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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The birth of gothic novel: the sequel