“The Gothic is concerned primarily with representing transgression and taboo, there is nothing more to it as a literary genre. ” Is this a fair assessment of Gothic writing of the Romantic period? “The invaluable works of our elder writers… are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse…. the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants.. ” William Wordsworth, Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, 1802.
“.. Phantasmagoric… kind of fiction, whatever one may think of it, is not without merit: ’twas the inevitable result of revolutionary shocks throughout Europe… thus to compose works of interest, one had to call on the aid of Hell itself, and to find things familiar in the world of make believe.. ” Marquis (Donatien Alphonse) de Sade, “Reflections on the Novel. “, 1800. Gothic literature has been an area of critical contention since Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764.
Although vilified by much of the contemporary press the Gothic had its champions, many of whom were also its practitioners including Walpole, the subsequent generation’s Anne Radcliffe and the Marquis de Sade who had his own brand of highly sexualised Gothic. Despite these voices, Gothic was still a marginalised genre in its incipient days, at least in the bulk of critical writing (this is the view of most contemporary historical overviews e. g. : Sage, Botting, Kilgour).
Many critics writing at the time of the Romantic Gothic (i.e: Gothic written during the arbitrary period of Romanticism) considered such novels to be sensationalist, trashy and “completely expurgated of any of the higher qualities of mind” (Peacock quoted in Sage, 11). I think this is an unfair judgement on gothic writing during the romantic period. It is a genre that – at its best – can be a profound, complex and moving as any celebrated piece of Romantic literature. It was not until around 1960 that academics like Robert Hume rose to its defence.
(Maybe its renewed popularity was something to do with the very unique socio-political situation in the 1960s echoing a the unique situation of the late eighteenth century, the heyday of the genre. ) Since then there has been a deluge of commentary which has elevated the genre to a critical and scholarly favourite. It is often said that one of the unifying features of Romanticism is its intentional political relevance. Much of the canonical Romantic literature is inspired or informed by socio-political events.
We need only look at Blake’s work or key poems by “second generation” Romantics like Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind or The Mask of Anarchy to verify this. The same is true of Romantic Gothic which arose around that unique period in European history posthumously defined by the French Revolution but significant for its trans-European massive cultural and social upheaval indicated in part by repeated rioting in Britain (Lowe, vii) and a widespread clamour for various reforms. Victor Sage writes, “English Gothick of the eighteenth century is seen as a collective symptom of political pressure felt all over Europe. “