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David Hume, Horace Walpole and the Emergence of Gothic Fiction
Jonathan Dent

This article explores the complex, oft en antagonistic relationship between Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and David Hume‘s The History of England (1754–62). Focusing on textuality and the interrelationship between literature and history, answers to a number of questions are sought. For example, why is Otranto so concerned with historical authenticity, what techniques does Walpole use to write the past and how do these compare with Humes methods? Walpole had read several volumes of Hume‘s history before writing his Gothic novel and this article proposes that Otranto can be read as a bold response to The History of England.

Gothic Studies
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Gothic novels and representations of the past, from Horace Walpole to Mary Wollstonecraft
Author: Jonathan Dent

‘This is a dark story…’

Clara Reeve, The Old English Baron (1778)

Sinister Histories is the first book to offer a detailed exploration of the Gothic’s response to Enlightenment historiography. It uncovers hitherto neglected relationships between fiction and prominent works of eighteenth-century history, locating the Gothic novel in a range of new interdisciplinary contexts.

Drawing on ideas from literary studies, history, politics, and philosophy, Sinister Histories demonstrates the extent to which historical works influenced and shaped the development of Gothic fiction from the 1760s to the early nineteenth century. In moving from canonical historians and novelists, such as David Hume, Edmund Burke and Ann Radcliffe, to less familiar figures, such as Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras, Clara Reeve and Sophia Lee, this innovative study shows that while Enlightenment historians emphasised the organic and the teleological, Gothic writers looked instead at events and characters which challenged such orderly methods. Through a series of detailed readings of texts from The Castle of Otranto (1764) to Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798), Sinister Histories offers an alternative account of the Gothic’s development and a sustained revaluation of the creative legacies of the French Revolution.

This book is aimed at students and scholars with interests in the Gothic, the eighteenth century, historiography, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and gender studies.

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History and the Gothic in the eighteenth century
Jonathan Dent
in Sinister histories
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David Hume, Horace Walpole and the emergence of Gothic fiction
Jonathan Dent

This chapter examines the complex, often antagonistic relationship between Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Hume’s The History of England (1754–62). As Walpole’s correspondence reveals, he had read numerous volumes of Hume’s history before writing Otranto (the first Gothic novel) and did not think very highly of its content or the methods used to write it. Reassessing the significance of the Gothic in the eighteenth century, this chapter discusses the extent to which Walpole’s novel can be viewed as a bold response to, and critique of, Hume’s historiography. Discussing the proliferation of violent and supernatural occurrences in Otranto, it is argued that the Gothic functions as Enlightenment history’s other; it exploits its insecurities, plagues its vulnerabilities, and imaginatively provides fictional presences for its many absences and omissions. Taking into account a wealth of historical evidence, this chapter proposes that Walpole’s novel can be read as an imaginative revolt against Hume’s multi-volume work of historiography and that it marks the beginning of the genre’s contentious relationship with Enlightenment historiography and the philosophy that underpins it.

in Sinister histories
Representations of the past in Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778)
Jonathan Dent

Building on the notion that the Gothic is shaped by (and responds to) Enlightenment historiography and shifting conceptions of the past in the eighteenth century, this chapter proposes that The Old English Baron can be read as a reaction to a popular (and frequently neglected) work of proto-Enlightenment English history that Reeve was very familiar with: Nicholas Tindal’s translation of Rapin’s History of England (1721–1731). Focusing on this previously ignored relationship, this chapter considers the religious and political implications of Rapin’s history for the Gothic past presented in The Old English Baron. Furthermore, it reveals the ways in which Reeve’s novel can be read as a rewriting of Otranto and draws attention to the historical specificity that she introduces to the Gothic genre at this time. Focusing on Reeve’s Old Whig political beliefs and the English setting of her novel, it assesses the extent to which The Old English Baron conveys Whig historico-political nightmares and focuses on how her Gothic past betrays contemporary anxieties. This chapter shows how The Old English Baron subverts the Walpolean Gothic and responds to the Enlightenment drive to secularise the historical cause.

in Sinister histories
Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783–85), the Gothic and history
Jonathan Dent

Emphasising the diversity of the Gothic genre in the eighteenth century, this chapter argues that, in The Recess, Lee hijacks certain themes from Walpole and Reeve to write a prototypical Female Gothic novel. Continuing to read the Gothic as a reaction to eighteenth-century historical writing, this chapter contends that Lee focuses on female protagonists and employs Gothic plotlines to critique the male codes of historical representation that govern David Hume’s Enlightenment historiography. Developing arguments from the previous chapter, this section shows how, in the hands of female writers, Gothic pasts often express contemporary fears and anxieties, and comment on gender politics in the eighteenth century. Drawing on Gary Kelly’s notion that the Gothic enabled women to access the male-dominated realms of history and politics, it is argued that Lee’s historically based novel utilises Gothic tropes such as concealed writings and a focus on the law to present a nightmare vision of women’s historical and social plight in the eighteenth century. Examining the complex structure of The Recess, this chapter concludes by assessing the extent to which Lee ‘Gothicises’ the eighteenth-century epistolary form, and what the novel says about the nature of the past.

in Sinister histories
The French Revolution, the past and Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791)
Jonathan Dent

Re-evaluating the implications of the French Revolution for Gothic fiction, this chapter examines representations of the past in a novel that is often neglected in Gothic studies: Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. Written in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, but set in seventeenth-century Roman Catholic France, it discusses the ways in which the novel bears traces of the present and examines the significance of the decaying abbey and fragmented manuscript that feature in the novel. Citing the enormity of the events taking place in France and the challenge they presented to established Enlightenment historical theories and methods, it is argued that The Romance of the Forest responds to such shifting notions of history by revealing a heightened sense of historical consciousness that is engendered by the French Revolution. Influenced by The Recess and utilising the Female Gothic’s focus on the heroine, this chapter shows how Radcliffe’s novel engages with the politics of the past and, more specifically, with the contested ‘Gothic’ views of history presented in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790).

in Sinister histories
William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and the perils of the present
Jonathan Dent

This chapter examines how, in Caleb Williams (1794), Godwin brings the Gothic to bear on the eighteenth century. It considers the novel as a manifestation of his radical views outlined in Political Justice (1793) and explores the novel as a response to English anxieties about the French Revolution at home and abroad. This chapter examines representations of the past in the novel, particularly in relation to Godwin’s ‘Of History and Romance’ (1797), which criticises works of Enlightenment history. The psychological introspection of Caleb Williams is discussed, as well as the presence of history in the human psyche and the (unwanted) ideological legacy of the past. This chapter goes on to explore how, in a similar vein to Godwin, Wollstonecraft refuses to use a fictional past as a subterfuge to comment on the present in Maria (1798) and uses the Gothic to examine women’s plight in eighteenth-century England. Discussing Maria in relation to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, it is argued that the novel brings the Female Gothic and its political agenda into sharper focus. This chapter discusses Wollstonecraft’s exploration of the female psyche, and how Maria’s thoughts and actions are governed by anachronistic and patriarchal social customs.

in Sinister histories