Kate Riordan on Gothic Literature
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but when I set out to write my latest book, The Shadow Hour, I didn’t really intend it to be a gothic novel. Of course, now that it’s finished, it’s easy to see that I’ve worked in more than a few gothic touches. And although it wasn’t quite conscious, I’m not exactly surprised. Gothic stories have always lured me in and then hung on fast, taking up permanent residence in my memory and affections. Many of my absolute favourite books are gothic – from the explicitly so (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Woman in Black) to those that simply weave in some of the genre’s most effective flourishes (Rebecca and The Secret Garden).
I suppose I should have known I had set off down the dark and winding path of gothic when I decided to write a book about governesses. One of the key elements of gothic fiction is isolation. This is usually conveyed by setting (so important in gothic fiction it becomes a character in its own right): just think of Dracula’s remote castle, or the house in The Woman in Black, cut off at high tide by the treacherous, carriage-swallowing Eel Marsh. But when Charlotte Brönte wrote about a governess who ends up in a forbidding pile on the edge of an empty moor, she upped the ante with a double dose of isolation: not only geographical but social. Governesses, as Brönte knew only too well from her own time in the job, occupied one of the loneliest positions in a rigidly stratified society: stuck in limbo between servant and master.
The roots of gothic literature are tangled and stretch further back in history than the Victorians. Horace Walpole’s archetypal gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764. These early gothic books, populated by distressed damsels and cruel villains, were more simplistic than their Victorian counterparts that have arguably aged so much better – and were being parodied as early as the end of the eighteenth century by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. Nevertheless, all gothic stories are products of their times – and the genre’s spells of popularity correlate neatly with epochs of great change. Seismic shifts in how society was arranged characterised the second half of the eighteenth century, from the French Revolution and the expansion of the middle classes to the emptying of the countryside as people flocked to the city.
A century on, with the twentieth century approaching at a clip, people were just as uncertain about what the future might hold as generations before and so, hey presto!, gothic fiction rose again, this time taking on a more sophisticated form. Read chiefly by the wives of the now-established middle classes, this update took gothic’s most evocative components and dropped them into contemporary settings. Dracula is pretty scary when he’s far away in his medieval Transylvanian castle, but he’s much more deliciously and viscerally terrifying once he makes for modern Whitby in his coffin.
But while these stories promised thrills and scares a-plenty for the Victorian housewife curled up by the fire, they were always manageably frightening – and, as such, provided some light relief from the very real upheaval that their husbands were creating outside. Much closer to home, they also offered respite from the repression of being a Victorian wife and mother, for whom the pressure of being an irreproachable ‘angel of the hearth’ could be crushing. In a time when the demands of modesty famously extended to piano legs, it’s not difficult to see how titillating a novel like Dracula might have been, even unconsciously, thanks to all those bodily fluids and phallic wooden stakes. Of course, vampires have always appealed to women who are not supposed to want sex – just look at all those adolescent abstainers who have devoured Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books.
Blood is not only present in gothic literature in a literal, gory sense. The fear of tainted blood is daubed large and lurid in Jane Eyre when we meet Bertha Rochester, whose madness has been passed down the female line, not unlike Queen Victoria passing on the haemophiliac gene that needed to be kept top secret in the same period. Blood, madness and sexuality were inextricably linked in an era when syphilis was rife – no wonder all are so prevalent in gothic fiction.
During a period when people were beginning to seriously question their religious beliefs for the first time, science (not least medicine) didn’t yet have all the answers. Pseudo-science stepped into this breach – in literature most overtly in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein - and so did the supernatural. Religion – so wrapped up in convention, respectability and wearing your best for Sunday services – lacked any real meaning for many. For huge numbers of Victorians, the answer to this (and Darwinism) was spiritualism, a juggernaut of a fad whose followers thought they could talk to the dead. This perfectly complemented gothic fiction, whose pages are crammed with strange noises, atmospheres and apparitions that might or might not be the product of an hysterical female mind.
My own book isn’t truly gothic, not least because it doesn’t seek to scare its reader. But it does have a first-person narrator in Grace, an isolated house on a hill, and a conflict between the spiritual and the rational – with Grace’s grandmother’s psychic ability, comets in the sky and Brunel’s engineering feats all occupying the same fictional landscape. I also hope it has something of the evocative, brooding atmosphere that so characterises gothic fiction.
But while I’m clearly a great big nostalgic fan of classic Victorian gothic, I also think the staples of the genre remain relevant, acting as a safe and immersive break from anxiety and repression in any era. After all, readers of fiction are still primarily women, and women still do most of the care-giving at home, whether it’s now for ageing parents as well as children. Out in the wider world, another century of scientific progress hasn’t stopped the rise of religious beliefs dating from medieval times. Given that we still don’t know what the future will bring, perhaps there’ll always be something comforting about a big old house where things go bump in the night.