September 2011 meeting: Gothic novels

Strawberry Hill, an English villa in the "...

Walpole's Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill (Public domain, Artist unknown, via Wikipedia)

Our September 17th meeting was devoted to Gothic novels, in preparation for our discussion of Northanger Abbey at our October meeting. Rather than set a particular novel to discuss, the plan was for members to choose their own and come prepared to talk about what they’d read and Gothic novels in general. The main novels read were:

  • Maria Edgeworth‘s Castle Rackrent (1800, not really Gothic, but regarded as the first historical novel)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
  • Ann Radcliffe‘s The romance of the forest (1791)
  • Horace Walpole‘s The castle of Otranto (1765, regarded as the first Gothic novel)

Before we discussed the Gothic novels proper, we briefly talked about Castle Rackrent, which, it has been suggested, contains the first use of an unreliable narrator. We discussed its satire and agreed that it was easy to see, particularly when we look at Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, why Austen liked Edgeworth.

We then discussed the Gothic novels in particular. We looked at the characteristics of these novels, including:

  • mysterious castles, caves and tunnels
  • virginal maidens and lecherous villains
  • supernatural happenings
  • mistaken identities
  • horror mixed with romance
  • triumph of good over evil, order over disorder

While Gothic novels, pretty much by definition, involve a level of horror/terror, they can also be funny, with some, in fact parodying themselves. They are often melodramatic. We briefly discussed the reference to Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey and the seven horrid novels Isabella Thorpe recommended to Catherine. We were fascinated by the suggestion in Wikipedia that readers and critics at the time thought Austen had made up the titles! Anyhow, we are sure to talk more about the Gothic next month when we discuss Austen’s novel.

One member talked a little about the role of the veil in Ann Radcliffe’s novels – and the multiple meanings behind it, particularly in relation to concealment and revelation.

Finally we discussed why readers did (do) enjoy this genre (à la the Twilight vampire series which draws on Gothic traditions). We talked about how Gothic fiction enables readers to escape into other worlds and allows the vicarious experience of thrills. One member proposed that they may have provided an escape from the anxieties posed by the Napoleonic threat, particularly in the 1790s. She argued that, like crime fiction, Gothic fiction involves a disordered world which is eventually put to right. Another member paraphrased a critic* she’d read who essentially said, along similar lines, that the Gothic allows readers to “displace” real fears onto something more fictive. (“This is a bad world” says the hero of The Castle of Otranto.) This critic argued that, in Walpole and Radcliffe, these fears are somewhat paradoxical: a desire for and rejection of aristocracy and old Catholicism, by the middle class. Another member argued that these novels could also provide “excitement” (sexual titillation), particularly for young women like, say, Catherine Moreland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. Were these novels that generation’s young adult novels, we wondered?

* Hogle, Jerrold, W “Hyper-reality and the Gothic affect: The sublimation of fear from Burke and Walpole to The Ring“, in English Language Notes, 48 (1): 163-176, Spring/Summer 2010.

Business

There was not a lot of business to conduct at the meeting:

  • three apologies were received, including from one hospitalised member to whom we sent our best wishes and a lovely Jane Austen card provided by Anna
  • Anna to prepare a report for the end of the year Chronicle (with Sue to confirm the deadline, probably mid-October)
  • Sue to write the blog post for this meeting
  • the 10-year anniversary dinner to be postponed, probably to December to coincide with our end-of-year Jane Austen birthday dinner

Next meeting

15 October, 1.30pm, in the Friends Lounge of the NLA, with the topic to be Northanger Abbey

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