Magazine article The Spectator

Gothic Tales

Magazine article The Spectator

Gothic Tales

Article excerpt

Like most people, I first heard or rather read of the Gothic novel in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. The heroine and her friend are gabbing away about The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole - at least I think it was The Castle of Otranto.

Years ago, the BBC produced a serial based on Northanger Abbey which attempted, but failed to create a suitably Gothic atmosphere. Lately, television attempted a straight version of Lady Audley's Secret, a Victorian Gothic novel, and another borrowed from some tale of a madwoman who appears, limb by limb, through the plaster of a ceiling.

What with all the Van Helsing, were-wolf, dracula films being made at present, I decided it was time to make a study of the Gothic novel in its golden age - that is, in the second half of the 18th century. OUP publishes a collection of four novels, including Walpole's. So I began with The Castle of Otranto. The opening few pages are indeed a masterpiece - of unintentional comedy. The heir to the throne is late for his nuptials to the beautiful Princess Mathilda. The reason for this, it transpires, is that a giant helmet has fallen on his head. I quote:

He [Manfred, the ruler] beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.

Golly, I thought, what a great cartoon this would make. Not to be continued. It is extraordinary that the reading public of the 18th century - allegedly so cultured - could lap up this kind of trash. Who said taste has deteriorated? Poor old Walpole should have stuck to his diaries.

However, the second novel evinced a marked improvement on the first. This was Vathek, by William Beckford. Beckford was born in London in 1760. On the death of his father in 1770, he inherited a vast fortune. At 19, he left for a tour of Holland, Germany, Italy and France, and over the next 40 years he was often away from England, at times in order to avoid scandal. In 1783 he married, and in the following year he became a Member of Parliament for Wells. He spent large sums in collecting works of art and curios and in the building and extravagant decoration of his stately home, Fonthill Abbey. He died apparently from a severe attack of influenza.

Vathek, which Beckford wrote aged 21, tells the peculiar story of a wicked Caliph and his journey to damnation to propitiate a wicked genie. I could just see ITV doing something with this, preferably with Ali G in the lead role. …

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