“The Gothic novels of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis achieved their peak of popularity in America at about the same time as the sentimental novel. Critics often attribute their immense popularity to the public’s desire for ‘mere’ entertainment. James Hart’s The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste succinctly concludes that many people found in [-p.20] these novels ‘a new form of escape from their own humdrum lives, allowing them vicariously to experience thrilling adventures. From the middle class of America to the Middle Ages of Europe was a wonderfully exciting journey, when made through the medium of a Gothic novel.’ However, it is possible to see the exotic settings of Gothics as possessing a much more important function: because the novels so radically displace reality by putting the action in distant times and strange and ghostly lands, they are uniquely equipped to become a site for the displacement of repressed wishes and fears. In other words, Gothics can present us with the frighteningly familiar precisely because they make the familiar strange – which is, it will be recalled, the way Freud said the uncanny sensation in literature is produced. Thus, set in a remote place, in a faraway time, the female Gothic as created by Ann Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolpho expresses women’s most intimate fears, or, more precisely, their fears about intimacy – about the exceedingly private, even claustrophobic nature of their existence. So it is that the house, the building itself, to which women are generally confined in real life, becomes the locus of evil in an entirely make-believe sixteenth century Italian mountain setting.” (19-20)
The nuclear family in Gothic novels… predecessors to the domestic novel…
“The plot of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, on which the later Gothic novels are based, has a villainous Montoni carrying off the heroine Emily and her aunt, whom Montoni marries for her fortune, to a castle in the mountains where he imprisons the aunt and persecutes the niece in order to gain control of her fortune. I will argue that this plot became popular at a time when the nuclear family was being consolidated in part because it portrayed in an extremely exaggerated form a family dynamic which would increasingly become the norm. It spoke powerfully to the young girl struggling to achieve psychological autonomy in a home where the remote, but all-powerful father ruled over an utterly dependent wife.
In a sense, then, gothics are domestic novels too, concerned with the (often displaced) relationships among family members and with driving home to women the importance of coping with enforced confinement and the paranoid fears it generates. Thus, although nineteenth-century readers soon dropped Gothic novels in favor of the ‘domestic novels,’ it could be argued that the later novels are somewhat continuous with the earlier ones.” (p.20)
“Indeed,” Modleski continues, “Jane [-p.21] Austen, preeminent among novelists of manners, who antedated the domestic novelists, began her career not simply burlesquing the Gothic tradition, but extracting its core of truth: her mercenary and domineering General Tilney of Northanger Abbey may not be capable of imprisoning his wife in a turret, but, like the Gothic villain, he is capable of rendering her existence miserable, and of coldly ruining the heroine’s hopes for happiness.” (pp.20-12)
Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut [refer also: Romantic lineages... 1]