The birth of gothic novel at Villa Diodati

Today, June 16, we tell you about the birth of gothic novel. We do it today because on this day in 1816, some of the greatest writers of all time met and had a “contest”. A competition that led to the birth of some of the greatest masterpieces of literature.

What happened on that 16th June 1816?

In June 1816, John William Polidori, an Italian doctor who grew up among Soho expatriates, and Lord Byron, leader of the Romantic movement, resided at Villa Diodati in Cologny near Geneva on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Villa Diodati
Villa Diodati – by Robertgrassi – Private work, pubilc rights, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4463463

The two are visited by poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary and his half-sister Claire Clairmont.

Trapped indoors by the incessant rain of that “year without summer”, Byron invites his guests to each write a “ghost story”. The two main writers and poets, Byron and Shelley, will eventually write nothing. But this competition will give rise to Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, by Mary, and the story The Vampire , first modern story on the lord of the darkness, by Polidori.

You can imagine that, realistically, these texts were not written in a single night but that it took weeks to shape the initial idea in both cases. However, that night was significant and symbolic.

So symbolic that director Ken Russell dedicated a film to that night, shot in a much larger villa than the original: Gothic,  telling that evening imagining the protagonists “high” on opium – which is actually possible.

Frankestein

Mary initially found it very difficult to complete her task, but a succession of readings, encounters and tragic events, including the suicide of her partner’s wife, ultimately inspired her novel: Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus which she completed in the summer of 1817.

The story is known to most. It describes the creation by a Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein, of a living being assembled from parts of dead flesh. “The monster”, who, endowed with sensitivity, takes revenge for having been abandoned by his progenitor and persecuted by society.

Since its publication, Frankenstein has never ceased to elicit various adaptations. Also because it is a masterpiece; who has not read it please make up immediately!

The Vampire

John William Polidori’s The Vampire recounts the misadventures of Aubrey, a wealthy English orphan, after his meeting with Lord Ruthven.

During an evening at court, when Aubrey wanted to introduce his sister to society, he precisely runs into Lord Ruthven, stunned. Ruthven has magnetic gray eyes that bewitch any woman and has a reputation for being a seducer.

Aubrey and Ruthven go to Greece together and the latter is killed by a group of brigands. Back in London, Aubrey sees Ruthven alive and well and discovers that he is about to marry his sister. Ruthven asks him not to reveal his secret and Aubrey keeps her promise.

However, he tries in vain to dissuade his sister from marrying him. Finally, before he dies, he manages to tell the whole story to his sister’s guardians, who try to save her, but they arrive too late.

The birth of gothic novel: the prequel

According to critics, the Gothic novel fits into the logic of an infatuation with the sentimental and the macabre that emerged in eighteenth-century Europe with authors such as Abbé Prévost.

The birth of the Gothic novel is also associated with the rediscovery of Gothic architecture in England in the second half of the 18th century and more generally with the craze for the past. Horace Walpole, an English nobleman and politician who was a close friend of Madame de Tencin, had a medieval-style castle built on Strawberry Hill.

Strawberry Hill House
By Chiswick Chap – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19592352

First, Walpole will bring together the ingredients of the historical novel in his work the Castle of Otranto published in 1764: action set in the mythical past of the Crusades, medieval decorations, presence of the supernatural, contemporary characters victims of the mysteries of the past.

It is in England that the gothic novel finds its favorite ground. And women are very productive in this genre. Clara Reeve, influenced by the reading of the Castle of Otranto or Charlotte Smith who in turn published a series of very popular novels at the end of the 18th century.

Then comes Ann Radcliffe whose Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) were a European success and handed down to posterity as a monument of the Gothic genre. Jane Austen was inspired by this novel to write Northanger Abbey.

Features

As we said before, it is with Mary Shelley that everything changes. Because she made clear what are the themes that make great gothic novels such.
First of all we mention the presence of a certain number of decorative elements, characters but also stereotyped situations and narrative processes. For example, theatrical furniture, natural settings such as storms unleashed on the moor or at sea.
Another feature of the gothic novel is the search for the exotic. Suffice it to say that Italy was chosen by Walpole for the Castle of Otranto. And then, of course, there are the characters who make the difference: the persecuted woman , the femme fatale and the homme fatale, the demon, the beauty, the beast, the fallen angel, the cursed, the vampire and the bandit.
Finally, situations and places are repeated in the various gothic novels: the secrets of the past that haunt the present, vampirism and the occult, the castle, the darkness, the cemetery, a ruin, a church and so on.

The birth of gothic novel: the sequel

Two years after the fruitful meeting at Villa Diodati the Irish Maturin published Melmoth or the Wandering Man and in 1824 Les Albigeois, considered according to Maurice Lévy the last Gothic novel.
The tradition is carried on by Thomas de Quincey and in the meantime the fantasy genre develops. However, the themes of the Gothic novel continued to feed all English literature until the twentieth century, from Charles Dickens to Mervyn Peake to Joseph Conrad.
Let’s not forget that, in the same years, overseas, also Edgar Allan Poe, wrote, starting the detective novel which, however, did not leave out gothic elements in his writings.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a “neo-Gothic” fashion appeared in fantasy literature through famous works such as The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, The picture of Dorian Gray ( 1890) by Oscar Wilde or Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. Critics, for these latest novels, however, prefer to talk about the horror genre.
The Gothic novel still has an influence on contemporaries: we cannot forget Anne Rice‘s series, to cite a well-known example.
Really, we could talk for hours and hours about gothic novel and gothic in general. Today we did it by remembering a prolific literary “contest”, but we will certainly do it again, waiting  for the World Goth Day next 22nd May.

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#getyourgothon

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