Understand the History

The gothic novel

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Frankenstein is an innovative gothic novel.

The Gothic novel in Britain:

  • Type of romance very popular from the 1760s onwards until the 1820s
  • Gothic fiction is a subgenre of part of the British Romantic movement in literature
  • One precursor in poetry: the so-called “graveyard school” of poets in the 1740s
  • Frankenstein shows some, but not all elements of the typical Gothic novel.
  • General characteristics of Gothic fiction: interest in ruined, mysterious, medieval-looking castles brought about the Gothic revival in architecture (renewed and romantic interest in the medieval)
  • From Penguin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, entry on the Gothic novel/fiction: “Most Gothic novels are tales of mystery and horror, intended to chill the spine and curdle the blood. They contain a strong element of the supernatural and have all or most of the familiar topography, sites, props, presences and happenings: wild and desolate landscapes, dark forests, ruined abbeys, feudal halls and medieval castles with dungeons, secret passages, winding stairways, […] sliding panels and torture chambers; monstrous apparitions and curses; a stupefying atmosphere of doom and gloom; heroes and heroines in the direst of imaginable straits; wicked tyrants, malevolent witches, demonic powers of unspeakably hideous aspect, and a proper complement of spooky effects and clanking specters . . .”
  • Questionable reputation of the Gothic novel in Britain even at the time when it was most popular: seen as a “low” mass genre, very popular and often badly written. Once again, from Penguin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory: “By the turn of the 18th c. dozens of Gothic novels and tales (many of them hackwork sunk without trace except in the vaults of the major libraries) were being published.       The demand for cheap, sensational literature was high. Publishers, scenting large profits, exerted themselves […] So did the authors of such stories; they wrote fast.”
  • By the 1820s, the heyday of the genre in Britain was past; critics and authors made fun of the genre and satirized it. Examples: Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey or Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, both published in 1818 (when Mary Shelley was just finishing Frankenstein). Many voices in British literature and culture started to express the need for a more sophisticated, serious kind of literature.
  • Meanwhile, the gothic genre became popular in America—e.g. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) and lasted for a while there; it’s also still an active genre today, although minor—has had influence on evolution of the ghost story and the horror story.

Typical examples of the “pure” British gothic novel:

  • Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764)
  • Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Read another brief overview of the characteristic features and the development gothic novel as a literary genre within Romanticism here.

Galvanism

Late 18th-century experiments with electricity, named after Italian anatomist Luigi Galvani. Precursor science to electrophysiology, state of the art the time Mary Shelley wrote her novel.

 A_Galvanised_Corpse

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