Contested Pasts: David Hume, Horace Walpole and the Emergence of Gothic Fiction
Dent, Jonathan, Gothic Studies
In recent years, Gothic criticism has witnessed a resurgence of historicized readings of texts.1 The Gothic is everywhere fascinated by the past and, whilst this renewed focus recognizes the importance of historical context, little attention has been paid to how such texts actually construct the past and, moreover, the relationship between early Gothic and eighteenth-century historical writing. This article seeks to address this rather neglected issue by examining the complex, often antagonistic relationship between Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) and David Hume's The History of England (1754-62). As I will discuss in more detail later, Walpole had read numerous volumes of Hume's history before writing Otranto, the first Gothic novel. Reassessing the significance of the Gothic in the eighteenth century, this article discusses the extent to which Walpole's Gothic novel can be viewed as a bold response to, and critique of, Hume's historiography.
Hume and Walpole, two men absorbed by contemplating the past, were writing in an era where interest in the past flourished. Antiquarians were uncovering and preserving textual and physical remains of Britain's history.2 As Rosemary Sweet highlights, the emergence of Enlightenment 'philosophical' histories focusing on diverse aspects of society challenged the long standing Ciceronian notion that history was only concerned with high politics and demonstrated that historiography could appeal to readerships beyond the political elite.3 History was undergoing fundamental epistemic changes in the eighteenth century and Walpole and Hume played a significant role in the discussion and development of historical theory. Published between 1754 and 1762, Hume's The History of England spans six volumes, covering from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. With seven complete editions during his lifetime and one hundred and seventy-five in the century after his death, Hume's multi-volume work was immensely successful. Focusing more on the manner of telling than on precise scholarship, Hume's work demonstrates how history was considered as a branch of rhetoric rather than as a distinct discipline in the eighteenth century. With the emergence of Gothic fiction (in the form of Otranto) two years after the publication of the final volume of Hume's History, the relationship between history and literature became even more indistinguishable and convoluted, as we will discuss. In order to fully assess the extent to which Otranto can be considered as a reaction to The History of England, it is necessary to begin with an examination of Hume's history and the narrative strategies that underpin it.
As Leo Braudy highlights, Hume is concerned with history as a literary problem and focuses specifically on how the past comes to be written.4 History, Hume proposes, must have a design, a narrative form that emphasizes continuity. Seemingly 'different and unconnected' past events must be 'comprehended in this design', because, 'amidst all their diversity', they still have a 'species of unity'.5 For Hume, historiography must unearth lines of causation: the unity of seemingly disparate occurrences must be traced from their origins to their 'most remote consequences'.6 In a coherent and chronological narrative design, history should 'discover the constant and universal principles of human nature' by 'showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situation'.7 By implying that there is a relationship between human nature and a broad range of public events, the analysis of eminent characters provides a form of causal explanation in The History of England, at least in the Stuart volumes. For example, 'wild' in his 'conduct' and 'unrestrained either by prudence or principle', the Duke of Buckingham's character is closely linked to his involvement in certain historical events.8 Without even considering alternative causes (such as social and political), Hume argues that it is Buckingham's impulsiveness, his lack of 'secrecy and constancy', that destroys 'his character in public life' (6: 240). …