Tuesday, July 9, is another twin birthday of significance for readers of this blog. Two famous writers of gothic novels, Mrs. Radcliffe (1764-1823), author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and “Monk” Lewis (1775-1818), nicknamed for his most popular work, The Monk, were born on this date.
There had been Gothic writers before Mrs. Radcliffe. Literary historians usually trace the origin of the genre to Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. Walpole called Otranto a “gothic story” because of its use of a medieval setting, alluding to the Gothic architectural style. Indeed, Walpole tried to pass off Otranto as an authentic medieval story, much as Wilhelm Meinhold would try to pass off The Amber Witch (1843), another gothic novel, as an authentic 17th-century manuscript. Otranto is one of those books you probably want to read once, and once only. It’s a weak melodrama with fantastical supernatural elements.
Mrs. Radcliffe (née Ann Ward) had a short writing career, spanning less than a decade (1789-1797, if we exclude a posthumously published novel) but she made the English gothic novel both popular and respectable. Well, there’s some question as to the latter, as there was always an occult air attached to her reputation. No doubt one of the elements that made her sensational melodramas respectable was that the supernatural elements were always explained by natural occurrences. Scooby-Doo, anyone? Udolpho, her most famous novel, piled on mystery after mystery, hidden sins, covered-up crimes, disappearing people, and apparent ghosts, set in what for English readers seemed wild and exotic Mediterranean locales.
In contrast, Matthew Gregory Lewis had a longer but generally unsuccessful writing career, apart from his gothic romance, The Monk (1796). You want sex, violence, and the supernatural? Lewis included incestuous rape, murder, a baby starved to death, and a seductive emissary of Satan, among many other elements, in The Monk. And he described them all in what for the day was extensive and explicit detail. Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels could be read by maiden aunts who thought they were getting a morally subversive thrill. “Monk” Lewis’s masterwork resulted in a lawsuit that forced Lewis to temper his language considerably, eliminating the more explicitly sexual and gory descriptions (though not the actual actions).
I have to wonder if Lewis got the idea to make a sinful monk his protagonist from the most famous of the Hellfire Clubs, whose members were actually known as the Monks of Medmenham at one time. Sir Francis Dashwood’s club, which flourished in the 1750s and 1760s did feature sexual excesses and mock worship of devilish (or at least pagan) entities, along with the consumption of copious amounts of booze. Certainly, The Monk made hypocritical monks a mainstay of later gothic fiction. One of the first successful gothic novels in the United States was George Lippard’s Quaker City; or the Monks of Monk Hall (1845); Lippard’s monks are more Dashwood than Lewis, which demonstrates that the two strains combined early. Much later in the century, in one of his few forays into traditional gothic style, Ambrose Bierce even named the monk in The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter (1892) Ambrosius after Lewis’s protagonist.
Perhaps the last word should go to Jane Austen. She read The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk, and her response was to satirize them in Northanger Abbey (originally sold to a publisher in 1803, revised and published in 1817). Catherine Morland encountered all the standard features of the gothic novel: wild scenery, exotic castles, mysterious events, and so on. But unlike Lewis, who supplied a supernatural element, or Mrs. Radcliffe, who offered sensational but natural solutions, Catherine’s mysteries all turn out to be very simple and commonplace. Rather like the real life of Mrs. Radcliffe, who stayed out of the public eye despite the fame of her works.