In the Eighteenth Century, the term “Gothic” could be used to describe a style of Architecture, an emblem of British-national values, or a body of literature. Named after the Germanic tribe of the Goths who were models of democracy according to Tacitus (Miles, 11), but who were also responsible for the sacking of Rome, the Gothic seemed to capture both an ideal and “barbarous” connotation.
The politics of this period were shaped by Tories, who believed in the “divine right of kings” (Miles, 12) and the Whigs, who “argued that Parliament was ultimately sovereign” and that the king was bound “by the compact inherent in the ancient or ‘Gothic’ constitution” (Miles, 12). This political conflict was evidenced in the aesthetic taste of the period, especially in the growing preference for the Gothic style of architecture over the Neo-Classical. Theorists saw neoclassical architecture as “overly regular, rigid, despotic and foreign” while Gothic, “native styles [were] defended as organic, natural, and English”. Richard Hurd, for example, argued for the organic form of Gothic architecture, and applied the same aesthetic taste to literature. Thus, native English authors such as Spencer and Shakespeare were no longer criticised by classical standards, but upheld as signs of Britain’s national heritage.
However, the positive connotations of Gothic as the “cultural cradle of modern Englishness” (Miles, 15) were offset by its association with medieval superstition, and especially, with England’s Catholic past (Miles, 15). The ambiguity of the term Gothic was embraced by early Gothic novels such as The Castle of Otranto, which contained a “contrast between progressive and regressive forces, the one implicitly English and Protestant, the other explicitly European and Catholic” (Miles, 17). This distinction helped define what it meant to be English, and helped create a sense of national identity during the tumult of the French Revolution.
Eventually, “the positive, idealized meanings of Gothic were channelled into chivalry and architecture, while the glamorously negative ones were poured into the Gothic novel” (Miles, 17), hence the bad reputation of Gothic novels during (and after) Austen’s period. Seen as “low or popular literature” that was “written by women, for women,” Gothic novels were nonetheless enjoyed by a mass readership (recall Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey), and Radcliffe still enjoyed a good reputation as a novelist.
The Castle of Otranto
The earliest Gothic novel is credited to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764). This novel is remarkable for its dreamlike blending of supernatural and natural, of superstition and pious faith; it is also unique in its symbolic role for Eighteenth Century politics. Consumed by the issue of succession, the villain of Otranto (Manfred) is actually a usurper, an illegitimate authority figure. One of the main images in the novel is “the dead hand of the past” – a literal giant hand that appears in the castle, haunting its inhabitants. In Walpole’s novel, as in other Gothic novels, there is an “ideological confusion arising from the transition from a pre-Enlightenment world, divinely sanctioned, to a modern one, in which power is naturalized as democracy.” Thus, Gothic novels often raise the question of authority, revealing the ideological conflict (again, Whig Democracy and Tory Monarchy) through the interaction of natural and supernatural (authority is either given by the people, or sanctioned by God).