Past and Present

Gothic is a mode of fiction that is always concerned with the past and frequently resurrects it in the most literal fashion. The novels tend to be set in a bygone age of Medieval chivalry, a past that is delineated as barbaric but also with a nostalgia for a lost era of romance. The Castle of Otranto purports to be an antique document printed first in 1529, establishing an important device for Gothic fiction: that of presenting the novel as an authentic historical work, and thus distancing the author from his fiction and the reader from the immediate concerns of the narrative. Many critics see the Gothic as essentially conservative, and the return of the past to haunt the present in the novels counteracts the contemporaneous mood of enlightenment and progression.

Even within the life span of a single character, there is often a violent contrast between past and present. For example, Emily St Aubert in Udolpho involves a radical disjunction between her sentimental and innocent childhood and an awful Gothic present, and similar developments are seen in the careers of Antonia in The Monk and Victor Frankenstein. Frequently, the characters demonstrate a sort of arrested development or cling to their childhood so that they experience a circular repetition rather than the traditional Bildungsroman development. This forms an element of the mind of Vathek - a spoilt child at heart - and the nostalgic Frankenstein, and can be observed in its most extreme form in Oscar Wilde's later Gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey.

However, despite the dependency on secrets from the past (especially those of ancient families - see Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher") and historical settings, the Gothic is rooted in the concerns of the present. It was one of the first forms of truly popular (and often populist literature), and its relationship to the middle-class that wrote and consumed it was complex. Gothic fiction frequently delineates a ruptured society, in which sexual and domestic relationships are experiencing shifts and there is anxiety about scientific progress and political revolution. The desires of aristocratic Gothic villains threaten the bourgeois concerns for sentimental domestic harmony and steady achievement, most frighteningly in the incestuous desires that threaten the complete breakdown of decency and normality. The fear tends to derive from that which lies within us and that we cannot escape: our own family origins, sexual desires, or both.

The Gothic is set in a world of aristocratic traditions and noble characters, but was mainly consumed by the ever-increasing middle classes, and is hence much concerned with their moral and social norms. In this light, it is interesting to note that the aristocratic milieu is portrayed as corrupt, particularly in terms of the dangerous desires of Gothic villains, and could express an anxiety about the aristocratic past from which the majority of readers and authors were alienated. Radcliffe's novels show a keen concern for contemporaneous class conflicts, and her transfer of property to non-aristocratic lines and reliance on the bourgeois ideal of marriage, as perceived by Maggie Kilgour:

"Udolpho... offers an idealised myth about the origins of the middle class, represented as emerging in continuity with as well as antagonism against an older aristocratic order which is repaired and restored, rather than eradicated. It shows a reformation, in which a Catholic past produces a world of Protestant values, and parental government is succeeded by self-government."

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