The Failure of Gothic: Problems of Disjunction in An Eighteenth-Century Literary Form

By Elizabeth R. Napier | Go to book overview
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'The horrible and the preternatural', Coleridge wrote in a review of Matthew Lewis The Monk, 'have usually seized on the popular taste, at the rise and decline of literature. Most powerful stimulants, they can never be required except by the torpor of an unawakened, or the languour of an exhausted, appetite.'1 In failing to meet Coleridge's charge of moral and aesthetic trifling, the recent resurgence of interest in the Gothic has obscured some central, critical problems of a historically important literary genre. It is impossible to read even the major Gothic novels of the period without being uncomfortably aware of the truth of Coleridge's remarks, or of Walpole's flippant assessments of his own influential Castle of Otranto, which he repeatedly referred to as a 'trifle'.2' 'It was fit for nothing', he wrote to Hannah More, 'but the age in which it was written . . . that required only to be amused'.3

Such statements are difficult to reconcile with the prevailing current view of the Gothic as '[venturing] into the dark night of the irrational',4 a judgement that is reiterated in many critical introductions and recent dissertations on the genre.5 One of the Gothic's most eloquent and pioneering spokesmen, Robert D. Hume, has praised the genre on precisely these grounds: 'One of [the] most prominent concerns [of the Gothic]', he writes, '. . . might grandiosely be called a psychological interest. As early as Walpole ( 1764) there is a considerable

Critical Review, 2nd ser., xix ( 1797), 194; repr. in Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor ( London, 1936), p. 370.
See, for example, Walpole to William Mason, 17 Apr. 1765, Correspondence, xxviii. 7; Walpole to Sir David Dalrymple, 21 Apr. 1765, Correspondence, xv. 105; Walpole to Madame du Deffand, c. 17 Jan. 1773, Correspondence, v. 316.
Walpole to Hannah More, 13 Nov. 1784, Correspondence, xxxi. 221.
M. Miyoshi, The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians ( New York, 1969), p. 5.
Most modern writers adopt this assumption without question. See, for example, J. Wilt, Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, & Lawrence ( Princeton, NJ, 1980). The attempt, perhaps, is to balance the damaging evaluations of earlier works, for example, D. Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature ( 2 vols., London, 1960), ii. 740; J. M. S. Tompkins , The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 ( London, 1932; repr. Lincoln, Nebraska, 1961), pp. v-vi.


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