Before Pride and Prejudice could create an idyllic wonderland of Georgian Society, before Charles Dickens could address the poverty and hypocrisy of London life, before Matthew Lewis could creep us all out with The Monk (honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend you read it) Walpole created The Gothic, a literature movement which would go on to shape countless genres, books and authors, with elements and tropes undisputable and almost undefinable.
I mean, I love Gothic Fiction, but have you ever tried to look up a definition?
Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled “A Gothic Story” – Wikipedia.
Seems a bit of an oxymoron – how can Gothic Fiction be a subgenre if the origin is attributed to a book over two hundred and fifty years old? I love Gothic Fiction. It’s spooky and moody, and full of creepy monsters. And it’s not super obvious because it was created during a time of great change.
That said, all the great Literature movements were.
In April 1721, Sir Robert Walpole became the first prime minister – sort of. He was made chancellor of the exchequer, and given 10 Downing street, and his responsibilities were not dissimilar to the responsibilities our current prime minister has (when he remembers… *cough cough*). This continues, no matter his failures, wars with the Spanish, and other messes, right up until 1742 when Walpole resigns as prime minister. He would die three years later.
His son, Horace, aforementioned creator of The Gothic, was Eton and Cambridge educated – though he never completed his degree. He started hanging out (and this is the part where it should be super clear this isn’t a real essay) with Conyers Middleton – a clergyman against superstition and bigotry. Noteworthy due to its rarity. H Walpole also became a politician, but wasn’t as committed to it as his father, choosing instead to focus on his writing, and his beloved palace – Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.
If you haven’t been – I’d definitely recommend it.
You see that bit of building which isn’t painted bright white? That’s where I studied Gothic Fiction. In the home turf of the creator. In a cute little lecture room with wallpaper which had about six different greens in it, and spooky paneling and a genuine real hidden door which popped open when I leaned on it. It was just a cupboard full of paper towels, but it was still cool. It created a new trend for architecture and became the template for spooky Ghost castles.
Anyway, back to Gothic Fiction. Travel had become a cosmopolitan luxury. People were traveling further, experiencing more than ever and writing all about it. And everything that was ‘other’ and ‘alien’ was terrifying. And literature, being the easiest and most accessible sponge, allowed the world to see without ever leaving their homes. Walpole had been all over France and Italy. It took him years to visit places it can take us two hours to fly to. (Sixteen if you’re flying Sleazy jet).
Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764. The second in a long list of books he’d write developing his Gothic tropes. And thus an era was born.