic novel phenomenon. The success of The Castle of Otranto stimulated an industry-scale production of product designed to catch the pounds and shillings of a growing middle class full of ladies with lots of dull spare time. The largest factory of such product was William Lane’s whose Minerva Press in Leadenhall Street produced stacks of gothic (and other sentimental) novels to stock the shelves of his many circulating libraries. “At the peak moment of the mode, 1795, gothic novels accounted for 38 percent of all novels published in Britain: the figure registers the retailing successes of entrepreneurs such as William Lane, whose national network of circulating libraries provided him with ready-made markets for the volumes churned out at his Minerva Press”.*

Much gothic work contains a sort of book fetishism. The Castle of Otranto was passed off as a translation of an ancient manuscript recently rediscovered, and caused widespread distress when it was ultimately revealed as a contemporary creation. Fortuitous rediscovery and translation from forgotten medieval tongues became tropes of the genre. In gothic novels hints at mysterious ancestors are forever being found in the well-stocked, dusty libraries which seem to have been essential features of those Transylvanian-style castles where our lovely heroines were always being held captive.

The mainly female readership couldn’t get enough of the frissons induced by those fascinating, frightening heroes flitting about their murky castles. Jane Austen satirizes the genre in Northanger Abbey where Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland seven “horrid books” which, since then, many readers have assumed were made-up titles. However they are real, six published by Minerva Press and one by H. D. Symonds. The links are to the relevant Wikipedia pages.

Isabella mentions a couple of others, by Ann Radcliffe: “Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

All of these books were on show last year at The British Library’s excellent exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. They offer a free podcast by Charlie Higson in connection with the show. It’s mainly focussed on the second phase of the gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr Polidori’s The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the third — the horror movie. The podcast is still available.


* Deirdre Shauna Lynch: Loving Literature, University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 198.