Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Editorial Reflections: The Cambridge History of the Gothic, Volumes I and II

Angela Wright, Dale Townshend

The invitation that we received to conceptualise and edit the multi-volume The Cambridge History of the Gothic in 2015 was both exciting and daunting: exciting insofar as it provided a unique and privileged opportunity to make crucial, field-defining interventions in the realm of Gothic Studies, yet daunting since, all practical and logistical considerations aside, we were poignantly aware from the start of the enormous scholarly responsibility that this task entailed. As we interpreted the editorial brief, part of the challenge lay in making the three projected volumes in the series as distinctive in scope and interdisciplinary reach as possible. In its title alone, The Cambridge History of the Gothic immediately signals its difference from other cognate volumes in Cambridge University Press’s catalogue – including Jerrold E. Hogle’s celebrated The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002) and his more recent The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic (2014) – through its very emphasis upon history. Herein, too, though, lay cause for further careful editorial reflection, for if there is one thing that has remained consistent from the late seventeenth century to the present day, it is that the Gothic mode characteristically complicates and problematises understandings of history as a tidy, linear, objective and all-encompassing metanarrative. In the late seventeenth century, for instance, notions of a sometimes noble, sometimes horrifying Gothic past were strategically invoked, even invented, by antiquaries, politicians and cultural commentators bent upon the perpetuation of particular ideological positions, constituting an erosion of the distinctions between history and fiction, truth and falsehood, fact and fancy that had considerable implications for literature, too. In the eighteenth-century literary tradition, Gothic documents, manuscripts and other material relics of the historical past are incomplete, unreliable and illegible, a convention that suggests the impossibility of accessing, knowing and mastering the past itself. In Gothic productions of the nineteenth century, meanwhile, the ghosts of history often stare back in scepticism and incredulity at the formal attempts at understanding and recording the past that have prevailed, even as the manifold silenced, marginalised and occluded histories of other peoples and nations make their ghastly, concerted return. Partial, contingent and never fully consigned to a remote and bygone era, history in the Gothic is seldom an uncomplicated business. How, then, to compile a history of a mode that challenges the work of historiography itself? Our extended introductory essay to Volume I of The Cambridge History of the Gothic confronts these issues in greater literary and theoretical detail, and outlines the implications that this has had for the process of curation, commissioning and selection of chapters. But as we point out there, The Cambridge History of the Gothic is intended as more than a history of the Gothic mode in its interdisciplinary dimensions: foregrounding throughout the ways in which the Gothic has been inscribed and implicated within some of the defining moments of Western modernity, it shows the extent to which history has often been refracted through a glass darkly. 

As we set about establishing the parameters for our volumes on the long eighteenth century (Volume I) and the nineteenth century (Volume II), we were driven by the aim both to expand current conceptualisations of the ‘canon’ of Gothic literature (insofar as one may be said to exist) well beyond a selection of predictable texts and writers, and to extend the disciplinary and contextual boundaries of the Gothic mode in these periods. It is fair to say that, from the late eighteenth century onwards, the Gothic has lurked on the margins of notions of canonicity and literary respectability, serving as an uncomfortable but nonetheless important reminder of the contingency of all attempts at cultural ordering and value-making. Widely read and absorbed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, it remains central to our conceptualizations of Romanticism and high-cultural aesthetics even as it was jettisoned as cultural detritus and placed at arm’s length by many of the period’s most influential authors and commentators. In conceptualising the first volume on the Gothic in the long eighteenth century, we resolved that it was important to embrace the significance and centrality of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and the major, well-studied works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis. At the same time, however, this volume aims partly to tell the story of the other forms and writers of the Gothic that have received considerably less scholarly attention, as well as to situate such well-known figures within a much broader network of cultural associations and connections. In addition to chapters that address Horace Walpole’s Gothic literary and architectural experiments in fresh ways, then, we have also commissioned several chapters that appraise the stirring impulses of the antiquarian, literary and architectural Gothic earlier in the eighteenth century, well before the 1760s and as far back as the ancient Goths’ Sack of Rome in 410 AD. The essays in Volume I also look forward in time so as to chart the turns that Gothic cultural production took in that understudied hinterland after the publication of Otranto but before the 1790s bestsellers of Radcliffe and Lewis. Here, we include an important chapter on the adumbrations of the Gothic in the drama of the eighteenth century; one on the literary and philosophical contexts; new work on Gothic and empire in the period; on Gothic and the American Revolution; Gothic and the French Revolution; early German Gothic; and other bestselling British authors beyond Radcliffe and Lewis, including Eliza Parsons, Maria Regina Roche and Francis Lathom. Our impulse throughout the planning of this volume has been to provide a broader (though by no means exhaustive) interdisciplinary understanding of the Gothic, from antiquity to the turn of the nineteenth century.

Volume II of The Cambridge History of the Gothic, which covers the Gothic in nineteenth-century Britain, America and Europe, continues in this vein, intentionally echoing in its selection and arrangement of chapters some of the themes and concerns introduced in Volume I. Broadly conceived, the chapters focus upon crucial and definitive historical moments, and the advent of different types of literary and technological innovation. The volume commences with a chapter on the now-mythological meeting at the Villa Diodati, Geneva, in the summer of 1816, and considers the ways in which the work produced here challenges the conceptual and formal distinction between Romanticism and the Gothic. A later chapter in the volume considers nineteenth-century British Gothic in relation to the advent of the railways. Such accounts are placed in conversation with more textually focussed studies, with examples including the collection Fantasmagoriana that was read at the Villa Diodati in 1816; the Gothic in Victorian domestic fiction; and an account of Charles Dickens’s complex engagement with the Gothic mode. Included in Volume II, too, are chapters that address such broader cultural impulses as nineteenth-century Gothic architectural aesthetics; Gothic and contemporary scientific discourse; Gothic melodrama; Gothic and slavery; and imperialism and the Gothic at the fin de siècle. Indeed, nation and nationhood are abiding concerns in Volume II, and are explored in a range of pioneering accounts of the Gothic in nineteenth-century Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Italy and America. As in Volume I, several of the essays in Volume II tend to read the Gothic as a dynamic and remarkably sensitive cultural response to some of the historical events of the nineteenth century, showing again the extent to which history itself is a decidedly Gothic affair. 

These volumes of The Cambridge History of the Gothic have been in the making for quite a few years. Volume III, edited by Catherine Spooner and Dale Townshend, will complete the series, covering Gothic from 1900 to the present. Currently in preparation, this final volume will be published in 2021. During the commissioning and editing process, it has been our privilege to find out much more about the diversity, richness and possibilities of our discipline. We wish to thank our 45-strong team of academic contributors who have taught us much, and who have responded so positively to the challenge. We would also like to record here our gratitude to Linda Bree, whose idea it was to commence this project, and to Bethany Thomas, who has been unstintingly supportive throughout its latter stages.

The Cambridge History of the Gothic: Volume 1: Gothic in the Long Eighteenth Century edited by Angela Wright and Dale Townshend
The Cambridge History of the Gothic: Volume 1: Gothic in the Long Eighteenth Century edited by Angela Wright and Dale Townshend
The Cambridge History of the Gothic: Volume 2: Gothic in the Nineteenth Century edited by Angela Wright and Dale Townshend
The Cambridge History of the Gothic: Volume 2: Gothic in the Nineteenth Century edited by Angela Wright and Dale Townshend

About The Authors

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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Dale Townshend

Dale Townshend is Professor of Gothic Literature in the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University. He has published widely on Gothic writing of the e...

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