Books Interviews

The Gothic imagination: notes from a talk with Professor Nick Groom

Editor’s note: Katariina Kottonen’s excellent write-up of a talk between Peter Meinertzhagen and Professor Nick Groom from 2017 was originally published on Chance and Physics.

The description goes as such: a sleeping woman is draped over the end of a bed with her head hanging down. An incubus is crouched upon her stomach. From the curtains in the background emerges a horse’s head with glowing eyes. The setting is rich in colour – dark reds, yellows and ochres – while the dreaming figure is brilliantly white. The painting is titled The Nightmare, but its explicit eroticism suggests other, more sensual interpretations.

When Henry Fuseli presented his work to the public in 1782, the patrons of the Royal Academy were fascinated and horrified. The picture, extremely popular at the time, has had a lasting cultural influence, having become a symbol of the Gothic: of the darkness and danger lurking in the shadows and one’s own mind, of the supernatural and obscure, of the heightened emotion and the sublime. Fascination and horror are, after all, intrinsic to the Gothic imagination.

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On Wednesday night Blackwell’s presented Professor Nick Groom in conversation with Peter Meinertzhagen from The Oxford Writing Circle. The topic of the conversation was the Gothic and its literary manifestations in particular, as represented in British and, later, American culture. Groom is an expert on the subject, being Chair in English at the University of Exeter and the author of The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (2012) published by the Oxford University Press. Another OUP publication, the classic Gothic novel The Italian (1797) written by Ann Radcliffe and edited by Professor Groom, will be released later this month, although advance copies were available at the event. As was wine, both courtesy of OUP.

Meinertzhagen introduced Groom as ‘the Prof of Goth’. Groom opened the talk with a reminiscence: ‘I was here as an undergraduate and also as a postgraduate student. In between the two, I had an unsuccessful career as a rock musician.’ That rather set the tone of the evening.

The notes below are based on the talk, but some of the ideas and thoughts are external to it and come from my previous studies. The structure is somewhat chronological as far as the topic goes, and is largely predetermined by the questions Peter Meinertzhagen asked Professor Nick Groom.

Event image for Nick Groom at Blackwell's
The Gothic with Professor Nick Groom. February 25, 2017. The Oxford Writing Circle / Blackwell’s, Oxford

Early Gothic

My own interest in the Gothic had been mild until I ended up attending a proseminar on the Gothic novel and, subsequently, writing my Bachelor’s thesis on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While Nick Groom’s talk contained little new information, it felt like visiting an old friend and conversing in the outdated slang of your youth: ‘Oh yes, the sublime! The picturesque!’ Also, given that my undergraduate studies had been at the University of Helsinki, a very British view of the Gothic provided a new angle.

Nick Groom presented the Gothic as a politically charged movement intimately intertwined with the history of the British Isles and, especially, England. Taking its name from the Germanic tribes that fought the Roman Empire, the Gothic has been a centuries-long exploration of the questions of power, all the way up to the present day and the Gothic subculture. According to Groom, the movement had appeared not as a kind of escapism suggested by the thrills and sensationalism typical for the Gothic literature, but rather as a method of addressing those matters you could not speak of directly: liberty, self-determination, what we are as humans and how we function as a society.

I have used the word ‘movement’ twice here, but that is not an entirely accurate term as it pre-supposes collaboration and common goals, while the Gothic authors did not self-identify as such and were given the title in retrospect. One could argue that Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1602) qualifies as Gothic, being a deeply political play presented as a treatment of the supernatural. The tragedy certainly has enough macabre in it: the Ghost, the skull of a deceased court fool, inconsolable Ophelia who loses her mind and drowns, and so on.

The Play Scene in Hamlet by Edward Austin Abbey
The Play Scene in Hamlet (1897), Edward Austin Abbey. In Abbey’s painting the royal family are watching the play performed at Hamlet’s insistence. The Prince is sitting on the wolfskins with Ophelia, while the King and Queen observe from their thrones.

Indeed, as stated by Nick Groom, ‘Shakespeare was held up in the 18th century as a Gothic writer. He was largely seen as Gothic because he was not Classical.’ William Shakespeare’s plays often do not abide by the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and space, which must have qualified the playwright as a barbarian.

Shakespeare aside, it is customary to regard The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole as the first Gothic story – done all the easier for the author introducing it as one. By that point the ‘political context of the Gothic’ had been around for about a century. Walpole himself was a Whig politician and, according to Groom, his ‘mediaevalist’ writing was an attempt to further establish Britain as an independent state with a history that has more to do with the barbarian tribes than with Rome. Rejecting the Classical narrative for the Gothic one, Walpole was making a statement about cultural dependence. England of the 17th and 18th centuries was searching for a progressive, liberal paradigm and ‘examples of a native culture’. Both were found in the Gothic.

Strawberry Hill House
Strawberry Hill House, the ‘little Gothic castle’ planned and built by Horace Walpole in 1749-1776. It is the first example of the Gothic Revival, the architectural movement that would later produce the Palace of Westminster (1840-1870). Gothic architecture, mediaeval cathedrals and castles have been incredibly prominent in Gothic literature and film, to the point where horror as a genre has become associated with that architectural style.

Literary canon & additions

The Castle of Otranto opens the canon of the Gothic novel, the list that normally also includes The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796), books by Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) – among many others. In his answers, Nick Groom touched upon some of those titles, claiming, for instance, that both Lewis and Radcliffe were writing in response to the French Revolution. For Lewis, it was in the topics of torture, death, and the collapse of the society that could only be addressed through the supernatural. For Radcliffe, it was in reclaiming the word ‘terror’ that had become synonymous to the revolutionary Terreur. The author used ‘terror’ when describing a transformative, elevating emotion, the sublime, and ‘horror’, in the sense of destruction and annihilation, redirecting the meanings.

Universally, the Gothic ‘is the way of how you make sense of what is going on around you’, one that employs ‘demons and torture and depravity that we enjoy so much’. For instance, Dracula, with its fantastic elements, is very much a manifestation of the Protestant fears of Catholic superstition, as well as a means of conquering those fears.

Although the Gothic has always been rooted in the past, it should be acknowledged that the canon novels often employ the most modern and advanced technology. That is the premise of Frankenstein, that is the setting of Dracula, with its Winchester rifles and blood transfusion. This approach is also a precursor of a whole new genre: science fiction. Similarly to sci-fi, Gothic novels often qualify as ‘very good thought experiments’ and thus continue to speak to us. Transplants and genetic engineering are both introduced in Frankenstein, and the concept of co-habitation with supernatural creatures is a useful metaphor for dealing with ‘the other’ – one that later will be used in the television series Being Human (2008-2013).

I have found there to be very little humour in the Gothic literature, but Professor Groom claims that ‘irony and playfulness are present if you catch the tone’. That might be true, but Northanger Abbey – see below – is infinitely more amusing than any of the books it parodies.

An extended reading list of Gothic literature, as suggested by Groom, would include the following works:

  • Tom De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)
  • Edgar Allan Poe, poems and tales, including ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839)
  • Algernon Blackwood, Incredible Adventures (1914)
  • H. P. Lovecraft, short stories, including ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (1928)
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
  • Simon Armitage, Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster (2012)
An illustration from the 1794 edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho and a rare portrait of the novel’s author.
An illustration from the 1794 edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho and a rare portrait of the novel’s author.

Mrs Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe was one of the most famous and prolific Gothic authors. It was her works that Catherine Morland was reading in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), a brilliant and amusing novel that makes fun of the genre and its conventions. As Austen, Radcliffe was a professional writer and enjoyed independence provided by her occupation. Yet, although that was an unusual position for a woman, it would be wrong to assume Radcliffe was not a conservative figure. Earning through her writing, at times making more than her husband did (sic!), she was, according to Nick Groom, still ‘very much a Whig’ and ‘has been presented as more radical than she really was’.

The Italian, the last book published by Radcliffe, was one of the prominent topics of the talk, since Professor Groom was also presenting his edition of the novel. Set during the Inquisition times in Italy, the text is ‘about how individuals are oppressed by institutionalised power’ and ‘how one attempts to make one’s way under this kind of scrutiny and oppression’. The concluding sentiment is that of liberation: your body might be imprisoned, but not your mind.

Ann Radcliffe is known as ‘the great explained Gothic author’: ripe with suspense, her plotlines always end up having the most rational explanations. The curtains rustled because of the wind, the host was silent and reclusive because he was suffering from a toothache, the mysterious letter was, actually, a grocery list. When Lewis’s Monk has the Devil himself make an appearance, Radcliffe’s writing is comparatively tame. On the ‘terror – horror – gore’ scale proposed by Stephen King, she rarely goes past the first mark. It is Radcliffe’s inclination to explain everything away, in an almost Scooby-Doo manner, that leaves her books replete with forged mysteries which inspired Jane Austen’s parody.

Female and feminist Gothic

A few of the canon Gothic novels were created by female authors and share certain traits: they tend to be ‘about women being in peril, but also being empowered, often through their own resolution’. This has been seen in opposition to the ‘male Gothic’ that is more action-driven, more sexual, likelier to involve the supernatural.

Zofloya, or The Moor (1806), Oxford World's Classics edition
Zofloya, or The Moor (1806), Oxford World’s Classics edition

When asked about his opinion on the use of those categories, Nick Groom replied that the terms reflect our critical thinking more than they describe the Gothic. There are male authors whose writing would agree with the description of the ‘female Gothic’ – and vice versa. That the ‘queer Gothic’ does not seem to be a category yet shows how behind we are in our reflection. Ultimately, ‘the Gothic is about what it is to be human’ and thus applies to all genders.

Female Gothic authors can be feminist and decidedly not. Charlotte Dacre, writing under the pseudonym of Rosa Matilda, had no sense of sisterhood. In her novels ‘all the women hate each other’, which makes it difficult to incorporate her texts into the female Gothic canon, but also suggests that politics of the time was more diverse than we might like to imagine.

Although the heyday of the Gothic is in the past, the movement never disappeared. Its visual presence has been permanent since the early days of the cinema, exemplified by the silent classics of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) – read Kendall R. Phillips’s article on the birth of horror in seven films. Such diverse works as the Alien series (1979–), Blade Runner (1982), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and films directed by Guillermo del Toro have elements of the Gothic. These pictures continue to explore the familiar issues of the double, the individual versus the society, and of the understanding achieved through heightened emotions. On the fiction side, books like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski confront contemporary societal and political problems, in that way continuing the Gothic tradition. Batman is a Gothic invention, as is Japanese Death Note.

Nosferatu (1922) set the archetype for the representation of the Gothic on the screen

In 2017 the Gothic subculture has a political edge to it. Following the 2007 murder of Sophie Lancaster, a 20-year-old girl who was targeted because she stood out as a goth, there is a wider understanding of ‘otherness’ and the threats attached to that concept. The Sophie Lancaster Foundation has been working to ‘challenge the prejudice and intolerance towards people from alternative subcultures’.

The Gothic had appeared as ‘a political confrontation’, ‘a way of dealing with problems’, an extended thought exercise. It, says Nick Groom, has been a liberal movement from the beginning, stating through its many narratives that history cannot be buried and asking, ‘Are you prepared to have progress at this terrible price?’ For all the terror and horror which are part of the Gothic, it just might be one of the most humane phenomena in arts – which explains its appeal and longevity.

The Gothic Imagination: An Interview with Professor Nick Groom. Norrington Room, Blackwell’s bookshop, Oxford. Heard on March 14th, 2017.

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