chapter  4
19 Pages

Gothic Writing in the 1790s

The 1790s can be called the decade of Gothic fiction. It was the period when the greatest number of Gothic works were produced and consumed. Terror was the order of the day. Gothic stories littered literary magazines, three-and four-volume novels filled the shelves of circulating libraries and, in their cheap card covers, found their way into servants’ quarters as well as drawing rooms. Though the startling Gothic machinery of The Castle of Otranto was set to work in every text, there were significant shifts in emphasis. These tended to follow the lines laid down by Reeve and Lee in their framing of the past in terms of a rational and moral present. Eighteenth-century values were never far from the surface in these tales of other times. Terror, moreover, had an over-whelming political significance in the period. The decade of the French Revolution saw the most violent of challenges to monarchical order. In Britain the Revolution and the political radicalism it inspired were represented as a tide of destruction threatening the complete dissolution of the social order. In Gothic images of violence and excessive passion, in villainous threats to proper domestic structures, there is a significant overlap in literary and political metaphors of fear and anxiety: metaphors that imply how much a culture, like the heroine and the family, sensed itself to be under attack both from within, in the dissemination of radical ideas, and from without, in the shape of revolutionary mobs across the Channel.