Backlash: Romantic Reactions to The Castle of Otranto and England’s Gothic Craze

When he published The Castle of Otranto in 1764, Horace Walpole did more than merely release a somewhat outlandish piece of fiction, written in a faux-Medieval Italian style: he instigated a phenomenon. Creating a series of soon-to-be well-worn conventions, and establishing a template that would be taken up by such luminaries as Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice, and Stephen King, The Castle of Otranto is the first literary example of what we now refer to as “the Gothic.” In this article, I describe the reception of the Gothic movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries, evaluating some of the criticisms leveled against it, and briefly discussing some of the important pieces of Romantic literature influenced by it. Writers and critics in this period treated Gothic works like The Castle of Otranto—at the time, collectively referred to as “terrorist literature,” for their ability to induce feelings of horror—both as objects of scorn, and as (often unacknowledged) sources of inspiration. Even those who publicly disparaged the Gothic for its purported excesses, clichés, and immoralities, often made implicit use of the genre’s conventions in their own writings. Variously viewed as repulsive and seductive, unsettling and reassuring, laughable and terrifying, transgressive and tranquilizing, The Castle of Otranto cast a long shadow: a shadow few members of the Romantic generation were able to ignore.

The Gothic was a matter of particular concern for writers and critics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries primarily because it was a phenomenally popular literary genre, particularly for women readers. As John and his sister Letitia Aikin (who would later become known as the famous poet Letitia Barbauld) note in their 1773 essay, “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror”: “The greediness with which the tales of ghosts and goblins, of murders, earthquakes, fires, shipwrecks, and all the most terrible disasters attending human life, are devoured by every ear, must [be] generally remarked” (John and Letitia Aikin 583). The rapidly growing ranks of the literate just could not get enough of the movement started by Walpole. By 1797, popular demand for the Gothic had reached such a frenzy that an anonymous critic in The Spirit of the Public Journals declared, “it has been the fashion to make terror the order of the day” (“Terrorist Novel Writing” 601). The Gothic’s appeal transcended class divisions, with members of the leisure and working classes alike delighting in tales of horror. While this transgressive disregard for the distinction between high-brow and low-brow audiences surely helped the sales of Gothic romances, it also provoked a backlash from elite, conservative critics, who were loath to relinquish the cultural capital that had, for centuries, been associated with being literate. This backlash took on many different forms.

One of the most common accusations against the Gothic was that it was fundamentally immoral: Gothic romances were said to corrupt their readers’ minds and encourage social disorder. The pedagogical effect of the genre on children was thought to be especially dangerous. An anonymous critic, who wrote a polemic against “Terrorist Novel Writing” in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797, denounced the Gothic for illustrating grotesque fantasies that defied the limits of common sense, claiming that these fantasies were bad moral lessons, which “carr[y] the young reader’s imagination into such a confusion of terrors, as must be hurtful” (“Terrorist” 601). Unlike “useful” novels, which accurately depict “human life and manners, with a view to direct the conduct in the important duties of life, and to correct its follies,” Gothic romances illustrate bizarre situations “reaped from the distorted ideas of lunatics.” If these texts instruct young minds in anything at all, they, at best, teach the biblical commandment “‘Thou shalt do no murder,’” and, at worst, teach young people to completely dissociate from everyday life (“Terrorist” 601). In this critic’s view, Gothic romances were hardly idle enjoyments: they were insidious implements of chaos that would ruin young people’s capacity for labour and for public service. This all-too-common “taste for the marvelous and the terrible” was, as the Monthly Review stated in 1796, akin to a plague, “an infection,” that must be stamped out for the health of the nation (qtd. in Epstein 205).

The effect of the Gothic on women was thought to be, if anything, even more frightening. Terrorist fiction was accused of producing a cohort of mannish women, who would rather dream of death-defying adventures and thrilling romances than settle down, get married, and attend to their feminine duties. Lamenting the Gothic’s popularity amongst female readers, the critic in The Spirit of the Public Journals rhetorically asks:

“Is the corporeal frame of the female sex so masculine and hardy that it must be softened down by the touch of dead bodies, clay-cold hands and damp sweats? Can a young lady be taught nothing more necessary in life, than to sleep in a dungeon with venomous reptiles, walk through a ward with assassins, and carry bloody daggers in their pockets, instead of pin-cushions and needle-books?” (“Terrorist” 602)

In the eyes of conservative critics, a whole generation of women—and, by extension, a whole generation of wives and mothers, the very future of England—was in danger of contamination by the Gothic. The sanctity of matrimony itself was threatened by these books, which trained women to imagine marriage not as a solemn union before the watchful eyes of Church and State, but as a dramatic spectacle, in which bride and groom would pass “through long and dangerous galleries, where the lights burn blue, the thunder rattles, and the great window at the end presents the hideous visage of a murdered man” (“Terrorist” 601). In a world where women preferred to fantasize about confronting hosts of ghouls and nightmares with a dashing young man than marrying the proper gentleman selected for them by their parents, it was not hard for conservatives to imagine that social decay was imminent. By “emphasizing power relations and entaglements, and developing themes of veiling and entrapment,” the Gothic taught women to do the unthinkable: suspect the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, and priests—of potentially harbouring malevolent intentions towards them (Epstein 205).

Gothic romances were disparaged not only for filling women’s heads with impossible dreams and potentially turning females against their male rulers, but also for touting profligacy and indolence. In 1795, an anonymous critic writing for the periodical Sylph reproved Gothic novels for not only causing wives to neglect their household responsibilities and servants to shirk their duties, but also for promoting homelessness and vagrancy. They write:

“Women of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels…The depravity is universal. My sight is everywhere offended by these foolish, yet dangerous books. I find them in the toilette of fashion, and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter …I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread; and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. I have seen a scullion–wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of a Julia or a Jemima” (Qtd. in Taylor 53).

This critic’s censure of the Gothic for disturbing the proper functioning of society betrays his or her (presumably his) own anxieties about the disruption of social hierarchies by mass literacy. If the poor are literate, they are liable to read—perhaps even the same texts as their masters and betters—instead of work. On the basis of this shared activity, solidarities could be formed between the classes, potentially unsettling the legitimacy of social hierarchies. It was thus presented as beyond the pale for mistresses and maids, for salonnières and seamstresses, to read the same texts at the same time. It is my contention that Gothic romances were seen as immoral by conservative critics, not necessarily because of anything objectionable in their content, but simply because they appealed to all strata of society. Many of the attacks made against the Gothic that I have discussed so far, use the genre as a code word for mass literacy.

The Sylph critic’s reference to “a scullion-wench…sobbing o’er the sorrows of a Julia or a Jemima” alludes to another criticism often made of the Gothic—a criticism that continues to be leveled against works of popular fiction to this day—that terrorist novels are inherently predictable and artless (Julia and Jemima being bland, generic names for female protagonists at the time). The polemic against terrorist novel writing in The Spirit of the Public Journals provides a humorous (and—considering some of the recurrent happenings in The Castle of Otranto and other Gothic texts—fairly accurate) interpretation of the Gothic formula: “If a curtain is withdrawn, there is a bleeding body behind it; if a chest is opened, it contains a skeleton; if a noise is heard, somebody is receiving a deadly blow; and if a candle goes out, its place is sure to be supplied by a flash of lightning” (Anonymous 601). This critic even goes so far as to offer a recipe for the Gothic, lampooning that an aspiring terrorist novel writer should

Take—An old castle, half of it ruinous.

A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.

Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.

As many skeletons, in chests and presses.

An old woman hanging by the neck; with her throat cut.

Assassins and desperadoes, quant. suff. [short for quantum sufficit, a Latin medical expression that means “as much as is required.”]

Noises, whispers, and groans, threescore at least.

Mix them together, in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any of the watering places, before going to bed” (“Terrorist” 602).

The subtext of this satire is that anyone wanting to make a quick dollar could successfully write a bestselling Gothic romance. Gothic authors were accused of being less artists than manufacturers, less writers than druggists following pre-made prescriptions, pushing vast quantities of mass-produced novels onto the market. The entire genre was effectively maligned by such attacks as a bourgeois conspiracy: a secret moneymaking pact between greedy booksellers, printers, and hack writers.

If the Gothic was subjected to such vicious attacks, then why were Gothic romances so readily available? How were poor servants, who were unlikely to be able to afford books from the press, able to obtain copies? The Gothic’s widespread availability can be accounted for by the emergence of subscription-based circulating libraries, which began cropping up in England around the mid eighteenth-century. According to John Feather, “the whole craze for the Gothic was sustained by circulating library demand” (Feather 123). These libraries, which built up their circulation from small duodecimo books lent to them by booksellers, supplied subscribers with texts for short-term loan. Since it was in the libraries’ best interest to loan away as many texts as possible, they primarily stockpiled works that were likely to be commercially successful—in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries, this meant fiction, mostly romances and Gothic novels, rather than devotional or instructive (i.e. ostensibly “moral”) literature. Aficionados of the Gothic, at least those fortunate enough to afford a library subscription, would eagerly devour whatever new tales of horror appeared on the shelves of their local library. These new literary institutions helped fiction move from the realm of the aristocracy into the mainstream, causing literature to become increasingly commercial.

Circulation libraries and the books they loaned drew the ire of not only the economic elite, jealously guarding their class privileges, but also the cultural elite, vaunted writers and poets, who held that, by commercializing and massifying culture, booklenders and popular novels contributed to its degradation. One prominent writer who unleashed a particularly vehement attack on these institutions was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge dared to suggest, in Biographia Literaria, that the reading of Gothic novels and romances borrowed from circulating libraries was not even a sign of literacy. He states:

“For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly daydreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility…We should…transfer this species of amusement…from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contradictory yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy” (Coleridge 606).

Coleridge felt that, instead of inducing the sublime experience of universal harmony that he felt was absolutely essential to the operation of any real work of art, Gothic romances were vapid, tranquilizing works. He put the reading of them on par with such vacuous, unproductive activities as “gaming; swinging or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; [and] tête-à-tête quarrels after dinner between husband and wife”(Coleridge 607).

Coleridge was not alone in this derogatory opinion of Gothic novels. His friend and literary collaborator William Wordsworth took many malicious, in-direct snipes at the Gothic in the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, the foundational work of English Romanticism. Wordsworth derided the Gothic—which he pejoratively foreignized as “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies”—for stirring up overly strong, forceful emotions like terror and despair (Wordsworth 267). In his view, Gothic novels were textual drugs, which numbed human faculties of sympathy and imagination, and their devoted readers were addicts possessed by a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” (Wordsworth 267). The genre employed a plethora of “gross and violent stimulants,” which obscured, rather than revealed, the nature of reality (Wordsworth 266). Stylistically, the Gothic was overwrought in its prose and melodramatic in its themes, littered with “gaudiness and inane phraseology” (Wordsworth 264). In many respects, Wordsworth theorized what he and Coleridge were doing in their poems—i.e. using unadorned, simple language to meditate “in tranquility” upon powerful emotions that were experienced by ordinary, “rustic” men and women, and induced by everyday situations in nature—as the polar opposite of the Gothic. Romantic poetry was akin to a twelve-step program for weaning society off its addiction to extravagant Gothic romances.

One would expect, in light of the ferocious attack on popular terrorist literature made by the early Romantics, that the work of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and their inheritors would be completely free of the sort of tropes, themes, environments, and affective modalities mobilized by Walpole and other Gothic authors. In actual fact, the opposite is true. The early Romantics seemed to be in denial concerning their feelings about the Gothic, as they simply could not leave the genre alone, taking it up—in admittedly complex ways—throughout their corpus. In the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which tells of a supernatural voyage on the high seas, involving ghosts, monsters, curses, and a host of other characteristically Gothic elements, was afforded pride of place as the first poem in the volume. Coleridge even wrote a brilliant Gothic poem called Christabel between 1797 and 1800. Although Wordsworth never authored an explicitly Gothic text, he wrote numerous poems—including “We Are Seven,” “Lucy Gray,” The Ruined Cottage, and the so-called “Lucy” poems—that obsessed over Gothic themes like death and haunting. By the second generation of the Romantic period—a generation that included Lord Byron, Thomas De Quincey, John Polidari, John Keats, and Mary and Percy Shelley—no attempts were made to disguise writers’ zeal for the Gothic genre. Some of the most realized works of Gothic literature, including Byron’s Manfred, a poetic drama that takes its name from the arch-villain of The Castle of Otranto, and Mary Shelley’s enduring classic Frankenstein, were composed at this time.

What Romantic and Gothic literature share is a belief that the chief role of literature should be to arouse and channel primal human affects and emotions like fear, wonder and eroticism. Such sentiments are powerful and potentially transgressive, having the capacity to unsettle rigid hierarchical social divisions, which is why both Gothic and Romantic authors were, at times, considered deviant by England’s establishment. I suggest that where two differ is in their interpretation of the site of affects and emotions: while Gothic works like The Castle of Otranto, which are notorious for having wooden, stock characters and predictable situations, focus on surfaces, externalities and seemingly superficial details, Romantic works tend to focus on depths—the rich, lively, complex depths of the natural world and the human psyche in particular. We can interpret the Gothic, and all of the complicated responses to it, as the symptoms of a society struggling to think through the implications of a great many significant changes: changes in the extent and meaning of literacy, and changes in how humans understand their own lives and the lives of people around them.


Works Cited

Aikin, Anna Letitia and John. “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror.” From The

Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume D: The Romantic Period. Ed. Jack

Stillinger and Deidre Lynch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Excerpt of Biographia Literaria. From The Norton Anthology of

English Literature Volume D: The Romantic Period. Ed. Jack Stillinger and Deidre

Lynch. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Epstein, Julia.  The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing. Madison,

Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Feather, John. A History of British Publishing. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Taylor, J.T. Early Opposition to the English Novel: The Popular Reaction from 1760 to 1830.

New York: King’s Crown Press, 1943.

“Terrorist Novel Writing.” From The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume D: The

Romantic Period. Ed. Jack Stillinger and Deidre Lynch. New York: W.W. Norton and

Company, 2006.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” From The Norton Anthology of English

            Literature Volume D: The Romantic Period. Ed. Jack Stillinger and Deidre Lynch.

New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

This paper was original written for Dr Gena Zurowski-Jenkins ENG 741 class on genre, sexuality, and eighteenth-century literature. It is the sole property of the author, Andrew Reszitynk. If you use it, cite it.