Faulty towers: Reform, Radicalism and the Gothic Castle, 1760-1800
Frances A. Chiu
The New School
Who has not been on an amusement park ride that proceeds through a haunted house, complete with cobwebs, coffins, once opulent furnishings, and a ghost or two? It is an idea that we have encountered countless times in novels and movies alike yet one that continues to mystify us. How did the trope of the haunted Gothic castle/mansion materialize so quickly in the late eighteenth century? Although we have more or less recognized Walpole’s castle of Otranto as its prototype, we are yet unacquainted with the rapid construction of the so-called “haunted castle/mansion/house” trope, particularly between 1777 and 1800. This essay contends that far from being accidental, the foundations of this trope were heavily impacted not only by populist histories that detailed the beginnings of Britain’s stately castles, abbeys, and houses and the dark tales of their presiding tyrants, but more significantly by the simultaneous campaigns for parliamentary reform and religious toleration. I demonstrate how historians began to identify the chief features of Gothic architecture as Norman during a period in which reformers and radicals were also beginning to revive the myth of the Norman Yoke and stir up resentment against the church and aristocracy. I also show how reformers were increasingly inclined to deploy architectural metaphors in their discussions of Britain’s political institutions and establishments: just as conservatives argued for the retention of the Gothic castle, progressives argued for its destruction, regarding it in some instances as either haunted or filled with harpies (i.e., Jeremy Bentham). Finally, I analyze the means by which Jacobin and Gothic novelists adopted the Gothic castle as a criticism of Britain’s so-called “establishments” and, more interestingly, came to explore the idea of identification between villains and their dark abodes in their novels.
Amusement parks and the silver screen alike have familiarized us with the image of the archetypal haunted house: large, isolated, once resplendent, but now decaying. Notions of decadent elites residing amongst the living dead in a cobwebbed castle were most likely as vivid for the authors of The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), The Haunted Castle (1794), The Castle of Ollada (1795), The Black Tower (1796) and The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1799) in the 1790s as they were for the designers of Disney’s various “Haunted Mansion” rides, the producers of the opening sequence of the television show Tales from the Crypt, and the director of the Backstreet Boys’ video, Everybody two centuries later. Yet, despite the readily identifiable iconography and features of the “haunted house,” few have truly unlocked its secrets. We remain largely unacquainted with the reasons for its sudden literary emergence, not to mention its social and political valences from 1760 through 1800. What were the cultural connotations conveyed by the site/sight of the castle? How did contemporary developments inform the construction of the dangerous, dilapidated, and apparition-riddled edifice, particularly in a nation eager to poise itself at the forefront of civilization and progress amidst wider millenarian visions?
In order to understand the topography of the “haunted house”, we need to understand several long overlooked factors. This essay contends that the foundations for the trope of the “haunted” Gothic castle were largely put into place by parliamentary reformers and Protestant Dissenters as they promoted the expansion of male enfranchisement, equitable representation for larger cities, and religious toleration. I begin by showing how the Gothic structure came to be read as a Norman, “foreign” structure during a time when parliamentary reformers began to revive the myth of the “Norman Yoke”: a resentment that would foment aggravation with the “establishments”  as reformers encountered resistance in their endeavors. Not less important is a consideration of the manner in which the Gothic structure came to be favored in late eighteenth-century political discourse as an architectural metaphor of state polity to be either preserved or abandoned. Only when we examine the heightened hostility against the Normans, the contemporary “establishments”, and a growing impatience with age-old customs and prejudices can we understand their powerful convergence in the radical rhetoric of the 1790s as writers blamed present-day ills on the aristocratic and ecclesiastical retention of anachronistic Norman thought. Finally, I analyze the means by which Gothic novelists adapted similar views, adding finishing touches to the collected reformist vision of ancien-régime Britain as a haunted Gothic castle.
By 1700, the word “Gothic”—a term frequently synonymous with “Saxon”—harbored many connotations, both positive and negative. While predominantly a pejorative term, linked with “ignorance” and “Bad Taste” (Madoff , 339) it slowly began to accrue more favorable associations in Britain, particularly when early seventeenth-century Parliamentarians extolled the idea of Saxon liberty in their contractarian arguments for the limitation of monarchical authority. The concept of Saxon/Goth liberty prevailed through the early 18th century when supporters of Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the Opposition party alike deployed Gothic imagery to defend their various political ends. As Judith Colton points out, Queen Caroline proved as equally apt as the Duke of Argyll in erecting a mock-Gothic monument: if Argyll famously built a Gothic temple dedicated to “the Liberty of our Ancestors” at Stowe as a reproach to Walpole, Caroline raised a monument to Merlin (with whom Walpole was identified) in an attempt to present Walpole as the defender of British liberties. It is therefore hardly surprising that by 1741, Henry Fielding would plant the virtuous Squire Allworthy of Tom Jones in a “Gothick Stile of Building”(Fielding, 1:42). Nor did the aristocratic assumption of the essentially populist Saxon mantle appear ironic: the flexibility of “Saxonism” was such that writers were able to strip it of its essential egalitarianism to suit Augustan tastes: the historians George St. Amand and Nicholas Tindal, for instance, stressed the representation of property, viewing the Saxon electorate as an aristocratic one (R.J. Smith, 50).
But “Gothic” could only retain any positivity so long as “Gothic” and “Saxon” remained roughly interchangeable terms. Over the following decades, especially in the 1770s, the principal features of Gothic architecture—its whimsical details, height and overall impression of splendor—came to be configured as Norman rather than Saxon, and thus intrinsically foreign rather than native during a time when Britain was beginning to inculcate a sense of greater national identity. These associations became apparent with James Bentham’s emphasis on the Norman fondness for “stately and sumptuous houses” in The History and Antiquities….at Ely (1771). Affecting “pomp and magnificence in their mien and dress, and likewise in their buildings” (Ely, 32), the Norman invasion naturally entailed the construction of magnificent abodes for a new aristocracy with the destruction of the Saxons’ simple buildings.
To this end, they repaired and enlarged the Churches and monasteries, and erected new ones every where, in a more stately and sumptuous manner than had been known in these kingdoms before…The Saxon churches, were often elegant fabricks….but generally of a moderate size….The works of the Normans were large, sumptuous, and magnificent; of great length and breadth, and carried up to a proportionable height…
Even if English castles of Norman origin incorporated raw materials from lingering fragments often enough to “be mistaken for Roman or Saxon edifices,” they were unmistakably Norman in design, construction, and intent (Grose, “Preface”, 7-8). Certainly, “the strong and spacious” Cambridge Castle built by William the Conqueror would have appeared to exemplify this idea since it was built “for the purpose of awing his newly acquired subjects” and involved the destruction of eighteen houses to accommodate a “noble hall, with many other magnificent apartments” (“Preface”, 23).
“Norman” and “French”, however, may not have been the only connotations. Writers on architecture were as apt to situate the origins of “Gothic” farther away to the East—namely, in Arabia and Persia, nations popularly perceived to be despotic. If Thomas Warton noted in Essays on Gothic Architecture that spires were introduced from Eastern mosques, Grose equally observed that Gothic architecture was “generally conjectured to be of Arabian extraction” and introduced by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land—that is, a feudal importation of “Eastern tyranny” by Roman Catholics (“Preface on Castles”, 114). While invoking the British stereotype of the irrational and overly imaginative Easterner, Grose discerned the “same taste” in their poetry, describing it as “falsely delicate, crowded with superfluous ornaments,” and often “very unnatural”, betraying an “extravagant imagination” (117, footnote o). For Vicesimus Knox, the liberal Anglican minister, it was easy for the “general spectator” to include “the Gothic, the Saracen, and other styles” under “the name of Gothic Architecture” because the “great resemblances….in many of their most striking features, and the common notions on the subject, in some measure justify the considering them of the same tribe” (“Cursory”, 343). Indeed, the vast dimensions and labyrinthine structure of the Gothic castle could appear as equally characteristic of an Eastern building of “enormous size and prodigiousness” (Lowth, 6) or an ancient “LABYRINTH” that “covered a whole province” (Lowth, 5) such that it would not have required a leap of the imagination to apply the notion of Eastern obscurity and impenetrability (or “inscrutability” to use a more familiar nineteenth-century catchword) more generally to Gothic architecture. Nor would it have been difficult to extrapolate that those who inhabited the Gothic castle shared the “jealous temper of Eastern nations,” since the houses of the former were equally “difficult of access, with few windows, and those so latticed and blinded as almost to exclude the Light” such that they “sufficiently indicated the Disposition of the Inhabitants” (Lowth, 17) Given these defining features, the Gothic structure could easily be construed as fundamentally foreign, being neither of English or even European origins.
But given the ready association between the imposition of feudalism and the consanguineous rise of the aristocracy and the state-established church, it would have been most convenient for the eighteenth-century reader to view the Gothic castle and abbey as a legacy of the Conquest itself. Such impressions would have been affirmed by William Watts’ Seats of the Nobility and Gentry in England (1782) and Francis Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales (1772-86), where most of the properties belonged to peers and prelates. With a subscription list drawn largely from the same group as well, Watts’ and Grose’s lavishly typeset and engraved works provided histories and descriptions of the most prominent estates along with their dimensions and furnishings. Here, the contemporary reader would have inevitably grasped the tacit alliance between the “establishments” in their ready exchange of castles and abbeys. For instance, New Hall, as the seat of Lord Waltham, is described as having once belonged to Henry VII, with its “royal Magnificence and Splendour” as well as to Mary, Queen of Scots (Seats, pl. 4) while Sion House, a convent under Henry V, was later granted to the Duke of Somerset before reverting back to the Crown after his death and subsequently bestowed upon the ninth Earl of Northumberland (Seats, pl. 49). Not surprisingly, given the fact that Watts’ work was predominantly subscribed to by members of the peerage and gentry, we find numerous paeans delivered to aristocratic opulence and taste, with phrases such as “magnificent staircase,” “equaled by few in Magnificence,” and “magnificent Suites of apartments furnished in the most elegant manner” recurring throughout, accompanied by a lavish detailing of interiors that anticipate those in Gothic novels; Holkham House was “furnished and decorated in the most superb Taste” with its chimney pieces fashioned from “Jasper, Porphyry, Siena, and other Marbles[?]”(Watts, pl 39) while Osterley House—formerly part of the domains of the convent at Sion—contained “apartments decorated in the most splendid manner,” decked out in “silk, damask, and gobelin tapestry” (Seats, pl. 70).
It is here that sinister undercurrents begin to surface. With its histories of shady pasts, purported hauntings, popular superstitions and tyrannical owners, Antiquities may be considered an even closer literary antecedent of the Gothic novel than the school of “graveyard poetry.” If Watts’ work easily flatters the occupants of the so-called “corridors of power,” with its pervasive homage to aristocratic elegance, Grose’s bears a slightly more critical subtext, despite his fondness for such phrases as “venerable antiquity,” “great grandeur and magnificence,” and “most venerable structure”: here, accounts of the various castles and abbeys dwell upon tales of ambition and arbitrariness through the centuries. The heads of baronies,” according to Grose, “arrogate[d] to themselves a royal power, not only within their castles, but likewise its environs”(“Preface on Castles”, 3); despite their exercise of “judicature both civil and criminal,” for instance, they were not above coining money while “arbitrarily seiz[ing] forage and provision for the subsistence of their garrisons, which they afterwards demanded as a right.” Grose would consequently arrive at a less than nostalgic verdict on Gothic times:
On a review of these structures, the purposes of their foundation, and the times in which they were erected, every reflecting man must congratulate himself….when the laws of government, and the rights of humanity are more securely established an critically understood; when even the privilege of a modern peasant would be injured in a comparison with those possessed by the chieftains of antient days.
A cautionary tone enters his warning to potential present-day despots with “Let Tyranny, Rapine, and Licentiousness stand admonished, however shielded! But may Legal Liberty and the rights of humanity flourish while TIME EXISTS” (Antiquities, 6:141); the “however shielded” implies, of course, the tacit perpetuation of feudal tyranny in present times particularly when the dangers associated with these edifices were never entirely eradicated. The dungeons of Alnwick Castle (Northumberland), for instance, were “still remaining in all its original horrors”(4:46) while those at Flint Castle (North Wales) had been maintained as recently as 1774 by the constable, the late Lord Plymouth (7:54). In all, progressively minded readers in the 1770s may have sensed that modern day Britain had not quite liberated herself from the past.
Indeed, the fact that some of the owners of these stately edifices went so far as to personally identify themselves with their abodes would have further affirmed the castle, mansion or abbey as an apt symbol of power. This would have been especially so in the case of Thomas Wenman Coke: a descendant of the legal writer Edward Coke, he proudly modeled the great hall of Holkham House upon “the Example of a Basilica, or Court of Justice.” Conversely, the application of human traits to the edifice could also reinforce this identification between man and castle. As a testament to the “towering ambition” of the “lofty and deluded owners,” the Yorkshire-based Middleham Castle is a “once haughty pile” and not altogether unlike Beeston Castle, which “stands very loftily and proudly upon an exceeding steep and high rock.” In similar fashion, the Unitarian essayist and poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld would find the dispositions of bygone clerics mirrored in the architecture of the medieval abbey. Not unlike Grose, Barbauld would praise the deliverance of modern liberty from feudal darkness:
See how the pure light of heaven is clouded by the dim glass of the arched window, stained with the gaudy colors of monkish tales and legendary fiction; fit emblem how reluctantly they admitted the fairer light of truth amidst these dark recesses….the low cells, the long and narrow aisles, the gloomy arches, the damp and secret caverns which wind beneath the hollow ground….seem only fit for those dark places of the earth in which are the habitations of cruelty….Farewel, ye once venerated seats! Enough of you remains….to remind us from what we have escaped, and make posterity for ever thankful for this fairer age of liberty and light.
Knox, too, would note that “A religious dimness may, perhaps be deemed necessary by the bigoted inhabitants of the convent and cloister, whose minds, it is to be feared, are often as dark as their habitations” (Cursory, 348). Every man’s home was not just his castle, but his mind.
By now, the Gothic structure emerges clearly not only as a visual reminder of the Norman legacy in Britain, but also a reminder of aristocratic and ecclesiastical might. Such a perception would have a decisive impact on the perception of the Gothic structure, from glowing admiration to suspicion in a period that also began to witness the rapid promulgation of social and political reforms. Just as Protestant Dissenters began to challenge what they perceived as the limited extent of religious toleration, parliamentary reformers began to question that of suffrage in the immediate wake of the War of Independence, siding with the American colonists who proclaimed “No taxation without representation.” Not unlike 17th-century defenders of parliamentary prerogative, late 18th-century reformers began to revise early 18th-century notions of a Saxon noblesse with fresh recourse to the “Norman Yoke” theory. If it was possible for St. Amand and Tindal to deem Saxon freedom more or less as an aristocratic prerogative in the early eighteenth century, this would no longer be the case in the latter half of the century when Whiggish reformers reclaimed its populist appeal by heightening antagonism against the aristocracy. After defending the rights of the American colonies in Letters on American Independence (1774), Major John Cartwright proceeded to promote universal male enfranchisement in Britain in Take Your Choice (1776), contending that Britain should restore her ancient Saxon traditions of democracy when every man was allowed to vote, regardless of his property. As such, the first address from the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI), founded by Cartwright and the Unitarian physician John Jebb in 1780, sought to remind Britons that “our Saxon forefathers established their government in Britain, before the transactions of mankind were recorded in writing” and subsequently handed “down to posterity the principles of their government, BY THE ACTUAL EXERCISE OF THEIR RIGHTS.” Resentment creeps in as the writer recalls that “Since the Conquest….our arbitrary Kings and men of arbitrary principles endeavoured to destroy the few remaining records….that might keep in remembrance a form of government so kind, friendly, and hospitable to the human species” (The First Address to the Public from the Society for Constitutional Information, 468); all told, universal male suffrage was “the birthright of Englishmen, their best inheritance” and “a defense against aristocratic domination.”
It is thus more than probable that those who agreed with Christopher Wyvill, a liberal Anglican minister and leading member of the SCI, that male enfranchisement vanished with the “usurped power of Ministers and Nobles in the boroughs” when the “proud and narrow views of the kings and Nobility…degrade[ed] and oppress[ed] the people,” regarded these very castles and former abbeys with their opulent interiors as subliminal reminders of their disenfranchisement and loss of liberty under the rapacious and aristocratic Normans. Indeed, the Norman incorporation of Saxon fragments noted by Grose could be transposed into an allegory of the Norman corruption of Saxon government. James Bentham’s observations on the Norman ejection of native Saxons from “all places of trust or profit” and the infiltration of “foreigners” into “bishopricks and all the best ecclesiastical preferments” may well have been interpreted as a parallel to contemporary borough-mongering by transplanted nabobs, just as the Norman confiscation of Saxon properties and subsequent construction of “churches, monasteries, castles, and other edifices” (Ely, 23) may have equally been construed as a harbinger of contemporary foreigners and nabobs purchasing British political offices, properties, if not power, or even the outright obliteration of Britain when the radical Whig historian Catharine Macaulay feared that the nation would become “the provinces of some powerful European state”(Address, 27).
At the very least, the Eastern origins of the Gothic would have affirmed the view that British government was growing more despotic. Such was the implication when Thomas Paine found Europe lapsing into Asiatic absolutism:
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for the mind.
Common Sense, 30
In other words, it would have been tempting for a reader to subconsciously regard members of a powerful British ruling class, with their large and magnificent abodes, as intrinsically foreign—a transplanted version of that which Paul Henri Mallett derogated in his Northern Antiquities (1770) as the “inaccessible and superb tyrants of the East.”
Yet still more central in the shaping of the Gothic castle as a symbol of the dark, unreformed Norman past and the abode of monied tyrants, whether aristocratic or ecclesiastical, was the increasing use of architectural metaphors in the heightened argument between the forces of reform and conservatism from the 1770s onwards: one that would posit the dilapidated Gothic castle/abbey as a haunted one—or at the very least, one best left abandoned. Perhaps the earliest and most notable use of the castle as a metaphor for the government or institutions of the nation appears in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1764), published a year before Walpole’s Castle of Otranto: a description that has been frequently cited yet barely analyzed. Imagining the state of English law as a Gothic castle, Blackstone observed that while its “moated ramparts and embattled towers are magnificent and venerable, but useless” and the inferior apartments, “cheerful and commodious, though their approaches are winding and difficult”(Commentaries, qtd in Fragment, 20) the inconvenient castle of law was to be preserved in spite of its anachronistic inconveniences. Here, Blackstone deploys a casual, almost soothing rhetoric: there is something harmless (if not suggestively impotent) about a “useless” tower, despite its magnificence, and there is certainly no hint of the dark and decrepit in the “cheerful and commodious” apartments. English law, as presented here, is safe and familiar, if ever so slightly dull.
Conversely, for reformers, the ancient edifice was a useless structure fit only for annihilation. Just as Joseph Priestley and Bentham were keen to repudiate “ancestor worship” and the law of the Father out of derision for “the breath of ancient despotism”(Bentham, Comment, 221), others were also eager to destroy the proverbial Father’s house: namely, the house that signified both the abode of long dead tyrants as well as the stranglehold of obsolete laws, legislation, customs, and prejudices. For instance, when appealing for parliamentary reform in the early 1780s, Cartwright maintained that the legislative structure of the House of Commons, not unlike an ancient citadel, should be dismantled altogether since “to shoulder it up with buttresses…in hopes of making it tenable, would only be throwing away to an ill purpose” (People’s Barrier, 72).
It is perhaps not coincidental then that Protestant Dissenters would apply a similar reasoning and imagery when arguing for religious toleration. Having composed the essay “On Monastic Institutions” as well as the Gothic fragment “Sir Bertrand” (complete with a “large antique mansion”), both of which vaguely emphasize the idea of dangerous ruins, Anna Laetitia Barbauld would subsequently champion the repeal of the Test and Corporation Act in An Address to the Opposers of the Test and Corporation Acts, which betrays impatience with old prejudices in her belief that religious toleration is a “natural and inalienable right” (Address, 11). Praying in her earlier essay for a time that “the corruptions of Christianity which have been accumulating for so many years” would “gradually clear away”, and hoping that “some future period may perhaps exhibit our religion in all its native simplicity” (“Monastic”, 118), she would subsequently advocate the rejection of old customs and prejudice more than fifteen years later. “Whatever is loose must be shaken, whatever is corrupted must be kept away; whatever is not built on the broad basis of public utility must be thrown to the ground”(Address, 31). Likewise, as if echoing Barbauld, Priestley would similarly argue for the abandonment of fallacious theology in his own History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) while reinforcing her architectural metaphor.
Great buildings do not often fall at once but some apartments will still be thought habitable; after the rest are to be seen in ruins. It is the same with great systems of doctrine, the parts of which have long gone together. The force of evidence obliges us at first to abandon some one part of them only, and we do not immediately see that, in consequence of this, we ought to abandon others, at length, the whole.
Only three years later, he would earn the sobriquet of “Gunpowder Joe” by planning to lay “gunpowder grain by grain under the old building of error and superstition….so as to produce an instantaneous explosion, in consequence of which that edifice, the erection of which has been the work of ages, may be overturned in a moment and….never be built upon again” (Importance, 40-1).
What is still more remarkable than the desire for the destruction of the castle, however, is its demonization in the hands of reformist writers. If conservative writers presented a warm and familiar image of the castle, that presented by reformers veered away as they transformed the castle—rather than the surrounding wilderness—into an unfamiliar, even terrifying domain. Here, we must turn to the less frequently cited criticism of Blackstone’s castle as penned by Jeremy Bentham. While scorning Blackstone’s reverence for tradition and obsolete relics, Bentham subsequently rendered his Gothic castle into a nightmarish one, observing that “He should have considered, that it is not easier for him to turn the Law into a Castle, than it is to the imaginations of impoverished suitors to people it with Harpies”(Fragment, 20: footnote q). If Freud was later to define the uncanny as a process of defamiliarization, Bentham may be said to defamiliarize English law, making what is presumed safe and familiar frightening and unpredictable so that its very traditions and customs are no longer a source of comfortable benignity, but of terror.
Indeed, the new “fright factor” may be said to be multiplied in Burke’s slightly later Speech on Economical Reform (1780), composed when he still belonged to the ranks of the reformers. While advocating the trimming of pensions and places, he blamed the monarchy and ministry of losing “all that was stately and venerable….without retrenching any thing of the cumbrous charge of a Gothic establishment” (Speech, 509). But what is more noteworthy here is the vivid description of a haunted castle not unlike that of Barbauld’s fragment, “Sir Bertrand.”
But when the reason of old establishments is gone, it is absurd to preserve nothing but the burthen of them. This is superstitiously to embalm a carcass not worth an ounce of the gums that are used to preserve it. It is to burn precious oils in the tomb; it is to offer meat and drink to the dead…Our palaces are vast inhospitable halls. There the bleak winds….howling through the vacant lobbies, and clattering the doors of deserted guardrooms, appal the imagination, and conjure up the grim spectres of departed tyrants—the governors and magistrates still flourish….the Saxon, the Norman, the Dane; the stern Edwards and fierce Henrys—who stalk from desolation to desolation through the dreary vacuity, and melancholy succession of chill and comfortless chambers….
A far cry from his plea for the preservation of the “noble and venerable castle” a decade later in the Reflections on the French Revolution, the speech would appear to weld together the arguments of Cartwright and Priestley with the dramatic rhetoric of a Bentham in its implicit desire to destroy the ancient and decrepit house of horror, complete with the atmospheric details of “bleak winds” and “chill and comfortless chambers.” Here, Burke not only drops Grosean allusions to the “grim specters of departed tyrants,” but also imparts the anti-paternalistic skepticism articulated by Bentham, Priestley, and others in his demonization of custom with his visions of the “embalming of carcasses” and “decayed” inhabitants.
But it was not until the onset of the French Revolution debate that these strands of thought would coalesce powerfully, turning the vision of the Gothic castle into a largely threatening one: the site of tyranny, one governed by an arbitrary aristocrat and (purportedly) haunted by ghosts from a dead past. Indeed, the emphasis on the dead past, especially when titles of nobility and church tithes were abolished a month after the fall of the Bastille, lent a new sense of urgency, leading to reformers to deprecate on a wider scale than ever before the unenlightened state of Britain. It is here that we begin to discern a clear bifurcation in the perception of “Gothic times” as identified by Mark Madoff:
On the one side was an imaginary epoch that surpassed the eighteenth century in elegance of manners, chivalry, chastity, social stability, proper hierarchical relations, vivid pageantry, and faith. On the other side, the material insecurity, tyranny, superstition, and sudden violence of dim ancestral times were potent objects of fear and fascination.
Although such scholars as Emma Clery and Robert Miles have rightly pointed out the pejorative use of “Gothic” in the replies to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, where he defended “an established church, and established monarchy, an established aristocracy” (Reflections, 91) as well as the values of “ancient chivalry,” few have examined the pejorative uses themselves—something that is crucial to understanding the shaping of the Gothic castle in fiction. With few exceptions, Burke’s critics would attribute contemporary ills—not least, war and the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor—to the legacy of Norman feudal militarism and imposition of a new social hierarchy; critics would remind readers that far from being civilized and chivalrous, medieval peers behaved little better than common thieves and murderers. For instance, not unlike Grose, who quoted Matthew Paris’s observation that “there were in England as many kings, or rather tyrants, as lords of castles” whose castles were “the very nest of devils and dens of thieves”(“Preface on Castles”, 2) Mary Wollstonecraft revived the memory of “seditious Barons” who encouraged “robbers and villains, who infested the country, and lived by rapine and violence” in her rebuttal to Burke, Vindication of the Rights of Men (10).
Given Thomas Paine’s probable familiarity with Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales in 1777, it is not surprising either that he attributed the origins of government to feudal brutality in The Rights of Man, his reply to Burke:
Those bands of robbers having parceled out the world….began, as is naturally the case, to quarrel with each other….They alternately invaded the dominions which each had assigned to himself, and the brutality with which they treated each other explains the original character of monarchy. It was ruffian torturing ruffian. The conqueror considered the conquered, not as his prisoner, but his property. He led him in triumph rattling in chains, and doomed him, at pleasure, to slavery or death. As time obliterated the history of their beginning, their successors assumed new appearances, to cut off the entail of their disgrace, but their principles and objects remained the same. What at first was plunder, assumed the softer name of revenue; and the power originally usurped, they affected to inherit.
But even more fascinating in the context of horror is Paine’s juxtaposition between the dead and the living. For Paine, a Britain governed by anachronistic laws is analogous to the dead governing the living. While asserting that “the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies” since “It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated”(15), he would reiterate that “government is for the living and not for the dead”; it was his mission to “contend for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controuled for….by the manuscript authority of the dead”(28). It is not difficult to imagine that those who heard or read his Address and Declaration delivered on August 20, 1791 would have construed present-day Britain as a nation haunted by ghosts of its feudal past: the progress of the French Revolution was highly relevant to Britain because the latter was “not yet free” from the “feudal system of injustice”(Address, 254) with “game laws, borough tenures, and tyrannical monopolies”(256) still in existence. In short, Paine’s unreformed Britain is a perverse Gothic world, governed by the dead.
What is striking here is how writers—conservative and progressive alike—magnified the image of the crumbling castle in their arguments on British government. On one hand, Burke, like Blackstone, would invoke a positive image of the comfortless castle, observing:
Your constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations.
Although there is less familiarity and more grandeur in Burke’s conceptualizations of the “noble and venerable castle,” it again implies that what is within the castle is safer than what is without. In contrast, Wollstonecraft would deride the “imagined virtues” of Burke’s “forefathers,” questioning
Why was it a duty to repair an ancient castle, built in barbarous ages, of Gothic materials? Why were legislators obliged to rake amongst heterogeneous ruins, to rebuild walls, whose foundations could scarcely be explored, when a simple structure might be raised on the foundation of experience, the only valuable inheritance our forefathers could bequeath?
It is a disdain shared by Paine’s young friend, Joel Barlow who saw the feudal system as “an ancient edifice, whose foundation” was being “worn away by the current of events” in Advice to the Privileged Orders (18).
Many of these ideas in Paine, Wollstonecraft, Barlow, and the earlier Burke would converge dynamically in the writings of Vicesimus Knox and the radical orator John Thelwall in the mid-1790s as the large Gothic edifice became a collected manifestation of a baleful Norman feudalism preserved by the corrupt “establishments” of the church and aristocracy. In his oblique rebuttal of Burke’s veneration of chivalry and his “Tory and Jacobite” followers, Knox would equate the modern peer with the Norman baron while revising the perceptions of Saxon democracy. For Knox, there is little of value in idolizing a protracted period of virtual slavery. Even if he does not dwell at great length on the castle here, it serves as a means of linking past and present tyranny.
The truth is the spirit of chivalry was highly favourable to the spirit of despotism. Every feudal baron was a petty tyrant, little differing from the chieftain of banditti….Their castles were fortified palaces, from which they issued, regardless of government or law….to deform the land with blood and devastation. What was the situation of the PEOPLE….in those days of mischievous folly? It was scarcely better than that of the negroes in the islands of America.
At this period of English history, slaves, natives of England were bought and sold on English ground….They were never considered as citizens; they had no vote, no rights; and were in every respect, in the eye of the great men who possessed them, like goods, chattels, and beasts of burden.
The GENTLEMEN of modern days who admire the age of chivalry, and who adopt tory and arbitrary principles, would be glad to consider this useful and ingenious class of citizens [tradesmen, mechanics, artisans] Such sentiments resemble those of the feudal barons, the most despotic GENTLEMEN that ever disgraced human nature.
Like Knox, Thelwall also censured Burke for his worship of the aristocracy while demonizing the “Gothic customary” as a “hateful and accursed” structure to be destroyed:
Are these the institutions which Mr. B wishes to support?....Are these the regular and orderly fabrics of the ancient legitimate “government of states,” whose plans and materials were “drawn from the old Germanic or Gothic customary”, and of which those famous architects, “the civilians, the jurists, and the publicists”, have given us such flattering draughts, ground plots and elevations?....If such are the effects of these fabrics, they are hateful and accursed; and, though crowned with “Corinthian capitals”, though hung with antique trophies of renown, and adorned with offerings of ancient and modern piety, they must perish….They are Bastilles of intellect, which must be destroyed. They are insulting mausoleums of buried rights, and are ready to totter from their base; for the day of the resurrection is near at hand….
His critique of the “Gothic customary” differs little from that of Bentham’s: just as Bentham deprecated the seemingly labyrinthine structure and operations of British law, Thelwall would ask the reader to “Contrast the gloomy intricacy of these oppressive systems—these antique temples of fraud and violence, with the simple plans of reason, and of nature” (435).
Altogether, the presentation of the Gothic castle may be said to darken considerably from the early 1760s to 1800, with the 1790s witnessing the accumulation of the various associations. For those sympathetic to the aims of reform and radicalism, the castle would have conveyed an uneasy amalgamation of all that was repressive and regressive in late eighteenth-century Britain: a Norman, Catholic, Eastern and thus fundamentally un-British structure that was haunted by the ills of its feudal aristocratic and ecclesiastical establishments. With the unpopular war against France, the rise of reactionary Church and King mobs, and the food shortages, radicals and reformers alike might have wondered if they were not revisiting the war-ridden times of the Dark Ages. The Gothic abbey/castle may well have represented a structure closely akin to Burke’s “vast, inhospitable halls,” filled with “grim specters of the departed dead”: a place where the dead, and not the living, are perversely accommodated. The Gothic edifice, in short, was the symbol of an uncanny Britain haunted by an alien nation, an alien religion, and an alien time.
Given the impact of reform, it is thus not curious that Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, despite its arbitrary tyrant and supernatural elements (i.e., an animated portrait and hooded skeleton), shares few traits with later fictional castles as Dianne Ames notes: unlike “Charlotte Smith’s thirteen castles and five abbeys,” Otranto is “not in ruins” and unlike “Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho,” it is “simply not a dismal place”(Ames, 357): the horror does not arise so much from an eerie sense of the dead and bygone but rather the sheer unpredictability of Manfred and his castle. Nor is it odd that the composition of Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron—a novel that tells a variation of the Norman Yoke myth–took place in a period during which Priestley, Bentham, and Burke introduced their dark castles while Cartwright, Jebb, and others revived the Norman Yoke theory. It is probable that Gothic novelists, even if they were unacquainted with the radical land reforms of Thomas Spence, would certainly have concurred with his satirical insight into the allegorization of social ills in the tales of giants:
Those giants were said to be a terror and destruction to all the people around, so in reality the dukes, lords, and barons of the present day. Therefore, the stories of enormous and tyrannical giants, dwelling in strong castles, which have been thought fabulous, may reasonably be looked upon as disguised truths and to have been invented as just satires upon great lords.
In other words, what is satire in reformist/radical literature is transmogrified into grotesque reality by Gothic novelists. Far from vindicating Burke’s veneration of “ancient chivalry” as is generally assumed, Gothic novelists ultimately rejected feudalism and aristocratic government as viable political models by demonizing the Gothic castle and the presiding aristocrat.
In order to better understand the Gothic process of political “translation,” however, it is worth taking a brief glance at the presence of castles and other crumbling edifices in Jacobin novels. Regardless of the paucity of decaying castles and churches in the works of Robert Bage, such structures are as every bit as symbolic of aristocratic and ecclesiastical tyranny as those in the nonfictional writings of Grose or Wollstonecraft. In Barham Downs (1784), the villains are singularly associated with dark or remote abodes: Corrane, a younger brother of an earl, abducts Kitty to a “mansion-house” surrounded by a moat, a place where “Everything about it had an aspect of gloom”(320), perhaps not unlike the Castle of Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire, which in Grose’s words was representative of the “gloomy mansions of our ancient barons”(Antiquities, 3:127). Likewise, Winterbottom’s house in Italy, though not precisely Gothic or Eastern, manifests a comparable secluded inaccessibility as defined by Mallett. There are open and covered walks which “cross each other in so many directions, that it is almost a labyrinth,” while the garden itself is surrounded by a high wall with “excessive deep “ha-ha’s,” thus making the grounds “quite impervious.” The house itself, despite being “neither large nor elegant,” is equally impenetrable, “its windows covered by oiled paper and bordered by high walls; just as the entrance is separated from the road by iron rails”(338).
Indeed, what distinguishes the delineation of the Jacobin castle or ancient edifice from its Gothic counterpart is not its utterance of reformist values, but rather its relative lack of narrative significance and atmospheric details: If “enlightened” Jacobin novelists were for the most part rather dismissive of ghosts, goblins, and other supernatural paraphernalia, they were even less concerned with creating a suitable atmosphere for them. Apart from The Old Manor House, where the house in question is occupied by two of the protagonists, Smith’s other decrepit edifices are owned by either peripheral or even non-existent characters such that the nature of their episodic appearance intimates ideological rather than purely literary ends at work. Not unlike Grose’s subtle equations between the attributes of the owner’s political and social station in life and his castle, Smith’s Gothic domains convey a similarly reflexive relationship between the benighted tyrant sunk in the anachronism of his antiquated castle and feudal mindset. In the section on the castle of Bellegarde in Celestina, Smith equates the attributes of the castle with those of its owner and his station in life. Bellegarde’s “enraged and tyrannic father,” a character not unlike Auguste Du Fosse’s father in Helen Maria Williams’s Letters in France (1790), is “accustomed to dictate and command” by exerting power over “his vassals and his sons”(Celestina, 4:238) and “affect[ing] all the state of a feudal baron”(4:242). Rochemort chateau, a “Desolate abode of sullen despotism” (4:224) is filled with a “gloomy solitude” that distinctly encapsulates the political, ecclesiastical and domestic tyranny exerted by Bellegarde’s father and his Jesuit priest. It is therefore appropriate that both men are immured in a solitary and solipsistic past that worships the former’s ancestry. Here, we are also reminded of Barbauld’s and Knox’s remarks on ecclesiastical narrowmindedness as Smith informs the reader that the “narrow Gothic windows” are not clear (and hence, literally and figuratively dark) but “pained [sic] with the atchievements [sic] of the family; mingled with the heads of saints and martyrs.” The “proneness of his [Bellegarde’s] mind to superstition” and the influence of the monks who “darkened and soured his temper”(4:238) serve to reconstruct the alliance and affinities between church and aristocracy as if to illustrate how Bellegarde and his Jesuit priest rely upon superstition—the magic of noble titles and “popery”—to wield their respective powers over the villagers.
With Desmond (1792) and The Banished Man (1794), the image of the castle shifts somewhat to rest more specifically on the obsolescent presence of the feudal past and thereby serves to excoriate Burke’s mistaken veneration of feudal mores: again, both castles are presented in an incidental manner, playing little role in the overall plot. In Desmond, Smith transforms Burke’s idealized vision of chivalry into one of feudal savagery as the haughty Count d’Hauteville, the brother-in-law of Montfleuri, allies himself with the despotic (English) Verney and Romagnecourt, deploying an ancient castle during the French Revolution for counterrevolutionary purposes—namely, as a stronghold for “plundering the partisans of democracy.” Like the elder Bellegarde, they are ensconced in the past: here, the three aristocrats replicate the arbitrary lawlessness of the “seditious” medieval barons described by Wollstonecraft as they thwart the nation for the pursuit of their petty goals. Overturning Burke’s claims on the inherent patriotic values of chivalry, the dungeons of d’Hauteville allow Smith to rehearse observations on feudal power by Grose, Paine, and others as she comments upon the days “when the feudal system was in all its force” during which “barbarous customs gave the seigneur, the power of life and death” to the present, when those same privileges, “though not so often exerted,” had “never been given up”(389-90). In short, Smith’s remarks here serve a purpose akin to Knox’s in his comparison between feudal barons and modern aristocrats: the implication in both writings is that both are subversive of the law.
This description of Vaudrecourt from The Banished Man is one that again fulfills ideological rather than literary purposes. As if echoing Grose in his description of Alnwick Castle, one “still remaining in all its original horrors,” Smith remarks that “many parts” or Vaudrecourt “yet retained their gothic horrors unimpaired”(3:114). Its horror, however, derives from political rather than supernatural causes as it evokes “the gloomy disposition of that sullen and ferocious tyrant”(3:113) who depopulated the borders” in his “innumerable atrocities against the inhabitants of the neighbouring castle”(3:114)—that which “render him the terror of his own abject and insulted people”(3:113). In short, its history is one that loosely reifies Wollstonecraft’s comparison between feudal tyrants and their barely civilized successors, as well as Paine’s account of their ceaseless battles. Passing from tyrant to tyrant, the history of Vaudrecourt records a stream of “domestic caprices and cruelties” from the era of the father of Charles the 8th to the 1790s, when present day nobles continue to exert a power “so great, as to be gratifying to that spirit of tyranny which high birth and great possessions are too apt to encourage” (3:115): the idea suggested by the latter phrase anticipates what Vicesimus Knox would denounce a year later as “feudal despotism” and the “despotism” of “great and opulent landholders”(Spirit, 26). Dwelling upon the chilling remains of the past in the form of a circular prison with cages which once served “to confine the miserable objects of his [Louis IX’s] revenge”(3:126). Smith stops to remind the reader a la Grose that such prisons were to be found in contemporary England for “there was one of these remaining at Hurstmenceaux castle in Sussex about the year 1773”(3:127). In other words, the past remains all too visibly in the present.
If Jacobin novelists clearly envisioned the castle as the structural embodiment of an oppressive feudal political and social hierarchy in contemporary government, this perception would grow much more pervasive in contemporaneous Gothic novels, particularly those of Ann Radcliffe, who shared a similar template of Whiggish political and social values despite her lack of overt references to reformist and radical writings. Given her background as a child raised by Thomas Bentley, a founder of the famous Dissenting academy at Warrington and acquaintance of Priestley, Price, and the Aikins (John Aikin and his sister Anna Laetitia Barbauld), and her marriage in 1788 to William Radcliffe, a former law student and soon-to-be editor of the liberal newspaper, The English Chronicle, her progressive environment may have had more than a passing influence on her works. The fact that her mother owned the works of her distant relation, John Jebb helps increase the likelihood that she was exposed to the issues of parliamentary reform. It is hardly surprising that all of Radcliffe’s published novels contain critiques of the “establishments” and the anachronistic retention of feudal or ancien-régime mores. Even Gaston de Blondeville, a novel set in thirteenth-century England and mistakenly held as an example of Radcliffe’s worship of medieval pageantry, can be said to eschew Burke’s romanticized vision of feudal chivalry for the frightening vision painted by reformers and radicals alike: the entertainments, feasts, and tournaments may have been breathtakingly beautiful, Radcliffe seems to articulate, but the mores are not suitable models for eighteenth-century Britain.
No less than Robert Bage, Charlotte Smith, or any other Jacobin novelist, Radcliffe questions the mores of the “establishments” by means of melodrama rather than satire. Just as the foolish peer in the Jacobin novel is elevated into the powerful Gothic villain, the aristocratic abode of the former assumes a considerably more looming, threatening presence in the latter: as such, it is not the paradigm of good (middle-class) versus evil (aristocratic) that has shifted in the Gothic, but rather the means of expressing that paradigm, from ridicule in the Jacobin novel to sensationalism in the Gothic. Unlike Smith and other Jacobin writers, however, Radcliffe may be said to transpose present sensibilities onto the past so that her heroes and heroines ponder futuristically—albeit anachronistically—on the futility of monastic life or the injustice of class prejudice. Indeed, Radcliffe’s political geographies could not be mapped out any more cogently or definitively as she plants her villains in either deteriorating labyrinthine castles or showy villas (and occasionally both) and heroes and heroines alike with relatively simple abodes.
We might begin by noting how her early castles bear more than an uncanny resemblance to Bentham’s dark “Castle of Law.” Her tales of wives and daughters trapped in the labyrinthine passages of castles governed by tyrants brandishing the worst of paternal and patriarchal authority would appear to conflate the burgeoning acknowledgement of the unequal relations between the sexes and classes:  the castles serve as a handy symbol of an obsolete and arbitrary body of laws abused by aristocratic men to deprive social inferiors, especially women, of their rights and properties. The fact that these castles present more danger within than without helps explain why Julia, Adeline, and Emily eventually escape from their respective castles and abbeys in spite of the perils that lurk outside. In The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), Malcolm’s castle recalls Bentham’s dreaded vision of legal labyrinths and fictions while divulging “a record of the ancient consequence of its possessors” (13) conspicuous in its “pomp of feudal greatness.” Here, the “secret windings”(54) “subterraneous avenues”(57) and “various intricacies of the pile”(56) not only serve to trap Alleyn, but also his sister-in-law and her daughter, as he plans to sequester their various properties: the labyrinthine passages of the castle would appear to embody that which the latter perceives as his “sophistical assertion of right” and “artifice.” Like Bentham, Radcliffe, imbues her castle with dark inflections: the apartments are “wide and forlorn” and the gallery “vast and gloomy”(51-2). Much the same may be applied to Mazzini’s castle in A Sicilian Romance, written a year later. Again, as if encapsulating Bentham’s deplored “tautology, technicality, circuitry, and irregularity,” the labyrinths literally conceal the existence of his first wife whom he reported as dead decades ago in order to marry Maria de Vellorno. It is a pattern that continues through Montoni’s castle of Udolpho, filled with mysteriously rambling passages as well as forlorn towers—including one that is deployed as a prison for his wife from whom he endeavors to usurp property.
It is not until the writing of The Romance of the Forest, composed during the height of the French Revolution debates that Radcliffe’s edifices serve as both a critique of Britain’s so-called “establishments” and the stubborn persistence of feudal tyranny; in many respects, her novel can be read as a contemporaneous fictional counterpart to Paine’s and Wollstonecraft’s responses to Burke. Certainly, there is no coincidence that the oppressive portion of Adeline’s life transpires in ancien-régime France, widely reckoned as a seat of absolutism, while the happier portion is set in Switzerland, long extolled by reformers and radicals, including Paine and Helen Maria Williams, as a land of republican democracy. Radcliffe’s representation of the activities that take place within the abbey and the villa can be said to deliver as much a rejection of Burkean values as Smith’s more directly politicized accounts of Rochemort and Vaudrecourt.
Indeed, we might begin by noting how Radcliffe’s reformist sympathies loom forth in the plot which broadly reproduces the myth of the Norman Yoke. Closely conforming to the increasingly popular Dissenting and reformist image of the persecuted and oppressed (Saxon) Briton, Adeline is subjected to an unsettled existence, faced with the possibility of “her future days” doomed to “darkness and uncertainty” while being “exposed to the hardships of dependence” and “the difficulty of earning a precarious livelihood” (173); it is a world where everyone, as Diane Long Hoeveler points out, appears to be united against the orphan, including her assumed father, the LaMottes, and the Marquis Montalt (Gothic Feminism, 81). Not unlike the reformers who discover from their studies of changing laws and statutes the Norman eradication of native Saxon British liberty and property, Adeline discovers in a manuscript the murder of a man: one who is later revealed to be her father, the rightful owner of the abbey, slain and plundered by an envious younger brother. At the same time, the characterization of the Marquis Montalt accords with the reformist stereotype of the past and present aristocrat possessed of feudal, military strength. Ambitious and licentious, Montalt is a powerful colonel who makes unrestrained use of his social and political privileges, freely issuing threats and treats; he preempts Wollstonecraft’s derisive view of the military in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Montalt is not beyond colluding with the Church to prevent Adeline from gaining her birthright: an action that reinforces reformist allegations that the Church and aristocracy were allied against the common Briton and ultimately hints at the unfitfulness of the aristocracy for the duties of government. In the end, The Romance of the Forest vindicates the middle classes with the use of reformist rhetoric: just as Radcliffe’s kinsman, John Jebb, viewed universal suffrage as “The birthright of Englishmen, their best inheritance” (409-10) and a “defence against aristocratic domination” (414), Adeline’s mission—not unlike that of Britannia—is to “recover her rights” (346) and be reinstated “beyond dispute in the rights of her birth” with “the rich estates of her father restored to her” (353).
What is remarkable here is the corroboration between Radcliffe’s representation of the abbey and reformist conceptualizations of contemporary government, particularly those who insisted that late 18th-century Britain was scarcely more enlightened than feudal Britain, the predominantly Roman Catholic Continent, or even the East. The abbey, “very ancient and desolate,” is already deemed oppressive at first sight by Madame La Motte (20). Moreover, being half-modern and half-Gothic in actuality, with “a “spacious apartment, which, from its stile and condition, was evidently of a much later date than the other part of the structure” (20), not to mention a vaulted room which “appeared to have been built in modern times upon a Gothic plan,” the abbey is a fitting symbol of late 18th century England in reformist eyes: deceptively modern but predominantly feudal. On one level, the suites explored by La Motte and Adeline correspond to Bentham’s demonized picture of Blackstone’s castle, especially when they are “bewildered in some winding passages of the abbey,” preparing us, as it were, for the disclosure of Montalt’s devious murder of his brother and his circuitous plans to dispose of Adeline in a convent: one that is conveniently headed by an abbess amenable to Montalt’s wishes. If the abbey represents on one hand the rise of a feudal state-established church (with “its fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion”) as well as a collaboration between church and aristocracy, handed from one to the other, its Gothic architecture also suggests the rise of a powerful yet illegitimate aristocracy.
This powerful yet illegitimate aristocracy is of course personified by the Marquis. Anticipating Vicesimus Knox, Radcliffe collapses the image of the lawless feudal baron onto that of the aristocratic libertine. The former image is particularly accentuated not only when La Motte harbors “apprehensions of banditti” (14), in the surrounding woods, which allow them to perpetrate “their schemes of rapine, and to perplex, with its labyrinths” (21), but also when he turns highwayman himself in his attempted robbery of the Marquis. The latter, however, is even more brutal than his would-be attacker. It is telling that immediately after the introduction of Montalt, Adeline discovers the manuscript penned by her father where he refers to his attackers as “banditti” and “ruffians”—words deployed by Paine in his account of the rise of aristocratic and monarchical government.
As a latter-day feudal tyrant, Montalt’s brand of Norman tyranny can also be handily linked to his inclination for Eastern despotism: a usurper of his brother’s property and title, he becomes the quintessential invasive “foreigner,” the literary antecedent of the terrifying alien in today’s horror film. It is far from accidental that Montalt’s abbey also bears Eastern touches as described by Paul Henri Mallett, especially when he relies on its remoteness and its inaccessbility, “being shut up from the eye of observation” where “any transaction may be concealed” (223) to plan and perpetrate his crimes. Even though La Motte mistakenly remarks that the style “of this apartment was not strictly Gothic” with its mosaic, the Eastern details of the abbey inevitably prepare us for the Marquis’ mock-Eastern rationalization of succumbing to the passions: “The Indian discovers his friend to be perfidious, and he kills him; the wild Asiatic does the same; the Turk, when ambition fires, or revenge provokes, gratifies his passion at the expense of life, and does not call it murder” (222).
At the same time, the luxurious environs of his villa, no less removed than the abbey, serve to mark him as a reformist stereotype of an aristocratic libertine, one removed from the common people. Not unlike the abbey, it is secluded: as if modeled on Winterbottom’s Italian villa, it is closed off by a “high, lonely wall” (156). The silks, satins, and velvets depicted here would hardly be out of place at a fashionable late eighteenth-century London townhouse. While the Greek and Roman busts and paintings would appear to be diametrically opposed to the Gothic qualities of the abbey, they nonetheless reinforce Montalt’s aristocratic birth and Continental tastes, especially during a period in which the education of the English peerage leaned heavily upon the classics, with travel to Italy a social plus. As such, he is the very embodiment of Eastern tyranny transposed onto Western tyranny dreaded by Knox in The Spirit of Despotism. 
Indeed, in many respects, Radcliffe may be said to go beyond even the reformers and radicals by demonizing nearly all of her castles and other ancient edifices despite the relative lack of allusions to contemporary politics. If Grose, Barbauld, Knox, and Smith began to posit the idea of identification between man and castle, Radcliffe amplifies this identification, paving the way to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and later representations of the possessed house that assumes a life of its own (i.e., Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings). We begin to witness the elementary workings of this idea in The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne where “the secret windings of the castle” and the various “intricacies of the pile” form an architectural counterpart to Malcolm’s legal chicanery: here, the “lofty towers” of Dunbayne “still frowned in proud sublimity” (13) in a way not unlike its owner, who “frown[s] defiance” (50) thereby hastening the Baroness’ wish to escape from his “cold” and “haughty” demeanour and “the frown of insulting power” (63). Similarly, not unlike Barbauld’s vision of the church ruin or Knox’s view of Gothic architecture, Radcliffe views the structure of the abbey as a personification of ecclesiastical bigotry. In A Sicilian Romance, the Abate displays a “stern authority,” bearing “features inflamed with pride,” while his castle is described as a “proud monument” (129-30). Radcliffe’s assertion that “the view of this building revived in the mind of the beholder the memory of past ages” (116) insinuates the Abate’s “boisterous passions, the daring ambition” and “crafty sanctity,” particularly when he deliberates upon offering protection to Julia, his “malignant passions and pride eventually convinced him of the necessity of doing so,” since “Proud of his religious authority, he determined never to yield the prerogative of the church” (133). “If haunted houses are haunted by the sins of the former inhabitants” according to Noel Carroll (Philosophy, 98), there is an emerging sense that these stately abodes are a repository for the inner demons of the owner, already himself a repository for the evils of the aristocracy or church.
Certainly, this process of identification between man and edifice is further accentuated in The Italian. More so than the identification between Montoni and Udolpho, the delineations of the sites associated with acts of Schedoni’s oppression serve as an intimate biographical mapping of his life and the institutions that have helped foster such a mind. The “subterraneous chambers”(98) of the fortress Paluzzi and the “subterraneous labyrinths of San Stefano”(137) form a parallel to Schedoni’s proclivity for “the labyrinths of disquisitions” and “artificial perplexities” as well as his lack of interest in “undisguised truth”(34). Likewise, the wall which the “terrible” and “super-human” Schedoni builds around himself—an “impenetrable veil over his origin”(34)—is replicated in the “unsurmountable walls”(64) surrounding the gardens of Ellena’s convent and the “high wall” that had “once served as a defence dwelling”(210) of the intended site of Ellena’s murder: the “lofty” hall (210) equally betrays it as Schedoni’s residence, being indicative of his “lofty spirit”(34). Here, too, the latter site, with its “gloomy walls,” “dark windows and soundless avenues,” “the silence that reigned within” and the “strikingly forlorn and solitary” air invoke Schedoni’s inclinations to “abstract himself from society,” just as the “numerous symptoms and decay” here signal his “fallen fortunes.” This process of identification is further highlighted as Schedoni “secured the door,” wishing “Had it been possible to have shut out all consciousness of himself”(225). In addition, these architectural details serve to reinforce Schedoni’s physiognomy, “extremely thin” with an apparent “gloomy and ferocious disposition”(35), and Spalatro, with his “gaunt ferocity of famine”—details which are outstanding given the fact that few eighteenth-century characters are delineated so carefully; the “dark windows and soundless avenues” mirror the latter’s “hollow eyes” and general silence, so that a conflation of man and house is effected as Radcliffe writes “The appearance of this house, and of the man who inhabited it….each and all of these signified, that she [Ellena] was brought hither, not for long imprisonment but death”(213). Finally, Schedoni’s aristocratic presence is recreated in the remains of the deceased Baron de Cambrusca’s villa. Just as the tyrannical Schedoni appears to be the spectral manifestation of the deceased baron when he stands “in the court, like the evil spirit of the place” (261) the villa exudes a Schedonian impression of obscurity by which light enters from a “few narrow loops in the walls”(260) its “extensive remains” and “fallen fragments” hinting once more at Schedoni’s fall from fortune and grace.
Nor is it coincidental that along with those reformers who questioned the wisdom of their forefathers, Radcliffe would also tacitly reject patriarchal rule with the abandonment of the castle and the ostentatious villa. Whereas “bad” characters such as Mazzini, Montalt, and Montoni occupy showy city villas and isolated castles in the fashion of modern aristocrats with their London townhouses and mouldering ancestral country estates, Gothic heroes and heroines handily relinquish them. At the conclusion of A Sicilian Romance, the narrator informs the reader that the castle is left to ruin since, as a former “theatre of a dreadful catastrophe,” its scenes “would have revived in the minds of the chief personages connected with it, painful and shocking reflections.” Likewise, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Montoni’s castle—now belonging to Emily—is resigned to another relative. Even in Gaston de Blondeville, where the protagonist is already settled, he and his wife cannot wait to leave the environs of Kenilworth Castle.
However, it is not the sheer fact of rejecting the ancient feudal castle that distinguishes the young protagonists. In many cases, the nascent rise of a conflict between generations and classes—namely, a rising middle-class democracy pitted against a stagnating aristocratic feudalism—is manifested in the architectural choices of the heroes and heroines who overwhelmingly privilege the pastoral simplicity admired by such writers as Wollstonecraft or even Thomas Spence. No less than Thelwall who encouraged his reader to “Contrast the gloomy intricacy of these oppressive systems—these antique temples of fraud and violence, with the simple plans of reason, and of nature,” Radcliffe privileges simplicity, reason, and nature. If Montalt is associated with showy magnificence, Adeline and Theodore choose a chateau “characterized by an air of simplicity and taste, rather than of magnificence” (Romance, 362). The same might be said for Emily who spurns the “magnificence of Epourville” as well as Udolpho itself for her childhood home at La Vallee. Even if she literally returns to her “Father’s house” by doing so, it is a choice that reifies the “chaste simplicity” and “few ornaments” of Aubert’s villa (2)—over the socially pretentious ones of Queneaux and Montoni which are “fitted up in a style of magnificence”; once again, English/Saxon plainness and progressiveness trump French ancien-régime/Norman absolutism and ostentation. Finally, in The Italian, the new veneration of a modern British simplicity and naturalness manifests itself even more forcefully. In choosing a villa on the “opposite shore to that which had been the frequent abode of the Marchesa,” Vivaldi also embraces modern, English simplicity—quite the reverse from the baroque, counter-Reformation “magnificence” of his mother’s Italian villa.
The style of the gardens, where lawns and groves, and woods varied the undulating surface, was that of England, and of the present day, rather than of Italy, except “Where a long alley peeping on the main,” exhibited such gigantic loftiness of shade, and grandeur of perspective, as characterize Italian taste.
….But this entertainment was not given to persons of distinction only, for both Vivaldi and Ellena had wished that all the tenants of the domain should partake of it, and share the abundant happiness which themselves possessed….
In short, it is a “scene of fairy land” redolent of the pastoral utopia in Vindication of the Rights of Men, where Wollstonecraft envisioned a place in which poor are “watched over with fatherly solicitude,” provided with farms and enjoy “a garden more inviting than Eden”(60). This “fairy land” can also be said to anticipate Spence’s bucolic Spensonia, a land without landlords:
The merry bells now sounded from every steeple. The glad females, after feasting their manly spouses and paramours, prepared for the dance….
I can never enough admire the beauty of the country. It has more the air of a garden or rather a paradise than a general country scene; and indeed it is only a continuation of gardens and orchards. For besides the infinite number of real gardens, the very fields, meadows and pastures, are plentifully strewed with fruit trees and the corn is cultivated in rows, and as carefully as garden herbs. The houses and everything about them are so amiably neat and so indicative of domestic happiness, so far distant from the inflated pomp and ghastly solemnity of the palaces of the great…
In short, the opposition between England, especially “present day” England, and baroque Italy functions in a way analogous to Smith’s contrast between a be(k)nighted feudal England and an enlightened England as the imposing foreign (Norman) castle yields to simpler native (Saxon) structures.
With the rising popularity of the haunted castle as a collected symbol of Norman, feudal, and aristocratic oppression, it is thus hardly astonishing that the erstwhile Gothic aficionado Percy Shelley would announce in a letter to Miss Hitchener his intentions “to domesticate in some antique castle whose mouldering turrets are fit emblems of decaying inequality and oppression” (Letters No. 162, p.239). Nor is it surprising that as a symbol of repression and regression alike, the castle or the once opulent, venerable edifice would continue to serve as an abode for an oppressive and foreign status quo in later horror fiction. The aristocratic vampires of Le Fanu and Stoker, who scorn the peasantry and middle classes by day while feasting on their blood by night, do not inhabit cramped twelve-foot-square working-class dwellings, but rather once-palatial castles; it is particularly apt that as a possible personification of (an alien) British imperial power in Ireland, Dracula lives in a castle that appears to be something out of Hampton Court, desiring another dwelling that is “old and big” because “We Transylvanian nobles love not to think that our bones may be amongst the common dead” (29). The pattern is continued in Stephen King’s relatively old Overlook Hotel in The Shining, frequented by the “jet-set” of presidents, royalty, and movie stars: if the contrast here is not between feudal barons and modern aristocrats, it is an analogous one between racist and sexist chauvinists of pre-Civil Rights days and their latter-day successors who scorn the needs of women, minorities, and children in their pursuit of wealth and power. A seemingly venerable Establishment abode, it is haunted by the ghosts of dead, criminal, yet powerful robber-baron-type wasps/WASPs (literally and figuratively speaking) and the “alien” caretaker: the English Delbert/Charles Grady. And, as such, it is only fitting towards the end that a newly reformed Jack allows the Overlook to explode convulsively in a fashion harking back to “Gunpowder Joe” Priestley’s plans to blow up “the old building of error and superstition.”
Yet, is it wholly accurate to claim that reformers and Gothic novelists escaped the lure of the frightening feudal castle in their own attempts (whether conscious or not) to be unacknowledged legislators of the world? Given our own fear and fascination with the castle, the answer is most likely “no.” If we look at the extensive inset explanations, detours, lengthy footnotes, not to mention the footnotes upon footnotes in the prose of Bentham, Cartwright, and even the relatively plainspoken Paine, we might observe an overall narrative structure that resembles a magnificent, unpredictable castle of which only the author, as arbitrary master, knows inside and out. The same may be said for complex interweaving of inset tales and unsolved mysteries favored by the Gothic and Jacobin novelists alike. In other words, the castle may be said to afford as much a refuge for the disempowered and politically marginalized as it did for the hated political elite. For once, reformers and would-be reformers could thus play their own version of the absolute feudal sovereign, establishing their own laws and mores.
Novels by Eliza Parsons, George Walker, Francis Lathom, John Palmer and Mrs. Carver.
The word “establishments” was commonly used to refer to the church, monarchy, and aristocracy. See, for instance, John Thelwall, The Rights of Nature against the Usurpations of Establishments (1796).
For a history of the conflation between “Saxon” and “Gothic”, see chapter 2 of Samuel Kliger’s The Goths in England.
See Colton, especially pp.8-20.
Grose also observes that castles were built by Normans “to protect themselves from the resentment of those despoiled” ( 2).
Grose, i. 114.
Likewise, in his preface on castles, Grose observes that “many strong places were held, and even defended, by ecclesiasticals….” See Francis Grose, Antiquities of England and Wales (London, 1772-77) i, 3.
In an account of the Cathedral Church of St. Germans at Peele Castle in the Isle of Man, we read of a “place of terrors,” complete with a canine apparition, namely, the infamous “Mauthe Doog,” a “large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair.” See 6: 199.
For a fuller discussion of religious toleration, see chapter 5 of my Ph.D. thesis, “Too Much of the Terrific”: Polemical Politics in Gothic and Radical Fiction, 1780-1800 (Oxford University, 1999).
For a more detailed discussion of the rejection of the past, see my essay “From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies: Writing Political and Paternal Authority in English Fiction of the 1780s and 1790s” in Eighteenth-Century Life, 26 (2002), pp.1-22.
See, for instance, Robert Miles, “The 1790s: The Effulgence of Gothic,” 47.
See note 52 in John Keane, Tom Paine, 564.
See my article, “Dark And Dangerous Designs.” Although the plot of Walpole’s novella is similar to that of Reeve’s in that both involve the restoration of the rightful heir to his estate, the latter plays up the discovery of the protagonist’s identity and his class conflict with his kinsmen to a much greater extent.
Note how “the furniture, by long neglect, was decayed and dropping to pieces” and the furniture is in the “same tattered condition.”
See Robert Miles’ and Rictor Norton’s respective biographies of Radcliffe, Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress and The Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe.
See my introduction to the Valancourt edition of Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville, vii-xl.
Note, for instance, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, where Radcliffe states “There was a sentiment in the heart of Osbert which struggled against the pride of birth….but the authority of early prejudice silenced the grateful impulse, and swept from his heart the characters of truth” (88).
See “An Occasional Letter to the Female Sex” (1775), attributed to Thomas Paine, and Jeremy Bentham, Theory of Legislation (1780), 230.
Both The Romance of the Forest and The Rights of Man, Part 1 were published in 1791.
See p. 26 in Common Sense (1776) and Helen Maria Williams’ A Tour in Switzerland (1798).
See, for instance, p. 18.
Note the similarity of this description to that of Brougham Castle in Westmoreland from Grose: “In the centre of the building arises a lofty, square tower, frowning in Gothic strength and gloomy pomp.”
This identification is no less evident in Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy. While looking upon Valmont’s secluded castle with its “frowning battlements that looked as uninviting on the friend as threatening on the enemy, turrets all cheerless, all hostile, and discouraging to the wandering stranger”, Caroline Asburn judges “from the solemn pride which sat on his brow” that he “was fitted for his castle, and his castle fitted for him.” See Eliza Fenwick, 53.
The marquis’ saloon is “magnificent” (156) while the toilet in the bedroom is also “magnificent” (164)
The house of the ostentatious Mrs. Ashburn in Secresy is “a palace of luxury” filled with “eastern magnificence and eastern voluptuousness.” See Eliza Fenwick, Secresy, ed. Isobel Grundy (Toronto: Broadview Press, 1995) 287.
Percy Shelley, letter to Miss Hitchener, qtd. in Shelley: The Pursuit, 239.
See Dracula, 25. Stoker, like LeFanu, was an Irish Protestant sympathetic to the idea of Irish Home Rule.
Aikin John and Anna Laetitia (Barbauld). “On Monastic Institutions.” Miscellaneous Essays. 2 vols. London, 1773. 88-116.
Ames, Dianne S. “Strawberry Hill: Architecture of the ‘as if.’” Studies in 18th-century Culture 9 (1979): 351-363.
Bage, Robert. Barham Downs. Ed. Sir Walter Scott. The Novels of Swift, Bage, and Cumberland. Edinburgh: At the Border Press, 1824. 241-375
Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. London, 1790.
Barlow, Joel. Advice to the Privileged Orders, The Political Writings of Joel Barlow 1796. New York: Burt Franklin, 1971. 1-157
Bentham, James. The History and Antiquities of the Conventual and Cathedral Church of Ely. Cambridge, 1771.
Bentham, Jeremy. A Comment on the Commentaries. Ed. H.L.A. Hart. Commentaries and A Fragment on Government. London: Athlone Press, 1977.
———. Theory of Legislation. Trans. R. Hildreth. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner, and co. Ltd., 1911.
Burke, Edmund. Speech on Economical Reform. Ed. Warren M. Elofson and John A. Woods. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 481-551
———. Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Leslie Mitchell (Oxford: OUP World’s Classics, 1999.
Chiu, Frances. “Dark And Dangerous Designs: Tales of Oppression, Dispossession, and Repossession, 1770-1800,” Romanticism on the Net 28, November 2002 http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2002/v/n28/007205ar.html
———. "From Nobodaddies to Noble Daddies: Writing Political and Paternal Authority in English Fiction of the 1780s and 1790s." Eighteenth-Century Life 26 (2002): 1-22 DOI:10.1215/00982601-26-2-1
“Too Much of the Terrific”: Polemical Politics in Gothic and Radical Fiction, 1780-1800 (Oxford University, 1999).
Colton, Judith,.“Merlin’s Cave and Queen Caroline: Garden Art as Political Propaganda.” Eighteenth-century Studies 10 (1976): 1-20 DOI:10.2307/2737814
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones, 1749, ed. Fredson Bowers, vols. I-II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), I, 42.
Grose, Francis. “Preface on Castles.” Antiquities of England and Wales. 8 vols. London: Hooper and Wigstead, n.d. [1772-1786].
Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontes. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998.
Knox, Vicesimus. “Cursory Considerations on Architecture” in Essays, Moral and Literary. 2 vols. London, 1782. I, 340-351.
Madoff, Mark. “The Useful Myth of Gothic Ancestry.” Studies in Eighteenth century Culture 9 (1976): 337-50.
Miles, Robert. “The 1790s: The Effulgence of Gothic.” Ed. Jerrold Hogle. Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 41-63.
“An Occasional Letter to the Female Sex.” 1776. Attributed to Thomas Paine. Ed. Moncure Daniel Conway. The Writings of Tom Paine. 4 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894: 59-64.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Ed. Bruce Kuklick. Paine: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 1-38.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne. Ed. Alison Milbank. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
———. Desmond. 1792. Ed. Antje Blank and Janet Todd. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1997. DOI:10.1017/CBO9780511522826
Smith, R.J. The Gothic Bequest: Medieval institutions in British Thought, 1688-1863. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Spence, Thomas. Description of Spensonia. Ed. H.T. Dickinson. The Political Writings of Thomas Spence. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Avero Publishers LTD, 1982. 25-33.
Thelwall, John. The Rights of Nature, 1796. Ed. Gregory Claeys. The Politics of English Jacobinism: Writings of John Thelwall. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 390-500.
|Auteur :||Frances A. Chiu|
|Titre :||Faulty towers: Reform, Radicalism and the Gothic Castle, 1760-1800|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 44, novembre 2006|
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