About 2 years ago (how time flies!), I posted a blog with 5 lesser-known early Gothic novels. Hopefully, that’s been long enough to read them for anyone inclined so it’s time for another 5! Now, once again, it bears repeating that this list is only ‘lesser-known’ in relative terms. I’ll be introducing some books that Gothic aficionados might well be familiar with but hopefully there’s at least one new one in here for everyone. Happy reading!
1. The Mysterious Warning – Eliza Parsons – 1796
There’s a fairly common misconception that early Gothic novels by women reproduced the same plot over and over again. A young virtuous heroine running in terror from pursuing monks/aristocrats/random men through a series of scenic and often ruined castles/abbeys/convents/cave systems. While there is certainly a lot emphasis on women in danger, it’s a vast over-simplification to suggest all the novels are the same. Eliza Parsons, a popular author writing throughout the 1790s (in a number of genres), is a great example of the range that we find in women-authored Gothic and even in the work of one woman. Not only is The Mysterious Warning significantly different from her classic ‘female in peril’ novel The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), it also manages to contain about 10 different genres and stories inside its sprawling 4 volumes!
Although there are plenty of women’s stories in the novel, it focuses primarily on a male central character – Ferdinand – whom we first meet engaged in a marriage which has led to his estrangement from his father. His only supporter is his brother Rhodophil (except, of course, as you’ll realise within approximately 1 minute of meeting him, Rhodophil isn’t his ally at all). He ends up leaving home and then meeting a bewildering amount of adventures, hearing the exceedingly Gothic stories of a number of other characters along the way. If you’re expecting a bit of the explained supernatural, you get it (the mysterious warning of the title) but you’ll also find plenty of things you weren’t bargaining for. A first person point-of-view from an unrepentant serial killer anyone? Also, you’ll meet one of my favourite characters: a murderous woman who refuses to bow down to her brother’s mealy-mouthed decrees. You’ll also find a good section of the book set in Turkey where her ‘hero’ is a prisoner of war. Do be prepared for the intersection here of the Gothic with late 18th century Orientalism.
The book itself incorporates an almost ridiculous number of narratives. You’ll find forbidden love, broken hearts, murder, robbery, betrayal, fake ghosts, random misanthropic hermits, bandit lairs, horrific vengeances… This novel walks the line between terror and horror, frequently slipping from one register to another. It’s hard to find a copy online although it’s available through ‘Historical Texts’ if you have access. However, Valancourt has done a reprint and it’s worth the purchase price if you can buy it.
2. The Orphan of the Rhine – Eleanor Sleath – 1798
Another common conception around the early Gothic is that it is universally anti-Catholic. Things are a little more complicated than that (although no-one is denying the level of anti-Catholic depictions!) and Eleanor Sleath’s Orphan of the Rhine is a great example of that. This is another novel that fits into the ‘they tried to cram 100 stories into one novel’ sub-genre, with various different back stories getting explored. Almost every time we meet a new character, we have to find out who they are and how they got there. These stories vary from ‘accidentally murdered my wife’ to ‘was tricked into a bigamous marriage’. The central story focuses though on two orphans (the singular title of this novel is never not irritating to me) and their various travails at the hands of their relatives. Why I mention this work as a challenge to a universal idea of anti-Catholicism is the fact that it is fairly pro-Catholic, with the majority of its characters being actively Catholic (including refusing to marry Protestants), its monastics being almost universally helpful, and an emphasis on Catholic doctrine and practice
As a novel, it’s an interesting read. As an antidote to a universalising idea of the early Gothic, it’s gold! You can read it online for free here.
3. Ethelwina, or The House of Fitz-Auburne – T. J. Horsley Curties – 1799
If you’ve been to almost any of my talks, you’ll know I take issue with the label ‘female gothic’ for a number of reasons. It tends to flatten out the work that women were actually doing and it makes a pretty arbitrary gendered division. This novel is a fairly good example of that. T. J. Horsley Curties very much works within a ‘terror’ Gothic tradition (often labelled ‘female Gothic’) with a heroine in peril, emphasis on enclosure and resistance, and a focus on terror. There is a real ghost (who comes in to protect Ethelwina) and truly excellent descriptions of incarceration in a crumbling tower poised to fall into the sea. It’s one of my favourite Gothic novels and includes a strong heroine who rules her own lands and is a force to be reckoned with at each stage of her vicissitudes. Dale Townshend has described T. J. Horsley Curties’ work as a ‘Royalist Gothic’ and it is also an interesting read from this political viewpoint. More staunchly conservative than many Gothic works in its political outlook, it forms an illuminating contrast with the work of authors like Ann Radcliffe. This is another one available through ‘Historical Texts’ or Valancourt Publishing (they’re a great source for early Gothics!)
4. The Abbess – William Henry Ireland – 1799
We’ve all heard of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) as the height of salacious and gasp-inducing Gothic in the 1790s but Ireland’s The Abbess gives it a run for its money. The supernatural thrills of The Monk (bleeding spectral nun!) are absent from The Abbess but replaced with extra scenes of inquisitional torture. As the title suggests, the libidinous villain of this novel isn’t a rampaging monk or nobleman but rather the Abbess Vittoria Bracciano. She uses her position as Abbess to ferry young men in for scandalous sexual exploits but Marcello is immune to her wiles. He has other to fish to fry after seeing the beautiful Maddalena, but that only leads to a series of increasingly unfortunate events for both our young protagonists. Scandalous, salacious and lurid in its depictions of sex and torture, The Abbess will appeal to those whose taste in the Gothic runs more towards The Monk than The Mysteries of Udolpho. Please be aware, that, like The Monk, it includes a rape, this time of our young male protagonist.
You can start reading here.
5. Zofloya, or The Moor – Charlotte Dacre – 1806
If you still thought that Gothic novels written by women were prim and proper, Zofloya will set the record straight! Similarly to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, it’s a story of demonic deals and a fall into villainy, but this time the protagonist is the woman Victoria. Her ruin is set up in childhood (so the book repeatedly tells us) after her mother takes up with a lover. Where it all really goes downhill, though, is when are dreams are visited by ‘Zofloya’, the attendant of the object of her affections Henriquez (incidentally, her husband’s brother). He offers her everything she wants with only a small price to pay… ‘Wilt thou be mine?’ Getting what she wants involves murder, poisoning innocent old women as an experiment, imprisoning people, throwing them off cliffs, drugs, magic, bandits and being betrayed by the devil himself.
If you’re going in, be aware that the content gets very dark as Victoria grows increasingly devoid of conscience. The novel focuses on female desire become female monstrosity, although Dacre’s exact positioning in relation to her female protagonist is far from clear. The depiction of Zofloya himself is an exoticising portrayal building on European cultural conceptions of ‘The Moor’. His demonic portrayal and how to read it is somewhat complicated by the fact that Zofloya is dead before we ever really meet him (gasp!). The text, though, is borrowing from racialised demonologies of the period at the same time as exploring ‘forbidden’ attractions.
Zofloya is readily available in a host of places but you can find it online for free here.
Hopefully this lists gives you an introduction to some works you might not be familiar with. The intent is also to give a slightly broader overview of what’s on offer in the early Gothic. Feel free to get in contact for further information on any of the books or for personalised recommendations!