The most enduring of all gothic settings is the ancient, decaying castle. Other buildings may stand in for it, particularly lunatic asylums, abandoned abbeys and haunted mansions, but a rotting castle always seems the perfect gothic stage set. Certainly the castle setting of the early gothics was a significant selling feature. Instead of novels being named for heroes or heroines as they had been previously (Clarissa, Belinda, Tom Jones, David Simple), they were named after castles and abbeys (The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho.) Not only is the gloomy old castle an effective and evocative setting, it illuminates a host of attitudes about the past, the aristocracy, and justice. In some cases, castle and master are so closely identified that one cannot exist without the other. Poe's story The Fall of the House of Usher is a classic example-house and owner decay and are extinguished together. The castle crumbling along with its decadent master seems to represent the extinction of the last vestiges of feudal medievalism. Perhaps the crumbling castles express the desires of the gothic formula's readers, for in the eighteenth century aristocrats were still a very real threat to the general public.
The castle image may have appealed to the first novelists, many of them minor aristocrats, because of its nostalgia value--a fantasy reversion to the roots of their former power and prestige and a rejection of the changed, newly industrialized, world in which they lived. A few sought to recreate this world, building themselves the castles they had failed to inherit. Curiously, the ones they create in fiction are decaying shells, reflecting in their crumbling stone the final disintegration of the feudal world order in which they were reared.
Antiquarianism and the Gothic
In the mid eighteenth century, a revival of interest in medievalism brought a new appreciation for the previously maligned gothic architecture of the ruined castles, abbeys and priories scattered all over Britain. In one case, which we will look at shortly, it developed into the obsessive fascination that sparked the first gothic novel. Until this time, gothic structures had been dismissed as a regrettable and barbaric episode in the history of architecture. People of taste and education preferred the mathematical precision of Greek and Roman styles. Hardly surprising, considering that, for two hundred years, an education had consisted in learning Greek and Latin and accepting the premise that classical writers were the ultimate authorities in everything from science to aesthetics. Schoolboys had this literally flogged into them. It took a revolution in thought, the Enlightenment, to open up the possibility that there was knowledge unknown to the ancients. This radical departure from tradition opened the door to independent thinking-and Romantic rebellion. Staid and civic-minded Apollonian values could be replaced with the wild individualism of Dionysian ones. In architecture, this was identified with the soaring perpendicular towers, steeply pointed arches and excess of ornament so greatly admired by the Romantics, at least in part because it was unconventional to do so. Soon the revised aesthetic revolutionized landscaping-stiff, formal parterres were replaced with picturesque wild gardens and mysterious grottoes. Perhaps there was a kind of nostalgia for an enchanted, less rational, world-one that was linked to the perceived superstitions of medieval Catholicism or the intimate connection to nature thought to typify pre-Christian Celtic Britain.
Not only in architecture was there a renewal of interest in the distant past. There was a resurgence of interest in the works of Shakespeare, previously dismissed as unworthy of notice because of his deficiency in the classics and lack of adherence to their rules for drama. No fewer than six editions of Shakespeare's works were published between the years 1709 and 1765, and many people prided themselves on their ability to quote it. Then, in 1762 and 1763 respectively, two wildly popular poetic works, Fingal and Temora, were published as English translations from 4th century Gaelic originals. The poems, known as the Ossian epics, were not ancient at all: they were new works deliberately left fragmentary and rough in order to cash in on the craze for antiquity. One of those particularly taken with these epics was Horace Walpole.
Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto
A passionate art connoisseur, Walpole, son of powerful Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was also fascinated with gothic architecture. For many years, he gathered ideas from historical sites and applied them in pastiche form to his Georgian manor, Strawberry Hill, a building he purchased primarily because it lent itself to the makeover. Trompe l'oeuil and papier mâché were among the frankly fake devices used to effect the transformation into a suitably atmospheric gothic stage setting. The project became something of an obsession for Walpole, he dreamed of it frequently and worked by day to make his dream inspirations reality. To his friends he wrote: My house is so monastic, that I have a little hall decked with long saints in lean arched windows and with taper columns, which we call the Paraclete, in memory of Eloise's cloister Under two gloomy arches, you come to the hall and staircase the most particular and chief beauty of the castle. Imagine the walls covered [with] Gothic fretwork, the lightest Gothic balustrade to the staircase, adorned with antelopes (our supporters) bearing shields. One night this staircase appeared in a vivid dream: all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it - add that I was very glad to think of anything rather than politics - in short I was so engrossed in my tale, which I completed in less than two months, that one evening I wrote from the time I had drunk my tea, about six o'clock, till half an hour after one in the morning, when my hand and fingers were so weary, that I could not hold the pen to finish the sentence, but left Matilda and Isabella talking, in the middle of a paragraph.
This story, The Castle of Otranto, published by Walpole's own press in 1754, is generally conceded to be the first, or at least the first widely read, gothic novel. Appropriately enough for a story inspired by a spurious gothic castle, and in light of the forged Ossian epics, Otranto was originally given out as a translation of a sixteenth century Italian manuscript found "in the library of an ancient Catholic family". Curiously enough, when it was translated into Italian it was by the father of John Polidori, author of The Vampyre. In the second edition, Walpole acknowledged his authorship and serendipitously subtitled the work A Gothic Story. The genre has been known as "gothic" ever since.
Otranto contains all the classic elements of the gothic novel. There is the sense of powerlessness and terror, the ancient haunted castle, imprisonment, the persecuted maiden, spectres, the tyrant villain, the handsome, young hero of mysterious (but princely) birth, the threat of rape or forced marriage flavoured with just a hint of incest, mangled bodies, revenge from beyond the grave, and, most particularly, the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon their children. We will see these elements many times in the works to follow, but rarely so many in conjunction.
Inheritance, Primogeniture and Entail
The predominant theme of Otranto, as with all the castle-oriented gothics, is that of rightful inheritance. The custom of primogeniture had been in place since feudal times in order to preserve landed estates from diminishing in importance by leaving them in their entirety to an eldest son. The practice kept intact lands associated with a title and concentrated power in the hands of a few aristocratic families. Many intellectuals, influenced by the emerging republicanism of the eighteenth century, saw this practice as outdated, pernicious, and in need of reform. The celebrated economist Adam Smith called primogeniture contrary to nature, to reason, and to justice; Paine called it against the very law of nature. Laws of Entail gave holders of landed properties even more control over their estates, sometimes extending for generations after death. One of the consequences of primogeniture, particularly important for the gothic novel, is the idea of usurpation. Legitimacy becomes of critical importance and cannot be impugned, a major difficulty given the notorious moral laxness of the period. To gain control of property not rightfully theirs, younger brothers commit fratricide and illegitimate sons or other outsiders resort to forgery and fraud.
There could not be a more telling or chilling emblem of the laws of primogeniture and entail than the monstrous armoured hand which blocks Otranto's staircase. The dead hand of the past, swollen out of all recognition, claims its property and blocks access to the living. It is the literal embodiment of "mortmain", a medieval legal term to do with rights of possession of lands or buildings determined for perpetuity-a grip on assets from beyond the grave. In the struggle for Otranto, the weak claim the usurping Manfred has to the title is literally crushed with his weak son, Conrad. Walpole, as a third son, had little use for entails and once wrote a dismissive fairytale in which a butterfly makes its home in a rose, then seeks to control it for eggs of eggs of butterflies forever.
and the Caliph of Fonthill
Inspired by Walpole, and perhaps even better known, was William Beckford, the only legitimate son of the Lord Mayor of London. Both his parents were descended from Edward III and James I of Scotland, and Beckford was encouraged to study his family history and heraldry. Like Matthew Lewis, the Beckfords owned West Indian sugar plantations, though the excessive wealth they accumulated may owe something to piracy as well as to slave-worked sugar cane. Beckford's great-grandfather was acknowledged the richest man in Europe and his father was the richest man in England.
No expense was spared on his education. At six, he was visited by the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with whom he composed a march that Mozart later added to one of his operas. Tutors instructed him in a multitude of subjects-in seven languages-on the insistence of Beckford's mother, who wanted to spare her introspective and sensitive son the boarding-school brutalities of an Oxford or Cambridge. However, his lack of social experience and probable mild autism may have contributed to his downfall. He developed a romantic attachment to his ten-year old cousin the Honourable William Courtenay ("Kitty"), heir to Powderham Castle in Devon. The misplaced affection would have tragic consequences.
At 21, Beckford came into his vast inheritance, £1,000,000-approximately $200,000,000 today. A lavish coming-of-age party was held at Fonthill which was professionally transformed with lights and mirrors in honour of Beckford's favourite book, The Arabian Nights. Memories of this three-day party and his subsequent trip to the continent, exploring gothic cathedrals, provided much of the inspiration for his classicVathek, written the following year. Not published until 1784, Vathek was an unconventional fusion of black, rather sadistic humour with decadent eroticism in an oriental fantasy setting. Byron possessed several copies and drew on it heavily, particularly for The Giaour, though traces of it may be seen throughout his work. Caroline Lamb used one of his copies to pen a veiled threat, and his wife discovered another tucked away in a trunk with some opiates.
Beckford married about this time and had his first child, a daughter, but was still in touch with Courtenay, and perhaps still writing him love letters. Many such letters were discovered by Courtenay's family and maliciously published over a number of weeks in the public press. The resulting scandal and rumours of pederasty drove Beckford from England. The King (a notorious womanizer) was so incensed, that not only did he withhold Beckford's hoped-for peerdom, he opined that Beckford should be hanged. Fortunately, Beckford's wife, Margaret, stood by him. The inseparable pair went to Switzerland, where Beckford intended to write up some additions to Vathek, the life stories related by his doomed characters in Eblis. However, his English translator published his own version without any mention of Beckford, forcing him to print his French original in order to confirm authorship. William and Margaret appear to have been very happily married, though sadly she died very young, only three years into their marriage, after the birth of their second daughter. Beckford was devastated, and his friends, fearing for his sanity, encouraged him to distract himself by travelling. He wandered for nearly ten years, seeking out whatever he found aesthetically pleasing, before finally returning to Fonthill.Sequestered behind his 8-mile-long, 12-foot high fence topped with iron spikes, to keep out the curious (and hunters, as he was unusually protective of animals), Beckford had very few visitors, the opprobium of the neighbours outweighing curiosity for most people (however for a charming anecdote about one such rare visit, and Beckford's sense of mischief, visit http://www.anecdotage.com/index.php?aid=8683). Before long, Beckford threw himself into a new project to create a fantasy palace like the ones he had described in Vathek. His first project was to build a mock abbey to house some of his growing art collection. Perhaps owing to Beckford's impatience, it was erected far too hastily, collapsing twice during its construction and lasting only until 1825, two years after Beckford sold it. He then became obsessed with the idea of building a tower. The nearly 300-foot tower fell six times and each time was hastily rebuilt. In anticipation of a visit from his mother's cousin, William Hamilton, his wife Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson, then at the height of his popularity, the entire district was scoured for workmen. As many as five hundred of them laboured to complete as much as possible for the grand opening festivities, working well into the night by the light of torches. The staging of the entertainments was magnificent (see http://www.aboutnelson.co.uk/fonthill.htm for a description of the night-time procession by torchlight, by the rumble of distant drums).
The most extraordinary thing about Beckford's Fonthill creations is their scale. As a child, what Beckford had loved about his father's house was the long, echoing, great hall, with its high ceiling and many doors, open to dark and mysterious passages, and it was one of the inspirations for the Hall of Eblis in Vathek. Now Beckford sought to recreate the vast, theatrical vistas of his imagination. No effort was spared to create this effect, which was augmented by mirrors. Curiously, it is highly reminiscent of the kind of lofty, surreal architecture described by opium addicts. To highlight the scale of the 38-foot high front doors, Beckford employed a dwarf to open them as they came into view, at the end of a meticulously planned length of avenue. An octagonal room in the tower was 128 feet high. Beckford spent the equivalent of about 5.5 million dollars on his constructions at Fonthill, which included the expense of stocking them with exquisite art treasures. When the buildings were finally sold, the new owner cleared out some of these treasures at an auction which took 40 days to complete.
It has been suggested that Beckford shows symptoms of a high-functioning autism, such as Asperger Syndrome. His lack of comprehension for social conventions, the obsessive nature of his enthusiasm, his precocious gift for music, art, and languages-all merely dabbled with (a wide-ranging, but shallow dilettantism is typical), reflect a familiar pattern. He is also said to have inherited a propensity for violent temper from his great-grandfather (who once stabbed a judge in the Assembly hall) and grandfather, who died in a brawl. It is reported that returning home to find a balcony build where it was not desired, in a fury, he smashed it off the edifice himself, with no regard to objects below. The hurried composition of Vathek, which was written non-stop in little over a week is also suggestive not only of obsession, but is also familiar to people with the Asperger Disorder, as they know that in order to finish something they must work very fast before the fit wears off, and they become terminally bored with the subject. Horace Walpole, mentioned earlier, shows a similar pattern in the compositon of The Castle of Otranto.
The Mysterious Castle
In which we examine the motif of the derelict castle and its bearing on issues of inheritance, identity, fraud, and retribution