Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Gothic Bible: In the beginning there was ‘A Gothic Story’




In the beginning, there was ‘A Gothic Story,’ and it was…entertaining, to say the least. Or, to quote a recent review of this Eighteenth Century Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, its ‘not “good,” exactly […] If you’re not engrossed, you may be, at least, instructively perplexed.’[i] 

(Original cover page for The Castle of Otranto (left) and cover page of the third edition (right) with the added subtitle of 'A Gothic Story)
First published in 1764, this novel typically leaves its readers baffled, and many critics will briefly cite it as the origin of the Gothic genre, before swiftly moving on to focus on the more celebrated Gothic novels that followed it, such as the works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. For example, David Punter writes that:

To put it simply […] the works of Radcliffe and Lewis are dark books, heavy books, where Otranto is light and airy, a fairy-tale rather than a nightmare, even when it strives for the horrific. What is vital about Otranto, though, is the fact that it was the earliest and most important manifestation of the late eighteenth-century revival of romance.[ii]

However odd and baffling, and light and airy The Castle of Otranto is, this Gothic manifestation is a beginning nonetheless. Walpole’s Gothic story sparked a mass of intrigue and curiosity when in was published and which continues to this day, due in part to the novel’s deceptive publication history. This strange novel was actually written by the MP Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, but he did not declare his authorship until the second edition. The first edition actually purported to be a genuine translation of a 16th Century Italian monk, Onuphrio Muralto, which had been recently discovered in the library of ‘an ancient Catholic family in the north of England’ and translated for the British public to devour.[iii]

(Strawberry Hill and contemporary art sculpture by Laura Ford, 2015)
Confessing his deception in the second edition, Walpole also attaches the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’ to his work, and thus coins the name of the genre. Through his narrative, Walpole also laid out many of the foundations of the Gothic that have since proved integral parts of the genre. Creating the castle of Otranto, and influenced by his own Gothic villa in Twickenham ‘Strawberry Hill,’ Walpole ensured his fictional castle was foundationally linked to a church as he writes:

Lift up the door, said the princess. The stranger obeyed; and beneath appeared some stone steps descending into a vault totally dark. We must go down here, said Isabella: follow me; dark and dismal as it is, we cannot miss our way; it leads directly to the church of saint Nicholas.[iv]

Thus, in its very foundations, Walpole links the Gothic genre with religion. The secret passageway that connects his fictional castle to the church of saint Nicholas functions as a foundational connection that links the Gothic and religion. The fictional deceit originally employed to first publish the novel locates the narrative in both the library of a religious family, but more importantly identifies it as a genuine narrative written by an Italian monk. And, it is perhaps a coincidence that the oldest Roman Catholic University in England, St Mary’s, now adjoins Strawberry Hill, although this connection nonetheless reaffirms the foundational link between the Gothic and religion. 

This Special Gothic Bible blog series will be devoted to exploring the foundational links and ties between religion, the Bible, and theologies and the Gothic. Although the secret passageways may appear ‘dark and dismal,’ they are definitely worth exploring; following Isabella through this secret passageway, you never know what you might uncover, or even who might be lurking here.


Stay tuned for our next instalment in the Gothic Bible blog series, where we will start to explore some of these secret passageways. If you would like to contribute to this series, or would like to get involved with the Gothic Bible project, please email us at: gothicbible@sheffield.ac.uk.


Mary 'Slayer' Going is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring depictions of Judaism and Jewish characters in late-eighteenth and early- nineteenth century literature, and co-director of the Gothic Bible Project. She is interested in depictions of religion within Gothic literature of all periods, with a particular soft spot for vampires. Mary is also Sheffield Gothic's current Vampire Slayer and spends her free time fighting evil. 


[i] <http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/01/22/a-mountain-of-sable-plumes>
[ii] David Punter, The Literature of Terror, (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd, 1996), p. 44
[iii] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 5.
[iv] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 30.

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