Those of you with long memories (or a fondness for exploring the dusty archives of this blog) may recall me from such Sheffield Gothic Blog Posts as that one about the poet nobody had ever heard of, that other one about not really getting H.P. Lovecraft and that first one no one ever read. I’ve not been around as much (or, indeed, at all) since passing on the reigns to Carly, Kathleen and Lauren, but – given the excellent job they've done – I’ll forgive folks for not really missing me.
I’m also unable to make the great looking Re-imagining the Gothic event they’ve organised for this coming Saturday (I know, right? What kind of a literary gawth do I think I am?). But I have been following the series of blogs leading up to it here and I thought… well, why not throw a little something in?
So here goes.
What I’ve found most interesting about the upcoming event (and the accompanying blog series) is the opportunity it gives us to reflect on the different meanings the Gothic has taken on across its long and varied cultural history. This is hardly surprising: it’s the thing we’re supposed to find interesting about the event and blog because it is, in fact, what the event and blog are about.
Still, I can safely speak without the traditional academic hyperbole when I say that the symposium programme feels like it genuinely does invite us to reimagine the Gothic and to think about some of the ways in which it has been, is being, or can be re-imagined.
This scratches a particular itch for me, because my own research is primarily focused on what, for want of a better term (and with the English Lit scholar’s fondness for neologisms) we might call pre-imagining the Gothic.
I work primarily on the way eighteenth-century travel writing locates the Gothic, not just geographically, but culturally, as a shared component of the same print culture. I’ll spare you the elevator pitch, but a big part of this involves looking at the ways in which popular travel writers dealt with the kinds of materials that would go on to become pivotal components of the Gothic imagination: how they ‘pre-imagined’ the Gothic, if you will.
So, what did eighteenth-century travellers do when faced with ‘Gothic’ ruins?
They smacked them with a hammer.
|"Yeah, that's right... with a hammer. Got a problem with that?"|
Well, they didn’t literally smack them with a hammer. At least, I’ve never found any admitting as much. But they did suggest it. Or, rather, one traveller in particular did: the man, the legend: William Gilpin.
It’s my genuine conviction that William Gilpin, an unassuming retired schoolmaster and clergyman from the New Forest, did more to establish the Gothic within modern popular culture than anyone else before or since.
Throughout the 1770s, whilst Horace Walpole was thinking the Gothic was so last decade and Ann Radcliffe was busy being 10 years old or so, Gilpin was touring the country, making sketches and recording his thoughts in diaries. During the 1780s, he began publishing them, to great success.
In a series of sumptuously illustrated Observations upon Several Parts of Great Britain, Gilpin gave the eighteenth-century its first coffee table books; coffee-table books littered with aquatint illustrations and aesthetic musings upon the ruins of castles and abbeys. This, for me, was when the Gothic truly entered popular print culture.
But how does Gilpin ‘pre-imagine’ the Gothic? Not particularly Gothically, as it happens.
You see, those ruins may be the relics of internecine warfare, Catholicism and suchlike – the perfect building blocks for Gothic Lego – but for Gilpin and his readers they also embody the process by which those elements of Britain’s history have been consigned to, well, history: merely ‘adorning the country they once defended’.
That’s why you can smack them with hammers.
For Gilpin, the ‘Gothic’ ruin isn’t remarkable for its historical or political content. Instead it serves as a locus for the Picturesque: the aesthetic category Gilpin developed in his writings and which he encouraged his readers and followers to pursue.
Put simply (and Gilpin himself rarely put it in particularly complex terms) to be Picturesque is to be capable of being reproduced in the manner of a picture: bounded and controlled by the judgement and craft of the onlooker as traveller and artist. Gilpin’s tour books accordingly offer a vocabulary for identifying and manipulating the proper components of a scene, framing them within front, rear, and side ‘screens’.
|"View of a Ruined Castle over a Gorge" by an imitator of William Gilpin (1798)|
So, whilst Gilpin’s eye ‘rests with delight on the shattered arches of a Gothic ruin’, such objects conjure no particular anxiety. Instead they exist to be managed and manipulated within his aesthetic. This is especially visible in Gilpin’s first travelogue, the Observations Upon the River Wye (1782).
Here, many years before Wordsworth, he muses upon the ruins of Tintern Abbey (like so many other things, Gilpin was Tintern before it was cool). The Abbey appeals to Gilpin precisely because it doesn’t evoke any anxieties. Instead it seems almost pre-formed as a Picturesque composition, bounded within a natural frame:
It occupies a gentle eminence in the middle of a circular valley, beautifully screened on all sides by woody hills.
This is not Udolpho, frowning at the onlooker who ‘dares invade its solitary reign’. Gilpin’s Tintern is a ‘Gothic pile’, but so subordinate to the traveller’s gaze that, rather than standing in sublime awe of it, he begins pondering Picturesque improvements:
A number of gabel-ends hurt the eye with their regularity; and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used . . . might be of service in fracturing some of them.
It’s hard to imagine one of Radcliffe’s heroines being so pragmatic in their response to Gothic sites, but then that’s the point. Gilpin is interesting because he lets us so the way in which these materials were pre-imagined, before their reworking in more famous Gothic novels.
Radcliffe was familiar with Gilpin and is indebted to him at various points in her work (including Udolpho). Yet her characteristic Gothic sites, which frown back at the viewer and house precisely the kinds of revenant histories Gilpin left out of them, are a tour de force in contesting and rejecting his aesthetic.
Understanding how the Gothic was pre-imagined in the eighteenth-century helps us see how rapid – and how intriguing – its re-imagining was.
Andrews, Malcolm (1989), The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Charlesworth, Michael (1994), ‘The ruined abbey: picturesque and gothic values’, in S. Copley and P. Garside (eds.), The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics Since 1770, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 62-80.
Gilpin, William, (1782), Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770, London: R. Blamire.
Townshend, Dale, (2014), ‘Ruins, romance and the rise of gothic tourism: the case of Netley Abbey, 1750-1830’, Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, 37:3, 377-394.
Mark Bennett is polishing up his PhD at the University of Sheffield, on Gothic and Travel-Writing. He misses writing the funny bits in these author blurbs. He is also much missed by the GRG!