Sunday, September 2, 2012

4 Stages of Gothic—Fiction

[This is Part 4; the other 3 parts address Gothic Culture & History, Gothic Architecture, and the Gothic Revival.]

The Gothic Revival of the 18th century, with its focus on the era of history that included large gloomy stone castles, the feudal system, and quests, spawned a taste for rejecting the burgeoning Age of Enlightenment. Into this society, caught between the future and the past, came Horace Walpole (1717-1797). He was the son of a Prime Minister—and that was the most mundane thing we can say about him.

Strawberry Hill, early Gothic Revival style
As the son of a PM, he fell in at Cambridge with the sons of other well-to-do men, but his own career was aimless for years. At Cambridge he was influenced by a very unorthodox theologian who taught him to reject superstition, yet Walpole is best known for a work that goes hand-in-hand with superstition. He left Cambridge without taking a degree. His mother was said to be the most important person in his life, but he never had a serious relationship with any other woman, and his biographers have labeled him "a natural celibate" and "asexual." His father managed to find him three positions that provided him with income and required little to no effort from him—or even his presence: he was able to spend a couple years during this time traveling Europe.

In 1749 he joined the new(old?)-fangled Gothic Revival when he rebuilt a house in the London suburb of Twickenham on the Gothic style. Some credit his Strawberry Hill house with starting the trend that found its peak during the time of Pugin (see link above). He wrote several works on history, gardening, art, and on Strawberry Hill. What we remember him for now, however, is a flight of fancy in 1764 called The Castle of Otranto. It is commonly reported that the subtitle was "A Gothic Story." The true original title was The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.

Otranto combined elements that have become staples of the genre: the supernatural (doors opening for no reason, strange sounds), an imposing medieval setting, a family curse, a damsel in distress, a lost heir, knights, a brave hero. It was very popular. Until, that is, the second edition, when he decided to take credit for his work and revealed that it was a contemporary story. Eschewing the false history, he called it The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. The critics were annoyed. Acceptable as a translated medieval work, as an Age of Enlightenment "forgery" it was considered substandard literature.

Entry of Frederick into the Castle of Otranto, by John Carter
These days, "Gothic Horror" or "Gothic Romance" are not considered "high art" any more than they were in Walpole's day, but the genre has survived, appealing to the public's desire for mystery, adventure, and a touch of the supernatural. And it's called "Gothic" because Walpole, who started the trend, used that term in the subtitle, drawing on the medieval themes of the "Gothic Revival" in art and architecture. The "Gothic Revival" was called that because it turned to Gothic architectural styles for building and re-building. That style was called "Gothic" as an insult, because post-medieval snobs associated that earlier style with the Goths and Vandals, although those ethnic groups had nothing to do with building those structures. And the original Goths you know about because you read this.

And that (kind of) is how the word "Goth" was passed down through millenia and got attached to things the original inhabitants of Götaland never would have imagined. (And I AM stopping there; the connection to the "Goth" subculture that started in the 1980s is one you can make for yourself.)

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