If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to — Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 24
Folio Society’s edition of the Complete Works of Jane Austen)
And so with words of wisdom and not a little exasperation Henry Tilney neatly skewers Catherine Morland’s fervid imaginings, the result of letting her imagination run wild, fueled as it was with the influence of the Gothic romances of the time:
Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?”
“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me — I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”
“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 6
The craze for gothic literature, as depicted rather affectionately but ultimately scornfully by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey was of course only one side of that particular coin.
The craze was reflected in art of the period too.
Today we really find it difficult I think to realise why the reaction to the Gothic then was so extreme. I think it might be helpful to look at one picture which is representative of the genre and its story , for it helps explain some of the attitudes of the late 18th early 19th century towards these novels/pictures.
One of the most shocking of all the Gothic images was this picture by Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare,
which was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show of 1782.
Henry Fuseli – portrayed below by James Northcote in 1778- was an artist who had no formal art education.
Born in Zürich in 1741 and originally destined for a career in the church he took Holy Orders in 1761 He then travelled to England in 1765 and on the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds decided to make art his career. He made a tour of Italy to study the art and classical ruins and returned to England in 1778.
Among the usual fare of the exhibition- landscapes and portraits- this picture certainly stood out from the others, even those with a Gothic tinge like this one by Phillip de Loutherberg, the artist and theatrical designer,
The Nightmare ,as you can clearly see above, portrays a young girl sleeping with an incubus squatting down on her abdomen, looking out of the painting towards the viewer, together with a spectral horse’s head, complete with bulging white eyes.
Horace Walpole, author of the first gothic novel The Castel of Otranto( more on this later) summed up his feeling on this picture quite succinctly by adding this word alongside the description of the picture in his copy of the catalogue of the exhibition
Debate began as to what exactly Fuseli was actually painting: a scene from literature? Something inspired by a scene from Shakespeare- Queen Mab/Romeo and Juliet? Or, horrors, something from his own imagination meant to provoke feelings of revulsion in the audience ?
The proper view to then taken upon artistic subjects was that it was acceptable to paint and create works of art that evoked extremes of feeling-such as terror, for example- but not to create works of art that evoked feelings of horror or disgust. There the line was drawn in the sand. This picture to the late 18th century eye, crossed that particular line.
The debate about the merits of the picture was carried out in the press, notably the Morning Chronicle and of course this fuelled interest in this uneasy picture.
After the debate began , visitors figures to the Royal Academy show rose. The first pieces about the painting appeared in the Morning Chronicle on May 8th.
On May 9th, the day after the first of the Morning Chronicles pieces about the painting 2 713 people were recorded as having visited the exhibition (the average daily intake of people was 1782.) The final day attracted 5085 crowding to see it.
There is no doubt that this picture created a sensation.
It became very popular as a print. It is thought that over 2000 engravings were made initially of the painting in 1783,and sold for five shillings each. A pirate edition as issued in Paris. New authorised editions were issued from 1803 onwards, and eventually its fame spread,via the distribution of the prints across Europe and into America, far and wide.
Attacks were made on it, especially after the connection between the picture and its probable subject matter -sex- was made.
The Reverend Robert Bromley Rector of St Mildred’s in the Poultry, raised the moral standard and set to to attack a picture, which appeared to him to vary from the norm most spectacularly because it appeared to have no moral, instructive or educational foundation :
The dignity of moral instruction is degraded whenever the pencil is employed on frivolous whimsical and unmeaning subjects…The Nightmare…or any dream that is not marked in authentic history as combined with the inspiring dispensations of Providence and many other pieces of a visionary and fanciful nature, are speculators…if it be right to follow Nature, there is nothing of her here, all that is presented is a reverie of the brain…mere waking dreams as wild as the conceits of a madman
( See: A Philosophical and Critical History of the Fine Arts Painting Sculpture and Architecture, 1793).
Fuseli tried to defend himself and devoted a whole Royal Academy lecture on painting to the theme of invented subjects, asking the audience to question why it was not considered acceptable to paint subjects coined from the imagination, and not from reference to nature, or literature:
Why not if the subject be within the limits of art and the combinations of nature, though it should have escaped observation? Shall the immediate avenues of the mind, open to all observers from the poet to the novelist be shut only to the artist…for if these images so pursue us when our minds are in a kind of waking dream and all this with an air of unreality why , should we not turn to use this vice of the mind?
The debate surrounding this picture still continued into the 20th and 21st centuries.
And of course, all this debate around art, explains some of the responses to the Gothic literature of the time. It was different (and possibly thought of as dangerous by morlalists) because it evoked feelings in the reader that are not associated with the Classics, with Shakespeare etc.
It was( and is, in some ways ) slightly daring to read these books and to contemplate this type of art……Which makes this type of literature perfect fodder for impressionable teenagers. Which Jane Austen knew well. Or as in this print by James Gillray shows, has attractions for mature ladies who should know better than to give themselves thrills by reading The Monk late at night by candlelight
No wonder Jane Austen wrote her cautionary tale ;-) If you would like to read more on this subject, then I can reccommend looking at the catalogue to a Tate Gallery exhibition about it entitled Gothic Nightmares
Sadly, it appears now to be out of print and the few copies available are consequently ferociously expensive.
A much cheaper alternative is to view the on-line exhibit that accompanied the original exhibition, which was held at Tate Brtiain in 20o6 and is still -praise be- available at the Tate’s website here..
Do you dare do it?