Haunted Castles versus Small Town Romance

Radcliffe and Austen

In 1765, Horace Walpole published the Castle of Otranto and, in doing so, instigated the vogue in so- called ‘Gothic’ writing. It was a bit brief and insubstantial to be called a novel, but it successors would be longer, subtler and more complex. The Gothic was a fundamentally populist, even artless, form. Beckford’s Vathek (translated from French into English in 1786) was something of a detour as it is the only English ‘oriental’ tale of note apart from Rasselas. Its combination of extremely black humour, settings in imaginatively otherworldly foreign places, and Gothic towers places it in the transitional phase of English fiction, between the realistic novel and the flights of imaginative fancy that were to come. The latter type, again largely Gothic, was to be found in the writings of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and, later, Mary Shelley.

Novels had previously been, to a great extent, the playing out of possibilities and were now to become for an exciting period the playing out of improbabilities. Simultaneously with the great days of Gothic fiction, of castles, ragged landscapes and mystery in strange lands, and a public fascination with the incest, devilry and horror of Lewis’s The Monk (1796) came a backlash that would shape novel writing for the entire 19th century. That backlash came in human form and with the name Jane Austen. From the 1790s onwards Austen wrote tales of small town uneventfulness, tending to explore character rather than event. Hers was a non-judgemental but sensitive eye for detail. Northanger Abbey (published 1818 but written much earlier), probably her first completed extant novel directly ridiculed Ann Radcliffe’s popular Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Austen’s other famous novels such as Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) left the ‘sublime’ foreign locations and landscapes of Radcliffe behind, and were complex and often extremely amusing and subtle investigations of English manners and society.

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