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Gothic Contexts

For the year’s on the turn and it’s All Souls’ night, When the dead can burn and the dead can smite. --Edith Wharton, All Souls (1909)

Happy Halloween everyone! Or nearly, at least. Halloween is one of my favourite times of the year - the pumpkins, costumes and of course the spooky stories. This Halloween I'm going to be sharing a festive treat, with articles on context for some of those great gothic texts; Lady Macbeth's character; why Shakespearean heroines would look so similar if you tried to dress up as them (and believe me, I tried) and much more! For now, here's some great context for the Gothic, useful for novels like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Northanger Abbey.

So what is a gothic novel anyway?

The gothic novel was a popular novel form of the late 1700s and 1800s, which was first used by Horace Walpole in his Castle of Otranto (1764). The earliest gothic novels were often about mysterious castles, where the main character of a damsel in distress goes to live. Generally she was a vulnerable yet beautiful woman, who often appeared as a governess. In these stories, the young and innocence lady goes to live at the old castle and learns about its mysteries. Generally this also leads her into some kind of peril, often involving ghosts or the supernatural.

The buildings which inspired gothic novels were often in remote and rugged areas, looked old and full of cobwebs, very dark in most stories and often have a terrible secret about them. Thus, gothic novels were terrifying stories which were used in popular fiction to read around the fireplace. At the opening of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, a number of people are depicted crowding around a fire on Christmas Eve, listening to ghost stories. Most likely, they were reading early gothic novels.(Interestingly, The Turn of the Screw features a nearly identical premise to the latter half of Jane Eyre. A governess goes to a large mansion to teach the children there, who are the family of a handsome and mysterious gentleman. In James’ novel, however, the children are suggested to be possessed by demonic spirits, and the governess is eventually driven to kill the young boy. So a little bit different from Jane Eyre, really.)

Another hallmark of the gothic novel was that they were often romance novels, albeit ones which didn’t always end well for the female protagonist. We might link this with the charming yet naive Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, who is absolutely obsessed with gothic novels and goes on to assume the worst when confronted with a mysterious room at her suitor's house. Happily, for her, there are no dead bodies, simply the recognition that sometimes the most dramatic explanation isn't the best one.

As we might see from the presentation of Catherine's gothic obsession and the resulting chaos, the gothic novel was not very well regarded during its early years, and much of the genre was seen as cheap, sensationalist fiction, in opposition to the meatier social and romantic fiction popular in Georgian society.

Stay tuned for more notes on the Gothic in Northanger Abbey and you can find the notes on Jane Eyre already, in 'Notes on English!'

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