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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a typical orphaned protagonist of a late eighteenth-century Gothic novel in possession of a meagre fortune, must be in search of a birthright. However little known the feelings or views of such a fictional character may be upon entering a large, decrepit castle, this truth was already so well ingrained in the minds of the novelists imagining these plots that they became convenient targets for parodists. What remains less explicable is how and why Gothic novelists came to revive the classic folk-tale theme of dispossessed heroes and heroines turned wealthy heirs and heiresses. While such critics as Emma Clery, Markman Ellis, Diane Long Hoeveler, and Robert Miles have already addressed to some degree the political conditions which allowed the Gothic novel to flourish, few have explained how these conditions helped determine the specific tropes and discursive strategies commonly associated with this subgenre: namely, the obsession with oppression, dispossession, the reclamation of birthright and property, the purported hauntings, the keen awareness of gender inequities, as well as the easily graspable narrative structure and rhetoric.

Given such, this essay contends that the central plots, discursive strategies, and rhetoric which we associate with the Gothic novel emerged almost directly out of contemporary reformist polemics of the 1760s through 1790s by engaging in a dialogue on progress and national identity. I will demonstrate not only how the Gothic adapted these issues, but also why numerous late-eighteenth-century critics and reviewers, as Michael Gamer has observed, linked Gothic fiction "explicitly with radical and revolutionary politics"(31). The first section will explore the political molding of this new literary genre by focusing on the reformist fixation on persecution, disenfranchisement, as well as the reclamation of birthright, and by examining reformist story-telling, mimetic allegorization, and national vision. The second section will subsequently show how such novelists as Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee, and Ann Radcliffe, as well as the less familiar Eliza Parsons, Regina Roche, George Walker and others, synthesized many of the same tropes and narrative strategies, retracting contemporary issues and transforming a new class of political "martyrs" and disenfranchised male Britons into victorious protagonists who regain their rights.[1]

I. Gothic Politics: "I could a tale unfold"

Like the seemingly optimistic opening of a romance, national prospects could not have appeared any brighter in 1760. With the comfortable assurance of a Protestant succession and the accession of the first native-born monarch, George III, in nearly half a century, many Britons envisaged an unclouded horizon. Yet, within the space of a few years, optimism turned to dread as the young monarch sought to recoup monarchical power. If the chief fears of the earlier half of the century devolved upon an "external" power seeking to impose Roman Catholic absolutism on Protestant England in the shape of the Stuart family, those of the latter half were now to be centered upon a more "internal" one. Indeed, over the course of the following decades, writers continued to sound the alarm of an encroaching state of despotism such that, by 1780, John Dunning would deliver the famous assessment that "The power of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished" (qtd. in Christie 97), thereby paving the way for the ensuing arguments on legislative and monarchical authority which took place upon the fall of the Bastille.

Trouble began with the expulsion of a predominantly Whig cabinet when Lord Bute, George III's erstwhile tutor and adviser, became Prime Minister in 1760. Under the patronage of the disgruntled Whigs, the relatively young and inexperienced new M.P. for Aylesbury, John Wilkes, was encouraged to publish an opposition weekly, The North Briton (1762-3), in response to Bute's ministerial papers. A work which has eluded detailed literary analysis thus far, The North Briton helped establish the terms of a populist reformist discourse by amalgamating the already familiar themes of ministerial misrule and oppression to create a powerful new politico-literary form. Far from assuming other members of Parliament to be his primary audience as did earlier opposition writers Bolingbroke, Chesterfield, and Lyttleton, Wilkes directed himself to the masses by sketching a picture of ministerial misrule in highly vivid language, warning his readers in the issue of 12 February 1763 that "he [Bute] marks us and all our innocent families, for beggary and ruin," for no one "is spared by the cruel Scot" (2:145) while "the minister as well as these robbers of the public" are "driven to the commission of a second crime" (2:212). A general warrant followed only two months later upon the publication of the notorious forty-fifth issue, which lamented "the prostitution" of the throne before asserting, "The people, too, have their prerogative." It was this flair for populist language that strengthened Wilkes' appeal considerably.

By the time Wilkes stepped before the court of common pleas, he was ready to narrate a dramatized account of his ordeal, refashioning his tropes of wronged innocence and unmitigated evil into a template of patriotic martyrdom for popular consumption. In his attempt to shore up public sympathy, Wilkes not only magnified a relatively common problem into one of disproportionately greater dimensions, as John Brewer points out (Party Ideology 166), but also focused melodramatically upon details of his "Close imprisonment," which came to assume the larger-than-life dimensions of the traditional folk-tale. Deeming his arrest "the effect of premeditated malice," Wilkes pointed out that his house had been "ransacked and plundered" and all access denied to him for two days, during which "every vile and malignant insinuation, even of high treason itself" was "no less industriously than falsely circulated" (Appendix to North Briton 1:vii). In his dramatic portrayal of an all-powerful and overbearing Bute pitted so unequivocally against a weak and innocent victim, Wilkes thereby found an effective means of translating his misadventures into a readily understood political pantomime, as it were, of Jack (Wilkes) and the Beanstalk, with Bute as the evil giant at the top of the ladder. In short, Wilkes' implementation of the folk-tale narrative could be said to affirm Vladimir Propp's reading of the folk-tale as a form of wish-fulfilment that operates to vindicate the powerless so as to "promote success in reality" (Theory 28).

If Wilkes delivered a powerful rescripting of the typical folk-tale in which a beleaguered hero topples a powerful opponent, many began to adopt Wilkes's themes and motifs, some partly, others wholly. Indeed, given the protracted nature of the problems arising from his arrests for The North Briton and "An Essay on Woman" to his attempted expulsion from Parliament, Wilkes continued to serve as fodder for reformist writers long after his trials and tribulations had ended. Although there is no clear indication that his confinement is specifically alluded to in the scenario sketched by Sir William Jones in Principles of Government in a Dialogue between a Scholar and a Peasant (1780), it was one which nonetheless would have occurred to the reader when the scholar demands of the peasant "Can you be ignorant, that the Parliament [. . .] [has] power to make new laws, by which you and your family may be stripped of your goods, thrown into prison, and even deprived of life?"(5).

Just as Wilkes and other writers represented England as a nation overrun by despotism, where the people's rights and prerogatives are all but completely eradicated, parliamentary reformers began to reconstruct a variation of this theme when reviving historic appeals for universal (male) suffrage, equitable representation and annual parliaments. It was a movement which helped resuscitate the idea of the "Norman Yoke" along with "Saxon birthrights" and "inheritance" as reformers alleged that the British subject had been wrongfully deprived of his ancient Saxon birthright—the right to vote regardless of property—by the Norman invaders of 1066 and their descendants. John Jebb, a leading parliamentary reformer and co-founder of the Society for Constitutional Information as well as a distant relative of the novelist, Ann Radcliffe, considered universal suffrage "the birthright of Englishmen, their best inheritance" (A Letter 3:410) and a "defence against aristocratic domination" (A Letter, 3:415). Over the next half century, Jebb's friend and co-founder of the Society, Major John Cartwright, continued to fulminate against a suffrage which did not extend to "tradesmen, artificers, and labourers," given the "arbitrary, unjust, cruel, and pernicious exclusion of the lower orders of people" (The People's Barrier 24). It was time, then, for all Britons to regain their Saxon rights. For instance, while mourning the loss of the constitution "in the labyrinths of unjust law" and deploring "the pernicious effects of these fatal innovations," Cartwright outlined the ways in which enfranchisement had been "progressively reduced" from the reign of Henry V through that of George II. "A return to the ancient path of the constitution"(35) was necessary since only the recovery of universal suffrage could "lay the foundation in restoring to you your birthright" and allow the long outcast and marginalized (male) British citizen finally to recover the fruits of his just Saxon inheritance (138). Granville Sharp, a fellow reformer and active abolitionist, similarly refuted conservative allegations of "innovation" with recourse to British history, insisting that their own claims were in fact supported by native Saxon electoral practice and that their opponents were the ones guilty of "innovations." When stipulating "frequent but SHORT SESSIONS of newly elected parliaments, like those of ancient times" in An Account of the Constitutional English Polity of Congregational Courts (1786), Sharp promised that "this ancient form of popular government" would uproot "corruption and undue influence" (227) but also restore the "ancient rights of all denominations or classes" (243). The rapid dissemination of reformist ideas in multiple print media, whether in pamphlets or extracted in periodical reviews, ensured the continued emphasis on the themes of usurpation, disinheritance, and disenfranchisement.

The demonization of William the Conqueror and notion of reclamation grew increasingly popular. Even though Thomas Paine agreed with few of the means for attaining parliamentary reform, he nonetheless concurred with other reformers in styling William in Common Sense (1776) an "usurper" and a "French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives" (13). He would elaborate upon this more fully in The Rights of Man (1791), his rebuttal of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, stating that the English government "arose out of a conquest, and not out of society" and had "been much modified since the time of William the Conqueror," Britain had "never yet regenerated itself" (82). Feeling "irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud as if they were all knaves and fools" (80), Paine believed that national regeneration could only take place with the dismantling of the Norman Yoke: "if the succession runs in a line of the conquest, the nation runs in a line of being conquered and it ought to rescue itself from this reproach" (87). The fact that vestiges of the eleventh-century yoke remained in eighteenth-century British government also implied that the present day political elite remained perpetuated this usurpation in all but name: "As time obliterated the history of their beginning, their successors assumed new appearances [. . .] but their principles and objects remained the same [. . .] and the power originally usurped, they affected to inherit" (160).

Indeed, one important corollary motif which emerged was that of the submerged truth, epitomized by the forged or suppressed document. According to Cartwright, Sharp, and others, the very clauses which guaranteed common electoral rights had either been obliterated or purloined through a series of infringements, effected by generation after generation of ambitious men. In Constitutional English Polity, Sharp dwelled upon the gradual disappearance of popular enfranchisement in bishopric and political elections alike whereby "a fictitious charter was produced, bearing the title of Willielmus gratia Dei Rex Anglorum etc. that it might pass for a deed of King William" so as to accomplish "this baneful purpose" (69). By comparing the falsification of this document with the "other innovations of the apostate church," Sharp concluded that "this wicked [. . .] encroachment of the papal power on the most sacred rights of the people was effected by the help of an abominable LIE,--by a FORGERY, so gross, and obviously fraudulent and false" (71). In other words, Britain’s past was little more than a falsified paper, a will travestied by the so-called guardians of the state.

If the seeds of the Gothic plot involving a purloined manuscript and restoration of the hero/ine's birthright amidst these tropes of "Establishment" frauds and forgeries can already be discerned, so can the origins of the supposed ghosts and hauntings in the consanguineous charges of political scaremongering. Claiming that men opposed to annual elections resorted to "an inundation of words to overwhelm the truth, and by the subtilest arts, to warp the judgement" in Take Your Choice! (1776),[2] Cartwright dismissed the various counter-reformist warnings that "annual elections would be annual anarchy" accompanied by "horrible disorder" (People's Barrier xii); such objections were "the invention of the devil himself, who was a deceiver from the beginning" (People's Barrier xii), and "the rawhead and bloody bones which is to terrify us from restoring annual parliaments" (Give 26-7). The same argument was deployed a decade later by Sharp when he maligned such discouraging tactics as "a bugbear" in Consitutional English Polity (181). For reformist writers, then, the conservative naysaying of reform constituted a sophistic means of deterring British subjects from discovering the full extent of their oppression.

What is also striking are the ways in which the related tropes of oppression and dispossession, particularly of the disenfranchised male, began to raise greater awareness of other marginalized groups, whether they happened to be colonial subjects, slaves, or women. That the 1770s ushered in the age of reform is, of course, hardly a revelation; what is more noteworthy is the very evolution of the rhetoric and the juxtapositions between class, empire, slavery, and gender which kept pace with the appeals for parliamentary reform in the burgeoning construction of the public sphere. Not surprisingly, those who were involved in parliamentary reform often displayed sensitivity to other humanitarian issues: just as numerous reformers supported the American cause, Richard Price and John Horne Tooke articulated empathy for the natives of St. Vincent's Island and disgust for its British governors in Facts: Addressed to the Landholders (1780) nearly a decade before Edmund Burke's attempted impeachment of Warren Hastings for corruption and tyranny in India. It is this awareness which can also explain the growing consciousness of the inequities faced by women.

Even if male reformers rarely devoted full attention to the subject of gender inequity, they nonetheless began to express concern with on this issue by the 1770s, well before the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Numerous feminist and literary critics have ignored the fact that by August 1775, Paine had already broached the subject of repressive legislation against women and the unjust moral codes imposed upon them as he referred to male "tyrants" who "usurp the right of degrading them on suspicion" in an essay, "An Occasional Letter to the Female Sex," for the Pennsylvania Magazine:

In Turkey, in Persia [. . .] and over the vast empire of China, one half of the human species is oppressed by the other. [. . .] In the temperate latitude where the climates, giving less ardour to passion leave more confidence in virtue, the women have no less been deprived of their liberty, but a severe legislation has, at all times, kept them in a state of dependence….Even countries where they may be esteemed most happy, constrained in their desires in the disposal of goods, robbed of freedom of will by the laws, the slaves of opinion, which rules them with absolute sway, and construes the slightest appearances into guilt; surrounded on all sides by judges, who are at once tyrants and their seducers, and who after having prepared their faults, punish every lapse with dishonour—nay, usurp the right of degrading them on suspicion.


Readers familiar with the nearly contemporaneous Common Sense (1776), the pamphlet which helped launch the American Revolution, will discern pronounced affinities in rhetoric with shared references to "oppressed" and "usurped," just as readers familiar with Gothic and Jacobin fiction alike will recognize the trope of female confinement and the loss of property, along with a strong emphasis on sexual double standards which punish the seduced woman but not her seducer (e.g., Elizabeth Inchbald's Nature and Art). This awareness of partiality was equally manifest in the recognition of legal inequities faced by women. Despite the fact that A Theory of Legislation (1780) was not published until 1802 (and only in a French translation), the use of such terms as "tyrant," "passive," and "slavery" by young legal reformer Jeremy Bentham suggests that there was already an awareness that British law ironically failed to provide for the so-called weaker sex: "it is not our object to make the man a tyrant, and to reduce to a passive state of slavery, which by its feebleness and its tenderness, most needs the protection of the laws. The interests of women have been too often sacrificed" (230). Still others looked back to the ancient Saxons for their protection of women, especially in cases of rape; just as Sharp praised the egalitarian Saxon notion of male suffrage in Constitutional English Polity, he reminded his audience that Saxon coroners were "particularly required to vindicate the rights of females" (133-4). In all, even if it took more than a decade for Mary Wollstonecraft to propose in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that "women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberation of government" (237), this burgeoning acknowledgement of women's conditions and their subjectivity can be viewed as a crucial factor inspiring Gothic novels centered upon the oppression of women.

But perhaps what most singularly distinguishes reformist writing of the late eighteenth century from earlier political writing is its easy accessibility and sheer color. Aimed primarily at a non-elite and self-educated audience, reformist writing favored a more vivid and volatile style, unlike opposition writing of the early eighteenth century as exemplified by Chesterfield's and Lyttleton's witty and genteel Common Sense (1737-8): simply stated, a style which promised to appeal widely to a rising number of new readers was one which proffered prospects of higher profits. In order to understand this sudden shift, we need to return to John Wilkes, whose political savvy, as we have seen, was matched by a literary savvy for story-telling and apt allegorization. If Wilkes, according to contemporary publisher, John Almon, possessed "the singular merit of writing to, and for the people" (qtd. in Brewer 171), his colorful and intelligible style can already be clearly discerned from his treatment of the political cliché that treats the minister as a wily servant ruining the king (the master) and his nation (the household). Unlike Bolingbroke's use of this allegory in The Craftsman, where the dangers of the situation are only loosely postulated, the issue of 18 December 1762 fashions the allegory into a more mimetic form of narrative, complete with a clear plot, characters, and specific motives:

When your Uncle died, he possessed of several Plantations [. . .] which are now vested in you [. . .]. They were in good order [. . .]. But alas! How they have since gone to decay, through the rapacious temper of some of your Stewards and the Ignorance of others.

Craftsman, Friday, 3 March 1727 3-4

Let me hope, however, that the concerns of a private family [. . .] may find a place in your publication. They contain very ample instructions to masters and mistresses not to be misled by the arts of crafty and intriguing servants; and as the nation itself is but a larger family [. . .] my subject may, I think, in some sort be allowed to be of public use and application [. . .].

It lay, in a great measure, upon the upper servants to rectify these matters; and the time of chusing a new husband for lady Wiseacre, gave them an opportunity of taking one main step towards it [. . .].

Their old master was no sooner dead than Mrs. Browne the house-keeper [. . .] summoned together the head servants in the scullery, with the design of taking their sentiments on the face of affairs; or rather with a view of dictating her own [. . .]. "You know very well Mr. Puff, said she, (speaking to Peter the pastry cook) what a noise that fellow made some years ago, upon looking into one part of our accounts, and finding the paltry sum of 20,000 pounds placed on the wrong side of the book."

The North Briton 2:53-60

In short, Wilkes's use of narrative helps us understand Gothic fiction as a large-scale political allegory, one which renders the public sphere into a more comprehensible private and domestic one.

These mimetic allegorizations would subsequently usher in a few prototypical Gothic scenarios while rendering the public sphere into a more private one. Take, for instance, the following passage from an editorial found in The English Chronicle—a liberal newspaper edited by Ann Radcliffe's husband, William Radcliffe, in 1795—which portrays Britannia as a beleaguered victim, surrounded by treacherous neighbours and uncared for by her guardians:

Abroad the picture is equally distressing; France, Spain, Holland, America, &c. united by a formidable alliance that threatens the ruin of our commerce and political interests. A confederacy of the great maritime powers should alarm us for our existence; as, whatever it may be, it seems a general conspiracy against this nation [. . .].The French are surrounded by the stretch and wealth of the most powerful nations. The English stand alone in the midst of unparalleled difficulties, without a single friend to assist them, and without ability or virtue in their Ministry and Parliament to assist themselves.

"Postscript" 4

The paranoia displayed in the sense of a "general conspiracy against this nation," especially where an orphaned Britannia without suitable guardians is persecuted on all sides, demands only a fully fleshed-out plot to render it into a Gothic novel. Similarly, Cartwright's pamphlet, A Letter to those Ladies whose Husbands Possess a Seat in either House of Parliament (1775), which implores female readers to beg their husbands for a more ameliorative stance towards the American colonies, presents another near-Gothic scenario in which Britain and America are personified respectively as a greedy husband demanding more money from his wife.

Let us suppose that that domestic and grave legislator, a husband, should, after some fit of spleen, say, Madam [. . .] I find my finances are in much disorder, and I have been thinking of a new resource. Your pin money [. . .] is considerable. You must pay me thirty per cent.

This, ladies, is exactly the case between England and America, except that a wife would be certain of relief from the law, whereas America must trust to the uncertain decision of arms.


This lively scene, complete with an extended dialogue between the spouses, is one which could have contributed to the images of rape and nationhood in fiction and poetry, such as William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, with its canny alignment of colonial and gender oppression.[3]

Conversely, the "private" sphere could be viewed in terms of a more public one. In the following passage from The English Chronicle, the writer frames a Gothic-like incident of a young man wrongly detained in a private mental asylum for pursuing a woman in the context of the fall of the Bastille.

The destruction of the Bastille in France has excited the wonder not only of this country, but of all Europe; and every person that has tasted the sweets of liberty, rejoices at the event.

But however pleasing the above circumstance may be to feeling minds, what must the people of this country think, when they are informed that prisons, horrible as the detested Bastille in France, are permitted in England, under the name of private mad houses?

The following account will elucidate the fact:

About six weeks ago, a young man was seized and forcibly conveyed to one of those infernal receptacles near town, although it appears he never was disordered in his senses—his crime was loving and being loved.

The friends of the young lady not consenting to the intended match, took the diabolical resolution to have the poor young man seized and confined as above related.

"Bastille" 3

By comparing a private mad-house to a Bastille, the writer is not only able to lend public significance to a private act in a way that anticipates Helen Maria Williams' simultaneously fictionalized and politicized treatment of the Du Fosse story in Letters from France (1791), but also able to criticize Britain obliquely for being more absolutist than France. As such, it would not be difficult for the Gothic novelist to manipulate these political allegories and allusions into a new subgenre.

Not least, the use of history and foreign locales would also render reformist critiques more trenchant, particularly in an age which witnessed a strong surge of interest in historical and travel writing, while conveniently serving to deflect political criticism. Turning once again to Wilkes's North Briton, we find him reshaping classical and modern British history alike to legitimize his anti-Butean agenda. Claiming that "There is no study more entertaining or instructive than history; nor is any history so applicable to our own government and times as that of Rome," for "we clearly see in it the fatal rocks [. . .] upon which that great and flourishing Empire was wrecked," Wilkes hoped to alert the reader "by a careful attention," so as to "prevent the like danger" (2:140). The past and present become particularly blurred as Wilkes runs through British history, imbuing the distant past with distinctly late eighteenth-century interpretations and rhetoric. The issue of 3 July 1762, for instance, delivers a subtle warning to a young monarch widely held to be thoroughly governed by his mother and a power-hungry Scottish Earl of Bute through allusions to the comparable situation of Edward III, who was similarly alleged to be governed by his mother and a Scottish Earl of March. By referring to the example of his foolish father, Edward II—who had succumbed to the predatory influence of his "favourites"—before discussing Edward III's repudiation of his dangerous guardian, Wilkes could thus warn the reader of the dangerous favouritism for Bute without risking libel. The phrases "tyrannous slavery," "court minion," and "noble and manly" inevitably betray a late-eighteenth- rather than a fourteenth-century sensibility by superimposing the latter upon the former. The impressions gleaned from these reformist accounts of history, whether in brief references or lengthy, multi-volumed histories, are reminiscent of such works as Francis Grose's History and Antiquities of England and Wales (1772-1786) and the 1785 edition of Foxe's Book of Martyres, where figures in eighteenth-century dress are depicted wandering around ruins or being subjected to the torments of an twelfth-century Inquisition. Indeed, as reformers increasingly lamented the persistence of anachronistic laws and customs, the difference between past and present would appear to diminish.[4]

Comparisons between Britain and other nations served a similar purpose in the overall attempt to vindicate reform and progress as a hallmark of British national identity. For many reformers, Britain's position in the ranking of European nations was a pivotal one. Given that the British government was ideal in its felicitous combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—one far removed from Eastern and Roman Catholic absolutism everywhere else—Wilkes could demand of the reader:

whether this republican form of government introduced so many miseries among the people or brought so many distresses upon human nature, as the despotic and arbitrary forms have done? In case he should assert they had, he must be a most impudent or a most ignorant fellow. I would ask him further, whether he had not rather live in the canton of Bern, England, or in Holland, than in Russia, Turkey, Persia, or Indostan?


Similarly, in his rambling yet widely read tome on the ills of contemporary Britain, Political Disquisitions (1774-5), James Burgh placed Britain in regard to political liberty above France (3:387) and Spain (3:428) but below Holland and Switzerland (3:410). Having claimed that Dutch political representation was more equitable than its British counterpart (1:204-5), Burgh could thus argue implicitly for further reform by suggesting that there was further room for improvement since Britain was neither hopelessly mired in absolutism nor elevated to a perfect haven of republican virtue:

If a nation is in the same condition in which we now see France; there can be no doubt concerning its liberties; they are utterly gone [….] On the contrary, if a nation were in the condition we now see Holland, or rather on a much better footing as to liberty than that commonwealth is now upon; we should consider the liberties of that state as in no immediate danger. But the condition of England is neither that of France, nor that of Holland, which render it on the one hand highly improper to sit still unconcerned, as if all was well; or on the other, to give all up as if irretrievable and desperate.


As such, the past and the foreign were not discrete entities wholly irrelevant to contemporary Britain, but a significant means of legitimizing reformist visions of progress and nationhood.

In all, as reformist writing of the late eighteenth century sought to claim a new subjectivity and autonomy for marginalized groups through its tales of oppression, dispossession, and repossession, the revival of folklore and the use of readily comprehensible discursive and narrative strategies provided surefire means of populist legitimization. The folk-tale, broadly accessible to literate and non-literate audiences alike, became a weapon of choice in promoting the powerless citizen and demoting the authority figure. Propp notes:

Historical study should show what happens to old folklore under new historical conditions and trace the appearance of new formations. We cannot ascertain all the processes that occur in folklore with the transition to new forms of social structure [. . .] but we know that the processes occur everywhere with surprising uniformity. One of them is that inherited folklore comes into conflict with the old social system that created it and denies this system. It does not deny the old system directly but rather the images created by it, transforming them into their opposites or giving them a reverse, disparaging, negative coloring. The once sacred is transformed into the hostile, the great into the harmful, evil, or monstrous [. . .]. Folklore formations arise not as a direct reflection of life (this is a comparatively rare case), but out of the clash of two ages or of two systems and their ideologies.


Of course, this is not say that Wilkes and other reformist writers were consciously resorting to folklore, but rather that they helped set the literary stage for Gothic novelists by encouraging modern Britons to fight the remains of the Norman yoke and to regain their Saxon rights, all while deploying colorful mimetic allegorization as well as far-flung periods and locales in a happily-ever-after romance narrative. In many ways, the distinguishing traits of reformist writing anticipate those of the Gothic as described by Eino Railo in The Haunted Castle, particularly in its "preoccupation with an atmosphere of oppression and innocence in danger" and "situations based on persecution and a constant fleeing from pursuit"—situations which are generally derived from "some form of usurpation, an old crime, or the like" (299), with the "Norman yoke" serving as the "old crime." The following section will show how reformist romance was refracted into the Gothic romance as novelists relied upon related strategies of articulating contemporary unease.

II. Politic Gothics: Rewriting the Political Romance

If Horace Walpole observed in his Memoirs that "Prerogative became a fashionable word" (Walpole, 1:16) appearing to be "the object of the court"(2:2), and that "politics not only occupied our prose but inspired our poets" (3:168), his novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), certainly attested to his claims in the obsessive references to "tyranny" and "despotism." However, before delving into the steady stream of Gothic novels and their reconstructions of the reformist romance narrative in the 1770s and 1780s, it is worth taking a brief overview of the ways in which they deviate from earlier novels.

What is most important to bear in mind is that it is not the separate or even collected presence of the various motifs—persecution, the tyrannical villain, the innocent hero/ine per se—which singularly distinguishes the Gothic novel from earlier fiction, but rather the ways in which these elements are reconfigured and integrated into the narrative. First of all, the treatment of pursuit and persecution can be said to veer away considerably from that established by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson. If the romances from the first part of the century gravitate largely around a love interest, where the protagonist is pursued by a lover, Gothic heroines are frequently pursued for their wealth or because they inadvertently obstruct dynastic ambitions. The Gothic also differs substantially from the picaresque novel in its handling of pursuit and the delineation of the criminal/villain: whereas the picaro is shown to be more or less "rightly" hounded by the authorities and/or imprisoned for committing crimes, the hero/ine in Gothic fiction is instead portrayed as a character of high moral integrity like a political or religious martyr. Moreover, unlike the picaresque villain, but like the villains in the contemporary Jacobin novels of Robert Bage, William Godwin, and Thomas Holcroft, the Gothic counterpart is politically and socially powerful. Whereas the picaro is usually a petty criminal marginalized by society even when he is intended to stand for a powerful state minister (e.g., Fielding's Jonathan Wild), the new villain is a nobleman; as one aristocratic villain from Eliza Fenwick's Secresy puts it, "Yes, a prime minister of Great Britain: and the more mischief I do beforehand, the better shall I be qualified for the duties of that high and important station"(182). In other words, it is the counterparts of Squires Allworthy and Western who destroy, not restore, political and social order.

What begins to emerge clearly from the Gothic is a rewriting of history as envisioned by reformist writers, or as Godwin stated in his essay, "Of History and Romance," "The writer of romance then is to be considered as the writer of real history" (466). The contemporary fixation with the Norman Yoke helps explain why Gothic novelists adopted the folk-tale theme of the disinherited protagonist retrieving his/her identity, liberty, and property: in particular, the version which presents the hero/ine as a descendant from a nobleman murdered by his envious brother retells, at one remove, the story of the usurpation by the "bastard" William the Conqueror. Indeed, the very fact that a significant portion of the Gothic novel, if not the entirety, is devoted to the slow unfolding and/or reclamation of the hero/ine's true identity rather than the sudden revelations of it in a deus-ex-machina-ending (e.g., Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones) brings it closely in line with the reformist "romance" with its focus on criminal "innovations" effected by the ambitious powers that be; for instance, the mysterious events which are slowly unravelled throughout The Old English Baron, George Moore's Grasville Abbey (1793), George Walker's Haunted Castle (1794), and Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest (1791) provide important clues to the ancient crime and the protagonist's identity.

It is appropriate enough that Clara Reeve's Old English Baron (1777) was published only a year after Cartwright's Take Your Choice! (1776) and three years before The People's Barrier (1780), where he vowed to "lay the foundation in restoring to you your birthright" (138). As an apparent "peasant" (17) and "son of a poor labourer" (15) raised by the Baron Fitz-Owen, the meritorious Edmund is not only descended from a man slain by an envious younger brother but also the victim of equally envious yet disdainful well-born youths in the baron's household. In short, it is a pattern that conforms to the reformist portrait of the modern disenfranchised middle and lower-class Briton mocked and oppressed by descendants of haughty Norman aristocrats; indeed, this is perhaps why Reeve anachronistically refers to the youths as a "cabal" in a supposed fifteenth-century manuscript. The contemptuous treatment of Edmund as an "upstart" (28) of "low descent" (30) confirms the "pernicious exclusion of the lower orders of people," particularly "tradesmen, artificers, and labourers," discussed by Cartwright. His kinsmen not only attempt to sway others by "impos[ing] on [their] credulity" but also devise "Various arts" in order "to expose him to danger" (27) by means of "fine-spun arts and contrivances" and "treachery and falsehood"(77-8) while frequently subjecting his actions to arbitrary misconstructions: "If he behaved with manly spirit, it was misconstrued into pride and arrogance; his generosity was imprudence; his humility was hypocrisy, the better to cover his ambition" (32). Here, the youths' taunting of Edmund lead him to defy their accusations of cowardice by spending a night in the supposedly haunted subterranean apartments—which ultimately results in the discovery of the murder when he witnesses the ghostly pantomime. Not unlike the purloined historical document, then, the ghosts provide evidence of the crime.

What is more interesting, however, is how Reeve dwells at great length on the creation and dissemination of fictions surrounding the crime, from the slaying of Edmund's father to the immediate aftermath. If Edmund's kinsmen enact the crimes of the contemporary political elite, the intrigues of the usurping Lord Lovel may be equated loosely with the Norman usurpation and "innovations" denounced by Cartwright and Sharp. Like a series of alterations and obliterations imposed on the important document attesting to the rights of the British subject, one plot rapidly succeeds another in the very reporting of Lady Lovel's death. The supposed funeral of Mazzini's wife in A Sicilian Romance and Schedoni's attempt to marry his sister-in-law after murdering his elder brother in The Italian, scenarios imagined by Ann Radcliffe more than a decade later in 1790 and 1797, are already prefigured as the new Lord Lovel endeavours to coerce her into marriage. Pretending "that my poor Lady was distracted," he prepares "a publick and sumptuous funeral" for the supposedly dead mother-to-be, which is later described by Oswald "as of a fiction [. . .] the work of the present Lord, to secure his title and fortune" (63). In all, the true story is suppressed; Roger's report—namely, of actually having seen Lady Lovel after the funeral—is silenced by the new Lord Lovel, as he orders Roger to claim that he has seen her ghost before eventually moving all of his servants away from the castle, so that the "true" story is replaced by a false one. Yet it should also be noted that Edmund's exertions in retrieving his fortune equally involve deception on his part; Oswald intends to "favour your departure in such a manner as to throw a mystery over the circumstances of it," as his disappearance in the supposedly haunted apartment "‘will terrify and confound all the family'"(64).

The subject of birthright remains no less an issue in Sophia Lee's more pessimistic Recess (1783-6), where Matilda and Ellinor, the fictitious daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, are persecuted from the beginning by Queen Elizabeth out of envy for their higher claims to the throne: a possible unhappy ending to contemporary reformist warnings of incipient despotism, imprisonment and confiscation where Saxon rights are never regained. From the beginning of the novel, the repression of the sisters' identities and rights in their reclusive immurement prepares the reader for their future confinements, which boil down to one arbitrary purpose, regardless of the perpetrator: that is, preventing the protagonists from reclaiming rights to any title or property they might inherit. The Governor of the West Indian island, for instance, falsely arraigns Matilda for the murder of her cousin Mortimer in order to appropriate her claim to the latter's possessions as his natural heir—a charge that closely corresponds to the imprisonment of her mother by Elizabeth—just as James I later accuses Matilda of poisoning his son, Henry, in order to prevent her from claiming the throne, so that in all, the criminal machinations could be said to echo reformist claims of "innovations" at a distance.

What serves to distinguish Lee's Gothic from Reeve's and to establish a pattern for later Gothic novels is the darkened atmosphere, one which recalls Wilkes' melodramatic details of his "close imprisonment." Despite Robert Hume's famous quip on The Recess—"If wearing a wool tie makes me a sheep, then The Recess is a Gothic novel" (283)—Sophia Lee's novel nonetheless shares what Hume himself has called the "distinguishing mark of the early Gothic novel": namely, "its atmosphere and the use to which that atmosphere is put" (284). With few exceptions, the entire novel is filled with a range of major and minor despots, not to mention a series of confinements endured by the two sisters; both inhabit a somber world where, as Father Anthony puts it, "a few haughty individuals commanded miserable millions, whom a few artful ones made so" (1:3). Indeed, the plight of the innocent martyr is nowhere better captured by Sir David Murray at the end of the novel as he explains to Matilda that "innocence was scarce a protection" since "biased judges might easily mistake presumptions for proofs, nor have candour enough to vindicate the honour which had thus been questioned" (3:271).[5] At the same time, just as the tale of Matilda and Ellinor refracts the issue of the oppressed, disenfranchised Briton at large, the contemporary predicament of women and indigenous natives under British male power is brought into focus as Mortimer's dominion over Matilda and the natives of St. Vincent alike appear to support Price's and Tooke's allegations of British tyranny on the very same island in Facts Addressed to the Landholders while aligning the issues of oppressed women and oppressed colonies as in Cartwright's Letter to the Ladies.[6] Finally, the repetition of confinements and escapes serves all the more to lend a more daunting sense of oppression as Ellinor's account is embedded in Matilda's narrative so that the tyrannical Elizabeth is encountered in two separate, back-to-back narratives.

Indeed, the recognition of disenfranchisement and particularly gender oppression as displayed in the writings of Paine and Bentham, which have been bypassed even by highly perceptive feminist studies such as Diane Long Hoeveler's Gothic Feminism and Angela Keane's Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s helps us to understand the obsessive Gothic scenarios of oppressed and dispossessed wives as well as to contextualize the early progress of feminist thought in the 1770s and ‘80s. Even though it is difficult to ascertain the degree of Ann Radcliffe's familiarity with reformist literature, it is highly probable, as Rictor Norton suggests in a recent biography of the novelist, that she was acquainted with some of the issues, rhetoric, and tropes. Not only was Radcliffe raised partly in the middle-class Dissenting circles of her uncle, Thomas Bentley, and his business partner, Josiah Wedgwood, but her mother also subscribed to the works of their relative, John Jebb. Certainly, too, her marriage to William Radcliffe, a reformist-leaning journalist, would have ensured her continued exposure to reformist and radical issues.

While Radcliffe's first two novels do not center upon the theme of the dispossessed heroine who discovers her true identity, they nonetheless focus more specifically on the notion of the dispossessed wife than either Reeve's or even Lee's novels. Here, the husband bears a position comparable to that of the usurping Norman and insatiable colonizer. In The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789, Malcolm's attempts to procure the property of his deceased brother's wife, the Baroness, and to sequester her from the world (in anticipation of Montoni's treatment of his wife)—all while suppressing his brother's will—would already appear to confirm Paine's remark that women were "no less deprived of their liberty" and "constrained in their desires in the disposal of goods" while also recreating a character not unlike Cartwright's avaricious British husband in A Letter to the Ladies. As if deploying a legal fiction, despite his avowed refusal "to be deceived by evasions of the law," Malcolm makes use of the very evasions he claims to abhor, pretending that his brother had little right to dispose of his properties as he did, before finally ordering his brother's wife to "resign, therefore, the will, which remains only a record of unjust wishes"(63): in short, his actions are not unlike those of the political purloiners who construct their own "innovations." These fictions, however, do not fool the Baroness in the least as she delivers a prompt retort flush with reformist rhetoric: "‘but think not to impose on me by a sophistical assertion of right, or to gloss the villainy of your conduct with the colours of justice'" (64). Nonetheless, Malcolm's sheer might allows him to obtain "by forged powers" the revenues from the foreign estates, even if temporarily.

Such an awareness of female disenfranchisement is further heightened in A Sicilian Romance (1790), where the live body of the protagonists' mother, Louisa Bernini, is literally and figuratively submerged in history, secreted in the southern buildings—the oldest parts of the castle—after a pretended funeral. Bentham's remarks on the "passive state of slavery" suffered by women because their interests "have been too often sacrificed" are all too palpable in her immurement. Indeed, Louisa suffers a fate not unlike that of the suppressed and purloined document, as the marquis threatens to kill her should she "ever, by any means endeavour[. . .] to make known the place of [her] concealment" (180) when he rejects her for the beautiful Maria de Vellorno. It is a fate which anticipates that of Ahania in Blake's Book of Ahania (1795) and The Four Zoas, where she is flung by her ambitious husband, Urizen, into the "Abyss" of "Non Entity." The layers of deceit involved in the attainment of the Marquis's desires prove almost as labyrinthine as the walls which enclose her and are, as such, nearly reminiscent of Cartwright's "labyrinths of unjust law" which deny the Briton his natural Saxon rights and liberty; Radcliffe herself even compares the fictions to labyrinths when explaining how "the commission of one crime often requires the perpetration of another" so that one is "led on, through correspondent mazes" after entering "the labyrinth of vice" (184).

The deeply intertwined tales of the woman dispossessed of her liberty and property and the hero/ine rediscovering her identity would continue to flourish in their depictions of women who are imprisoned and torn away from their children/wards like a Louisa Bernini. There is little doubt that such examples as the countess in Parsons's Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), Madame Montoni in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the wife of the younger d'Alembert in Regina Roche's Clermont (1798), Julia in Eleanor Sleath's Orphan of the Rhine (1798), and Mrs. Roker in Charlotte Smith's The Old Manor House (1792) lead Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's parody of the Gothic, Northanger Abbey (written in 1798 but not published until 1818), to assume casually that General Tilney has murdered his wife.

Nor is there doubt that with the emphasis on the disenfranchisement of ordinary Britons upon the fall of the Bastille, Gothic novelists would recreate a narrative counterpart to the reformist mantra which urged the dismantling of the Norman Yoke and the reclamation of Saxon rights. Novels such as Elizabeth Helme's Cave of St. Margaret (1801), George Moore's Grasville Abbey (1793), Eliza Parsons's Castle of Wolfenbach (1796), Ann Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest (1791) and Italian (1797), and George Walker's Haunted Castle (1794) recapitulate this central theme by ending happily with the restoration of birthright to the protagonists and the sound defeat of the usurpers; the same may yet be said for Parsons's Mysterious Warning (1793), where the virtuous younger brother recovers his just property from the legitimate heir, after the latter confesses his avarice in depriving him of the just share of his inheritance. Moreover, the popularity of this theme was such that the "Jacobin" novelist, Robert Bage, eventually deployed this theme in his Minerva Press novel, Hermsprong (1796), where the tyrannical Lord Grondale is discovered to have conveniently assumed the title of the true heir—Hermsprong's father—when the latter goes missing. What is even more significant in these tales of birthright are the distinct echoes of reformist rhetoric found, for instance, in The Romance of the Forest and St. Margaret's Cave. Just as Jebb prized "universal suffrage of Englishmen, their best inheritance" as a "defence against aristocratic domination", Radcliffe's Adeline re-enacts the reformist discovery of the Norman crime committed by her stereotypically aristocratic uncle. "Determined [. . .] if she should recover her rights, to have the manuscript sought for" (346), Adeline is finally established "beyond dispute in the rights of her birth" with "the rich estates of her father [are] restored to her" (353); in effect, her testimony against the Marquis is itself a "defence against aristocratic domination." In St. Margaret's Cave, which centers on the efforts to reclaim Margaret as the legitimate daughter of Sir William Fitzwalter, phrases such as "assert your right" and "a trial to prove Margaret's birthright" (3: 274) occur with great frequency.

The obsession with the notion of crime and the recovery of identity was therefore one which entailed a marked preference for the "explained" supernatural, as the putative horror is ultimately revealed to be a fiction for deterring the detection of crimes. No less than reformist writers fixated upon the veils assumed by the government, Gothic novelists proved correspondingly fixated upon the seemingly insurmountable barriers of fictions erected by their fictional despots. Certainly, the Marquis Mazzini's cover-up of his wife's immurement in A Sicilian Romance, as we have already seen, necessitates a fiction-making smacking of the "bugbear," "Rawhead and bloody bones," or "force and fraud," a lie which involves further measures to foreclose the scene of crime from investigation; the tale involving the southern buildings "discovered some art; for the circumstance related was calculated, by impressing terror, to prevent farther enquiry into these buildings." In short, the supposed haunting serves "to explain, by supernatural evidence, the cause of those sounds, and of that appearance which had been there observed, but which were, in reality, occasioned by the marquis" (195). Likewise, in Charlotte Smith's Old Manor House, where "there are among the servants as many cabals, and as many schemes, as among the leaders of a great nation" (52), Orlando links usurped authority, tyranny, and hobgoblins together:

"[. . .] like all other usurped authority, the power of your aunt is maintained by unjust means, and supported by prejudices, which if once looked at by the eye of reason would fall. So slender is the hold of tyranny, my Monimia.

"[. . .] she has taken care to fetter you in as much ignorance as possible; but your mind rises above the obscurity with which she would surround it. She has however brought in supernatural aid; and, fearful of not being able to keep you in sufficient awe by her terrifical self, she has called forth all the deceased ladies of the Rayland family [. . .] and beset you with spirits and hobgoblins if you dare to walk about the house."


If Walpole's "real" ghosts serve to point out Manfred as a usurping tyrant, Smith turns the situation around, making the "supernatural aid" a means of "usurped authority." This is particularly true when the "unjust means" are eventually discovered by the reader as a ruse by which Mrs. Lennard attempts to screen the smuggling activities of the household servants, who foreshadow Ann Radcliffe's smugglers and pirates in The Mysteries of Udolpho as they conceal their activities by circulating tales of hauntings. The very fact that Orlando's inheritance (the will) is later discovered to have been hidden by the "impudence and chicane of the Rokers" (lawyers to the Rayland estate) and "the purse of a rich body of clergy" (Dr. Hollybourne) (493) concurs with reformist charges that Britons had been robbed of their Saxon birthrights and properties by the powers that be—church, state, and the law—especially when the apparently disinherited Orlando feels "all the calamities" with "all their hopes blasted—their fortune gone—their name almost forgotten in the country—and strangers possessing their habitations" (517).

Finally, no less than Wilkes's use of anachronistic late-eighteenth-century phrases in his "histories," the lapses in setting betray the contemporary political and social concerns of the Gothic novel. If we have already observed in The Recess ways in which contemporary concerns about the oppression of women and slaves slip through despite its ostensible sixteenth-century setting, the admonitions on the dangers of gaming in The Romance of the Forest and in The Mysteries of Udolpho similarly exhibit the late-eighteenth-century middle-class concern with gambling; the same may be said for Montoni's opera-box, and Annette's image of Valancourt arriving in "a coach and six, and dressed out, with a laced coat and sword, like a lord as he is" (391) in the latter novel, all of which conversely suggest it to be a critique of the political and social malaise of eighteenth-century England. Nor is it coincidental that Montoni, hailing from an "ancient family" becomes a counterpart of the much-discussed aristocratic Norman "plunderers" and "banditti." In other works, such as George Walker's Haunted Castle (1794), the criticism of contemporary ills becomes even more pointed as the narrator offers a thinly veiled reproof of Pitt's war against France by expostulating upon the twelfth-century war between the two countries and linking a fondness for war in "ages teeming with superstition" to the present.

The foundation of the story arises from a popular opinion, that Divine justice never suffers murder to escape with impunity [. . .]. I am afraid the reader will not agree with me in calling this a popular opinion, when he looks back into history,—for instance, in the wars betwixt Philip [France] and John [England], he will find, that not only kings, but their dependents, delighted in slaughter; and slew their thousands and tens of thousands [. . .]. If then, the sport of war raised no disturbance in the minds of men, in ages teeming with superstition; in our day we must fancy that murder is passed over by heaven as a venial crime, and that men were made to prey on one another.


This liberal 1790s anti-war theme is reiterated at various points throughout the text, as if recalling Paine's remarks that "Government" and "supports itself by keeping up a system of war" (Rights of Man 161); or Pigott’s comment that soldiers are "nothing but murderers" and "more abandoned and depraved even than the priests". After pondering upon the inhumanity of war and exclaiming "How contradictory is love to war!—the one was made to bind man in bonds of universal amity—the other to destroy and root out every trait of humanity"(1:34), Walker pointedly compares the proud and ambitious murderer to the equally proud and ambitious ruler who "destroy[s] and thin[s] the race of mankind, in order to establish [his] power." It is "No wonder then, that private men, hurried forward by the same passion, should commit similar crimes [. . .] tho' the one is denominated murder, the other war" (2:142).

In the end, it is appropriate that the heyday of the Gothic novel, 1764-1830, coincided with the heyday of the reform movement, opening with Wilkes' publication of The North Briton in 1763 and closing with the Great Reform Bill of 1832: a period in which the "Jacobin" novels of Mary Hays, Thomas Holcroft, and Mary Shelley also flourished. Even if such novelists as Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve openly deprecated the "dangerous levelling" augured by the French Revolution, numerous readers might well have assumed the tales of oppression, dispossession and repossession to validate subtly reformist ideals despite the absence of all overt contemporary political references. Moreover, if reformist politics affected the shaping of literary genre, the alliance with reformist rhetoric would conversely appear to be strengthened by the "Jacobin" adoption of Gothic tropes: as Godwin set his Gothic tale of relentless persecution, Caleb Williams (1794), in an atmosphere strongly suggestive of Pitt's repressive England, Charles Pigott related his own Wilkesian experiences in a highly melodramatic pamphlet, Persecution! (1795), complete with a faded Gothic manuscript that tells the story of the persecution endured by an ancestor. By writing happy endings to the unfinished tale of the Norman Yoke, Gothic novelists would thus not only appear to agree with Godwin's assertion that "Terror was the order of the day" (Preface to Caleb Williams 55) but perhaps not altogether unwittingly reach out to reclaim political justice for the ordinary Briton.