- Britain, France, and the Gothic, 1764 – 1820: The Import of Terror by Angela Wright
Prissy French neoclassicists and squeamish French spectators were favorite straw men of eighteenth-century British critics, who relied on such caricature versions of their neighbors in order to paint Britain’s own literary tradition as robust, masculine, and independent. “From no French model breathes the muse tonight, / The scene she draws is horrid, not polite,” Horace Walpole declares in the prologue to his drama The Mysterious Mother (1768) and then goes on to harangue his audience: “Will ye shrink? / Shall foreign critics teach you how to think?” But as Angela Wright points out, this anti-French bluster was something of a performance for Walpole, who was liable himself to be tied to the same “cluster of non-English virtues” as the French—“foppery, vanity, effeminacy and aristocracy.” Writing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), just as anti-French sentiment grew heated in the wake of the Seven Years War, Walpole feigned Francophobia while engaging in an admiring if not uncritical dialogue with French culture. Wright’s book traces the French influences that Walpole felt compelled to play down, as did subsequent Gothic authors from Clara Reeve and Sophia Lee to Anne Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, whose work appeared just as the British antipathy toward France rose to a fever pitch of anti-Jacobin hysteria. Her book is thus a history of writers’ secret love for a culture that their own surroundings required them to hate or at least to denigrate. It offers up to the reader the less evident aspects of the way Gothic fiction crossed the Channel back and forth in the form of influences, translations, parodies, borrowings, and outright plagiarisms. Although Wright’s book does not extend that far, this history would reach a fanciful peak in the late nineteenth century, when Radcliffe rose from the dead to appear as a vampire hunter, no less, in French author Paul Feval’s La Ville Vampire (1875). [End Page 520]
Yael Shapira is a lecturer in English literature at Bar-Ilan University, currently completing a book on the dead body in the eighteenth-century British novel.