Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Gothic and the Hermeneutics of Isolation

Angela Wright

Again, if e’er she walks abroad, 
Of course you bring some wicked lord, 
Who with three ruffians snaps his prey, 
And to a castle speeds away; 
There, close confined in haunted tower, 
You leave your captive in his power, 
Till dead with horror and dismay, 
She scales the walls and flies away.

(Mary Alcock, ‘A Receipt for Writing a Novel’ in Poems (London: C. Dilly, Poultry, 1799))

The Gothic is a mode that engages consistently with the hermeneutics of isolation. Where there is a castle, a monastery, or indeed an Inquisition, there exists the threat of enforced isolation in a secret space hidden from the scrutiny of others. This enforced isolation speaks to the vulnerability of the protagonists. As Mary Alcock’s parodic ‘Receipt for Writing a Novel’ illustrated in 1799, the imprisoned characters are invariably defenceless females who have little or no chance of rescue or escape. Or do they? Since its first wave of popularity in the late eighteenth century, Gothic has thrived upon anatomising how the individual reacts towards isolation. And although that isolation may not be self-imposed as our current social isolation is, the heroines’ reactions can both console and encourage us to transcend the physical realities of social isolation. In Ann Radcliffe’s best-selling fourth novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example, the heroine Emily St Aubert, abducted by Signor Montoni, is imprisoned in the eponymous castle in the Italian Appenines. As the heroine first surveys her future prison, ‘the Gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stones’ contribute to the depression of her spirits. During her first few nights of imprisonment, she is so terrified by the nocturnal sounds of the castle that she cannot rest or distract herself from her immediate circumstances. Emily ‘had again to lament the irresistible force of circumstances over the taste and powers of the mind; and that it requires a spirit at ease to be sensible even to the abstract pleasures of pure intellect. The enthusiasm of genius, with all its pictured scenes, now appeared cold, and dim.’ Reading provides no immediate diversion from her immediate circumstances; the powers of the mind seem exhausted, redundant under the weight of her immediate circumstances. Looking over her books, Emily asks, ‘Are these, indeed, the passages, that have so often given me exquisite delight? Where did the charm exist?’ Poetry can only console and delight a ‘spirit at ease’, the heroine observes. This is a dark but thankfully mutable observation, one that is adjusted and corrected over the four volumes of the novel as Emily learns to distract herself and imagine escape.  Radcliffe’s engagement with the hermeneutics of isolation continued into her next novel The Italian (1797) where the heroine Ellena di Rosalba finds consolation from her imprisonment in a convent by gazing upon the ‘landscape spread below. The consciousness of her prison was lost, while her eyes ranged over the wide and freely-sublime scene without.’ If one cannot escape physical confinement, Radcliffe and her peers suggested, then there is still the mitigating chance of losing oneself in the pursuits of reading and admiring the glories of the natural world.

Isolation is a persistent characteristic of the Gothic. From the early 1790s works of Ann Radcliffe and her many contemporaries, to the more introspective figurations of isolation that we encounter in later centuries across texts by Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson (to name only a few), we are forced to probe the circumstances of enforced solitude. However, while the Gothic mode thrives upon the embodiment of isolation, the practices of reading and discussing it may be more sociable. One of the most delightful examples of this comes from Jane Austen’s 1818 Northanger Abbey where Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe animatedly discuss Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and create a future reading list of similar works. The young Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and Percy Bysshe Shelley read Radcliffe’s The Italian and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk side by side in the years 1814 and 1815, and later, at the Villa Diodati during the Summer of 1816, the two took part alongside Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont in a collective reading and writing of ghost stories. In our age, such communal, excited acts of reading and discussing the Gothic persist and thrive even more across various social media and academic platforms. The barriers of our physical isolation may yet be in place as I write this, but the Gothic shows us how they may be dismantled even as they are imposed upon us. 


Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764–1820 by Angela Wright
Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764–1820 by Angela Wright

About The Author

Angela Wright

Angela Wright is Professor of Romantic Literature at the University of Sheffield. A former co-president of the International Gothic Association, she has published widely upon Gothi...

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