Magazine article The Spectator

The Need for a Chilling Frisson

Magazine article The Spectator

The Need for a Chilling Frisson

Article excerpt


by Richard Davenport-Hines Fourth Estate, 20, pp. 438

I have never heard a good explanation or, come to that, any explanation at all, of how it was that 'Gothic', which once just described the neole who sacked Rome came to mean the predominant artistic style of most of mediaeval Europe, and subsequently Horace Walpole, Mrs Radcliffe, the Palace of Westminster, Dracula and the sort of provincial young ladies who hang around popular music combos with their nails and lips painted purple. It's just one of those things which one has to accept. To the Renaissance, of course, 'Gothic' just meant unlearned and barbaric, and the view that mediaeval art and architecture were simply the product of people who didn't know what they were doing prevailed for several centuries, enabling superior people like John Evelyn to talk about it as `sharp Angles, Jetties, narrow Lights, lame Statues and other Cutwork and Crinkle Crankle'.

But the story starts to become interesting in the 18th century, and has never stopped being interesting ever since. Gothic was pre-eminently a style, a label, without positive meaning; it merely meant `what people did before they knew how to design anything'. As a label, 'Gothic' was ready to take on whatever the age assigned to it, and some of the things cheerfully stuffed into all that crinkle-crankle look, in retrospect, frankly unlikely. There are 18th-century pattern books which contain instructions for unifying mock-Chinese and mock-Gothic and turning the whole beastly farrago into a garden hut - it is a common fallacy that the 18th century was an era of good taste.

The oddest development of what was, in the end, only a decorative style was the association the age started to draw between Gothic architecture and the Gothic horrors which began to absorb writers towards the end of the century. After Horace Walpole, who, loving all things Gothic, both built Strawberry Hill and wrote The Castle of Otranto, the link is not very easy to sustain. Certainly, the builders grew obsessed with the idea of picturesque ruin, of dark and mossy crevices and gloomy interiors; certainly the novelists of the age, of whom Mrs Radcliffe is only the best known, found these things useful settings for their sweetly macabre fantasies. But the associations of the architectural style quickly outgrew the limited and shrill ideas of the literary genre; I mean, if one lives in a Gothic building, one can't spend every minute of the day in a state of picturesque terror.

Most historians of the idea have found it necessary to write either about Gothic revival or Gothic terrors. Richard Davenport-Hines has made a brave effort to keep the architectural side going. He gets as far as Pugin, and the odd reinterpretation of Gothic in the 1830s as representing English native virtues and therefore the only suitable style for the new Houses of Parliament. But beyond that, though the development of Gothic and the mediaeval revival could be fruitfully traced to William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers up to the present day, he will not go.

His interest, on the whole, is in the ghost story and the sinister terrors of the imagination, which he explores with an admirable gusto. The sudden taste for the Gothic romance, as depicted in Northanger Abbey, is one of those inexplicable cultural phenomena which needs a Foucault to disentangle. It is an odd thought that those Regency girls, lounging around in their effortless way waiting for Lord Right to turn up in Bath, were probably whiling away the time by reading stories of murder, rape, abduction, exploding heads and general unspeakable ghastliness. …

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