understand the radical change in culture that was the hallmark of the Romantic
movement, described by Isaiah Berlin as a
shift in consciousness that broke the backbone of European thought,
it is necessary to contrast it with the Augustan Neoclassicism from which
it originated and which it transformed utterly.
The Neoclassicists were driven by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, determined to a great extent by the mathematical and philosophical works of Newton and Locke. More importantly, they were a generation that perceived the universe as a precisely structured and mechanical place in which every man had his own rigidly defined link in the 'great chain of being'. The obsessive drive for classification and quantification that culminated in the work of Linnaeus translated itself into a popular passion for acquiring collections, especially of living things--including humans, the economy being largely slave-plantation driven. This ultimately paved the way for the work of Darwin. Implicit in this outlook was a belief that all life forms were ordered as a hierarchy, existing in an order unchanging since the creation, with humans at the apex of the pyramid.
This hierarchy was paralleled within society, each person's identity being defined at birth in a rigidly maintained caste system which exacted unreflecting loyalty to all ranks above, the reigning monarch inferior only to God. Any who, by accident or design, changed or attempted to change their status in this hierarchy were punished for their presumption. Milton's Paradise Lost was largely read as an object lesson on the evils of aspiring above one's station, this being Lucifer's sin and the original source of evil. To know one's place in the social order was essential, and one of the major literary themes of the period is that of the finding and affirming of an individual's rightful place--determined more by birth than worth. In practical terms, this belief in divine order and a fixed destiny manifested itself as a drive for rank, power, and privilege.
Not only was movement up or down the social scale discouraged, a number of laws (The Acts of Settlement) were passed to restrict the movement of ordinary individuals from one parish to another. Other legislation, the Acts of Enclosure, had forced small farmers off the land and into the cities, thereby consolidating land in the hands of a few rich or titled individuals. Those farm workers remaining endured an existence of virtual serfdom familiar to us from novels such as Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles. Outdoor manual labour was considered the most demeaning of all occupations, although even trade was considerable insufficiently respectable to gain one access to the best society, that of the aristocracy or landed classes.
If labourers and tradesmen were locked into their diminished roles, the landed aristocracy was almost as circumscribed. Entail laws restricted the disposal of patrimony, especially landed estates, to an eldest son who was traditionally barred from following any profession. Cadet branches of a noble family were reserved for the church or military, the only respectable professions for gentlemen. This kept lands associated with a title intact and concentrated power in the hands of a few aristocratic families. Many of the gothic novels have plots which revolve around the question of inheritance. Frequently the gothic villain is a second son, resentful of his inferior place, who usurps title and property from his elder brother by fratricide if necessary.
This ordered, carefully structured, social hierarchy was deliberately mirrored in all areas of culture. Architecture aped the studied symmetry of the classical style, and gardens were rigidly formal. Painters were preoccupied with artfully arranged landscapes and still lives (natures mortes as they are more revealingly called in French). Drama and literature were expressed in verse based on Greek and Roman models, the preference being for works of dry wit and dispassionate satire.
Nowhere did the stylization
appear more evident than in fashion. Women were painted, padded and embellished
to a degree never seen before or since, particularly in France, where the
contrast between rich and poor was unusually extreme. The most fashionable
wore hooped skirts (which could be wider than their armspans) completely encrusted
with ribbons, bows, and artificial flowers. A woman could take up as much
space as three men and had to enter rooms sideways. There was a craze for
enormous hats or headgear with towering ostrich plumes and both sexes wore
powdered wigs and shoes with heels, impractical even within doors. Makeup
was indispensable even for men and young girls. Faces were painted thickly
with white lead and the effect finished off with unnatural circles of rouge
and adhesive black patches. To avoid any hint of natural colour, (and particularly
to eliminate the gaucherie of blushes), women had themselves regularly bled,
in some cases, daily. Eyes were treated with belladonna drops which widened
the pupils, resulting in a gaze suggestive of besotted intoxication.The effect
was to transform aristocrats into exquisite dolls, like the elaborate clockwork
toys so popular at the time.
The remaining natural world was also being objectified and rendered artificial. Typical of the period was the craze for rocaille, the elaborate decoration of surfaces with shells. These were encrusted over entire rooms in order to manufacture the appearance of a "natural" grotto. Many artificial grottos and caves were created specifically to be so embellished. This recherché attempt to imitate the random patternings of nature gave origin to the word 'grotesque' now used for anything outré, idiosyncratic to the point of ugliness. Not only grottos but follies of all kinds including hermits' cells (sometimes complete with hired hermits) and artificial ruins were the craze. A fantasy dairy was built for the unhappy Marie Antoinette who loved children but whose marriage was unconsummated for seven years. She spent a brief time there before the revolution, playing at being peasants with her childhood friend the Princesse de Lamballe. This did nothing to increase the Queen's popularity with the common people who found nothing charming in her dairymaid fancy dress or artificial Arcadia.
of her association with the queen, the loyal Princess later came to a cruel
fate at the hands of the mob. Spurning the opportunity to preserve her own
life either by denouncing the monarchy or by remaining safely in England,
where she had been sent by the queen with some personal mementos to be smuggled
out of France, de Lamballe was raped, mutilated and decapitated in
the streets of Paris and her severed head paraded on a pike and thrust against
the horrified Marie's prison window. Perhaps the aristocratic mania
for turning themselves into doll-like mannikins made them an easier target
for the mob. Their resemblance to mere automata without feelings or souls
diminished their humanity and emphasized their remoteness from the common
In complete contrast to all this, were the new generation of Romantics, the hippies of their day. They embraced free-thinking, free love and atheism, valued sentiment over logic, and replaced the delight in pure reason and the sense of a static world with a new introspection, an emotional sensibility and a revolt against political authority and social convention of all kinds. They espoused a belief in individual freedoms and the innate goodness of the natural, civilized man, strongly influenced by the works of Rousseau. Physical passion was also exalted and emotions were cultivated, rather than suppressed, sometimes to ridiculous excess. For them, imagination took precedence over the intellect, and passion triumphed over reason. Jane Austen parodies the fashionable addiction to sensation with Marianne Dashwood's transports of emotion in Sense and Sensibility
They also differentiated themselves in their manner of dress, adopting the loose, unconstricting clothing associated with revolutionaries, the women scandalously uncorseted. Both sexes wore their own hair rather than the formal braided, curled and powdered wigs previously typical. Although an early vogue favoured an extreme "crop" like that imposed on the victims of the revolution to ready them for the guillotine, the trend was for long, loose, natural hair.
Not only did the Romantics categorically reject artificiality of person, they had an unprecedented reverence approaching a kind of mysticism for the power of Nature, particularly at its most terrifying. This appreciation was called the "sublime" and exalted into a new philosophy of sensibility codified by Burke in his Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a book which profoundly influenced the aesthetic tastes of the era. Originally this was given expression in landscape painting, previously dismissed as a third-rate taste. Landscapes and scenic views were now valued for their artistic value. A landscape worth painting was 'picturesque' and the most relished of all were the untamed vistas, inimical to man, of cataract and precipice. A popular pastime was to take day trips to selected vistas where one would stand about imagining the views as paintings. To facilitate this, tinted glass discs could be used to view the landscapes, these would flatten out the perspective and tint the view as if it had been varnished. A colour change could also mimic the effect of light at certain times of day, or under certain weather conditions.
Equally important, however,
the Romantics struggled against the concept of a fixed and finite identity,
rejecting an immutable place in the great chain. This will be important in
terms of plot, as we will see later. The new egalitarianism found merit in
the previously overlooked and unappreciated lower classes and aligned itself
politically with radicals, reformers and revolutionaries. Folklore and fairy
tales, once rejected as ignorant lower class superstition, were now collected
and admired, made respectable by scholars such as the Brothers Grimm.
Blue Beard, Beauty and the Beast,
and other classic stories were made available in English translation. These
featured aristocratic tyrants, sado-erotic monsters in shape or spirit persecuting
young and unprotected maidens. Stories featuring dark forests, cast off, or
orphaned children, cannibalistic ogres, locked rooms and supernaturally bloody
keys clearly had their influence on the plots and ambiance of the gothic novel.
This new egalitarianism became one of the driving forces behind the American
and, more particularly, the French revolutions. Whether Louis XVI and
Marie Antoinette were to be blamed for the latter is a just question.
Much of the damage was done by the self-aggrandizing Louis XIV, whose
frequent wars of expansion had bankrupted the nation and so impoverished the
common people that few of them ever owned a pair of shoes and many were literally
In England, radicals looked forward to a restructuring of their own social hierarchy, but the possibility of a collapse into complete anarchy was not impossible and gave rise to alarm. The established order, represented by the aristocracy, had been put to trial and found to be corrupt and decayed. It was no secret that the royal families of Europe were given to hereditary madness exacerbated by inbreeding, this included at least three monarchs relevant to the period we are discussing, George III of England, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and Christian VII of Denmark.
When the Bastille was
stormed and its political prisoners triumphantly set free, it was seen by
the Romantics as a triumph over a lingering, disgraced feudal tradition associated
with injustice and insanity. Their swift adoption of revolutionary dress and
impassioned pleas for a classless society shook an already fragile British
monarchy which had not forgotten the regicide of Charles I after a
bloody civil war. However, the coming of the Terror, with its butchery in
the streets and violation and slaughter in church and convent, was a violent
shock to the idealistic students of the new morality. In the gothic there
seems to be a certain ambivalent disappointment that, after all, nothing much
changed at home. The sado-erotic extravagance of the plots was seen by many
as a natural result of the excesses of the revolution which had numbed the
senses of the general populace to such an extent that authors were obliged
to call upon the aid of hell itself,
as de Sade, wrote, in order to provoke the jaded readers' interest.
De Sade was a great admirer of The Monk,
written by 19-year old Matthew Lewis at feverish
speed over a period of a mere ten weeks. Lewis had traveled to France
and Germany becoming familiar with the wealth of French works of "claustral"
literature then popular which he combined with the German gothic tradition
which featured supernatural encounters. It's likely he had also read de
Sade's first novel, Justine,
as well. The Monk had it all: black
magic, fratricide, matricide, incest, rape, the spectre of a bleeding nun,
entombment and dismemberment. It was immensely popular and scandalous, of
course. It was also extremely influential-an erotic exposition of what might
lie hidden in the depths of tombs, dungeons, labyrinths when repressed desire
breaks down the barricades of convent and convention.
Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental. Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic. Darren Felty
Nature vs. Artifice
The French ladies did not strike him as handsome; they looked as he said like dolls, all eyes and rouge; and rouge, as he thought, very unbecomingly put on, in one frightful red patch or plaster, high upon the cheek, without any pretence to the imitation of natural colour.
'Eh fi donc!' said the abbé, 'what you call the natural colour, that would be rouge coquette, which no woman of quality can permit herself.'
'No, Dieu merci,' said the actress, 'that is for us: 'tis very fair we should have some advantages in the competition, they have so many-by birth-if not by nature.'
M de Connal explained to Ormond that the frightful red patch which offended his eye, was the mark of a woman of quality: 'women only of a certain rank have the privilege of wearing their rouge in that manner-your eye will soon grow accustomed to it, and you will like it as a sign of rank and fashion.' Ormond
The glorious and unbounded light fell on an inclosure of stiff parterres, cropped myrtles and orange-trees in tubs, and quadrangular ponds, and bowers of trellis-work, and nature tortured a thousand ways, and indignant and repulsive under her tortures every way .She lingered at that casement till she imagined that the clipped and artificially straitened treillage of the garden was the luxuriant and undulating foliage of the trees of her paradise isle This delusion would soon cease. The stiff and stern monotony of the parterre, where even the productions of nature held their place as if under the constraint of duty, forced the conviction of its unnatural regularity on her eye and soul, and she turned to heaven for relief. Melmoth the Wanderer
The French Revolution
The free loose which had been given to all the passions and energies of the human mind in the great struggle of that period together with the constant spectacle of such astounding vicissitudes as were passing, almost daily, on the theatre of the world, had created in all minds, and in every walk of intellect, a taste for strong excitement, which the stimulants supplied from ordinary sources were insufficient to gratify. Thomas More
Above all, my dear Emily, said he, do not indulge in the pride of fine feeling, the romantic error of amiable minds. Those, who really possess sensibility, ought early to be taught that it is a dangerous quality, which is continually extracting the excess of misery, or delight, from every surrounding circumstance. And, since, in our passage through this world, painful circumstances occur more frequently than pleasing ones, and since our sense of evil is, I fear, more acute than our sense of good, we become the victims of our feeling, unless we can in some degree command them. Mysteries of Udolpho
Romanticism and Revolution
The historical context of the gothic novel