Sec. School – Gothic Literature – A Reflection of Social Change – 1 Religion

GOTHIC literature has experienced its major times of popularity at times of great change and uncertainty in society. Its birth in the Castle of Otranto (Walpole, 1764) and The Monk (Lewis, 1796) both released at the times when some of the most violent and rapid social changes were occurring – the start of the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant changes in the social structure and population distribution, and the American Revolution and the French Revolution – the former a radical break from a colonial power and new ideas and structures (though based supposedly heavily on Ancient Athens and Republican Rome), the latter one of the bloodiest episodes in European history since the Albigensian Crusades, culminating in regicide and the Terror under Robespierre et al and the removal of the Ancien Régime.

Changes were not, however, confined to these three episodes alone. The great population movements from the agriculturally based economies of earlier times were giving way to the new mechanisation of many if not most industries with such inventions as the ‘Spinning Jenny’ by James Hargreaves in Stanhill, Oswaldtwistle, in Lancashire in 1764, coinciding with the first publication of Walpole’s first Gothic tale. As work became harder to find in the rural areas, jobs were sought in the growing urban areas, principally the major metropolises: London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield inter alia. Such population migrations led to very rapid growth in these cities throughout the very end of the eighteenth and the whole of the nineteenth centuries as the traditional agrarian culture collapsed and the heavy industries sucked in more and more labourers, resulting in massive expansion in the slum areas and workhouses of all these cities and others. At the other end of the social pyramid, the aristocracy was in many ways obliged to surrender, even if extremely reluctantly, certain of its privileges as the nineteenth century progressed, there being the ever present memory of 1789 in France and the effects of the Year of Revolution, 1848. It is, however, on the symbolism of religious life and how these changes are reflected in the Gothic literature until the appearance of the vampire as the supernatural being that I shall concentrate in this, principally looking at the works of Walpole and Lewis.

1829 saw the passing of “An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects.” This Catholic Emancipation Act removed many of the heavy restrictions which had been placed on UK subjects who adhered to the faith of the Church of Rome – the Act of Union with Ireland of 1800 and the Irish agitation led by Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847), particularly in 1828-29 meant that for the first time since the Reformation nearly three centuries before (with short lived exceptions such as under the reign of Mary Tudor), Roman Catholic clergy were to be seen in the streets of the cities, freely setting up mission churches and celebrating the Mass, particularly in the poor urban areas due to the oft times large Irish populations. This conflicted greatly with the innate anti-Papist ideals of the Protestant clergy and the members of the evangelical churches. The culmination on this front came in the form of the Oxford Movement of the 1840s which saw a small, but majorly influential and intellectually powerful, group of clergy in the established Anglican Church begin to introduce “Papist practices” into their own churches. A tract of 1874 (Ritualism: A Sermon) states:


“Jesuits (the most powerful and influential Roman Catholic Monastic order), spreading their nets to catch the unwary, would, if they could, bring back the days of popery, and set up in God’s place the old harlot of Rome. This evil spirit comes to us in the garb and under the name of Ritualism – a mild form of Romanism – seeking to attract us to its service by a gorgeous ceremonial and a dazzling spectacle.” (My italics)

So what? What has this to do with Gothic literature?

From the earliest works of literature which are classed as Gothic, many have a strong element tied to the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism – either, as demonstrated above, vehemently anti-Catholic (such as Lewis’ “The Monk”), or, as can be argued from certain works, at least an acceptance of the importance of Catholicism in the fight against the evil beings, most especially vampires, through symbols and practices or otherwise (such as in Stoker’s “Dracula”). Such allusions in the negative views are scarcely surprising given the innate hatred of all things Popish among the evangelicals – in 1840, Stowell (an Anglican clergyman) associated the growing Oxford Movement with Roman Catholicism and the barbaric practices of the Mediaeval Inquisition, though writing in terms fitting of any Gothic novel:

“Let the sad change of opinion respecting her (ie Catholic Emancipation, the allowance of Roman Catholic Clergy and the Oxford Movement), which has already so deeply betrayed us, concede to Popery her ancient ascendency, and the fires of Smithfield will blaze anew (reference to the 282 Protestants claimed burned at the stake in the reign of Mary Tudor), the dark dungeons of the Inquisition will again gape for their victims, and fatally and fearfully will the mother of abominations (reference to the Whore of Babylon in Revelations, taken by evangelicals even now to be the Roman Catholic Church) will evince her infallibility (this was passed as Papal Infallibility during the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 where the Pope was declared infallible when speaking ex cathedra (on matters of faith alone)) by again becoming ‘drunken with the blood of the Saints.’”

These anti Catholic ideas were far from new. There was a mistrust of those who followed the ‘old Faith’ and the perceived dangers and ‘foreigness’ of the Catholic practices under the tyranny of an evil and corrupt dictator in Rome, a sensual and degenerate, wanton and perverse, dragging the pure innocents of evangelical Protestantism down into the anterooms of Hell,

“She is both the ‘dog [that] returneth to his vomit’ and an upstart woman defying the authority of the masculine John Bull in her ravenous attempt to feed upon England.” (O’Malley, 132)

Catholicism appears in the opening paragraph of the preface to Castle of Otranto (First Ed.)

“The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.”

That this manuscript is printed in 1529 in Naples and that a translation of an earlier manuscript  which dates from the Crusader period (ie some point between 1095 and 1243, though no more is said for definite) places the tale both in Italy, the corrupt home of Catholicism, and in the distant, violent past, in a time before the Reformation, and as such when even England was the “Dowry of Mary”. Why do this?

“Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when the author wrote, much less when the sort itself is supposed to have happened.”

In removing the setting from the era in which he lives and setting it so far back, Walpole can justify his introduction of the superstitious, the otherworldly, the ‘uncanny’ (Freud defined this as the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar.) It is via the superstitious, the preternatural and the exposing of the degenerate nature of those in power, both noble and clerical, that the reader will be brought back to the real and the familiar, having learned to reject the corrupt Mediaeval dominated by Catholicism in the Inquisition (though it is worth noting that in “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906): Ernst Jentsch came to the following conclusions: 1) Uncanny = fear of the unfamiliar; 2) Uncanny = based on intellectual uncertainty.)  This bringing of the supernatural is thus to be treated as a literary technique and the use of such is placed squarely at the feet of the original author:

“Terror, the author’s principal engine, prevents the story from ever languishing; and it is so often contrasted by pity, that the mind is kept in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions.”

Placing the tale in the far past and the use of the horrific with the author of the original tale, it becomes acceptable in the Age of Reason whilst also appeasing the anti-Catholic sentiments of the time:

“It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators (ie. those who were the Reformers against Catholicism), and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions.” (My italics).

While Walpole’s work carries an anti-Catholic message, it is tame in comparison to the rabid anti-Catholicism in Lewis’ The Monk first edition 1796. From its opening scene, the standard trope of Gothic anti-Romanism are present:

“Scarcely had the Abbey Bell tolled for five minutes, and already was the Church of the Capuchins thronged with Auditors. Do not encourage the idea that the Crowd was assembled either from motives of piety or thirst of information. But very few were influenced by those reasons; and in a city where such despotic sway as in Madrid to seek for true devotion would be a fruitless attempt…The women came to show themselves, the Men to see the Women.”

The setting is the Continent – Madrid, capital of the country which was home to the Inquisition. The Crowd are there either through hypocrisy, sloth (“no better means of employing their time till the play began”), coquettishness on the part of the Women and pure lust on the part of the Men, not through true “piety or thirst of information”, both of which, it might be intuited, would be the motives of a true Protestant believer – the use of both in comparison with the Catholics in Madrid implies that such would be the norm for attending Church services among the readers. Those who are there “truly anxious to hear the Preacher were a few antiquated devotees, and half a dozen rival Orators, determined to find fault with and ridicule the discourse.” Again, the insinuation that only the elderly and those who would attend to attack and mock for hypocritical reasons are there for any practical purpose rather than showing off and lasciviousness – these are what the Reader is to expect in the clutches of Roman Catholicism.

Perhaps unusual for the time in our minds (though remember that Tom Jones had been published in 1749, and the infinitely more shocking Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1748) is the theme of sexuality and lasciviousness as well as themes of cross dressing, pseudo-homosexuality and sexual obsession which are central to the plot in the form of Ambrosio’s desire for Matilda (though while cross dressing, believed by Ambrosio to be a young monk, Rosario):

“(Ambrosio) could not help sometimes in indulging a desire secretly to see the face of his Pupil.”

Even after he discovers the truth of Matilda’s gender half way through the tale, Ambrosio’s desire, it is hinted, is not for the powerful and domineering Matilda, but for the gentle Rosario, the one who was in awe of his mentor:

“Every moment convinced him of the astonishing powers of her mind: But what She gained in the opinion of the Man, She lost with interest in the affection of the Lover. He regretted Rosario, the fond, the gentle, the submissive: He grieved that Matilda preferred the virtues of his sex to those of her own.”

This again is a theme which is frequent in the Gothic – the rejection and overpowering of traditional gender roles assigned by the society of the time – these can be seen again and again (the dominant Carmilla, the dominant character of the unDead Lucy Westenra in Dracula,  and the passivity of Harker under the dominance of the three female vampires in Dracula’s castle inter alia). Matilda becomes the incarnation of all that Lewis sees as perverted in his perceived superstitions of Catholicism, its hypocrisy, its lasciviousness, sexual confusion and inability to protect its believers – she disguises herself as he; she parallels Ambrosio’s relationship to the Virgin Mary in the name she uses as the monk (Rosario – the rosary) she is innocent on the surface, and yet corrupt just beneath that surface, a hypocrite par excellence where all that is gentle and good is but for show to get her own way and bring down the man seen to be a “Saint” by the naive Catholics. When she casts off the male surface, she becomes a sexual succubus, casting an illusion of the Lord of Hell to extend her power over Ambrosio, but not through fear – through homosexual lust:

“He beheld a Figure more beautiful, than Fancy’s pencil ever drew. It was a Youth…form and face unparalleled and unrivalled. He was perfectly naked”

The culmination lies in the revealing of the trans-gender Rosario/Matilda as a genderless daemon sent to drag Ambrosio down to Hell after his final rejection of Salvation.

The danger here was, however, something which the Protestant English could look on with shock, early Gothic tales backed every prejudice which they held against the Church of Rome, as in the eighteenth century it was distant and something done by ‘foreigners’ – with the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and the Puseyite and Oxford Movements, introducing the spectre (as seen by the Evangelical Protestants) of the Church of Rome, the “Great Whore” of the Book of Revelation, the superstition and perceived tyranny of Papal power now transferred to mainland United Kingdom – the ‘real threat’ of the ‘Real Presence’. From this point, as far as the religious trope of the Gothic is concerned, that the vampire first makes its appearance in the mainstream, starting with the form of Lord Ruthven in Polidori’s Vampyre. It is with the seductive power of these atavistic anthropomorphic forms or evil in literature of the nineteenth century that I shall deal with next.

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