Dale Townshend holds a deep interest in all aspects of Gothic writing – and now has written a pioneering book providing a detailed historical account of the connections between Gothic architecture and Gothic and Romantic literature. Published by Oxford University Press and entitled Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance, and the Architectural Imagination, 1760–1840, this is a first-of-its-kind book-length study exploring not only how Gothic writers responded to Gothic architecture, but also how Gothic and Romantic literature contributed to nineteenth-century architectural debates. The book is due out in September 2019.

No stranger to exploring Gothic and Romantic fictions, Dale Townshend is Professor of Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he also is a member of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. He has also been significantly involved in the annual Gothic Manchester Festival, which in October 2016 featured his inaugural lecture ‘From ‘Castles in the Air’ to the ‘Topographical Gothic’: Architecture, History, Romance’ within its programme. This, in itself, is a topic that is particularly suited to the city: after all, Manchester and the boroughs themselves offer multiple examples of architecture influenced by the Gothic Revivalist style, including the Town Halls of both Manchester and Rochdale. Dale has also previously been interviewed in a HAUNT Manchester video, discussing Gothic architecture in the city.

Many people associate Gothic architecture with towering spires, dramatic stonework and vaulted ceilings– perceptions that have undoubtedly been shaped by Gothic literature. Consider the well-known Northern location of WDale Townshend hitby Abbey, for example, now seeming synonymous with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with portions of the book’s setting inspired by Stoker’s visit to the now famous ruins.

Yet Dale Townshend considers not just the relationship between readers and text, but also shows the ways in which the period conceptualised the writer as a kind of architect. His book also looks at how a number of Gothic texts engage in vivid literary re-constructions of Britain’s ‘Gothic’ past (the medieval era), so many competing visions of ‘Gothic antiquity’ that were often inspired by ruined Gothic buildings.

The book demonstrates the importance of architecture to understandings of the imagination in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Readers may be familiar with the phrase ‘Castles in the Air’, for example. This derives from the type of architecture often imagined by Gothic literature – typically, mysterious, towering structures (often portrayed in an artistic style known as Capriccio) that are unworkable as actual buildings, such as the castle that features in Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho. A range of mediums is explored in the course of the argument – not just the novel form – but artwork, aesthetic debates, travel writing and political discourse too, all signifying what was evidently a deep cultural preoccupation with architectural concerns in the period.

 Looking at writers many may be familiar with, including Horace Walpole – the man behind what is considered to be one of the earliest examples of Gothic fiction, The Castle of Otranto – and Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein – as well as a range of other lesser-known Gothic and Romantic writers, the book uncovers fascinating connections between literature and architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Despite these enduring connections, however, portrayals of Gothic architecture in literature also brought their own complications. Over time, architects became increasingly keen to disconnect revived Gothic styles from the ghostly associations they had received through Gothic romances, leading to the light and airy architectural experiments carried out by early nineteenth-century Gothic Revival architects. This is a relationship that is thoroughly considered by Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance, and the Architectural Imagination, 1760–1840.

HAUNT Manchester spoke to Professor Dale Townshend himself to find out more…

Your forthcoming book, to be published by Oxford University Press in September 2019, is entitled Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance, and the Architectural Imagination, 1760–1840. Why is considering the relationship between Gothic architecture and Gothic and Romantic literature so significant – do you feel that it is a connection that has been previously overlooked, for example? 

As I show in the Preface to Gothic Antiquity, the relationship between Gothic architecture and Gothic and Romantic literature is something that has long fascinated the scholarly tradition, from the numerous parodies of Gothic romance in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, through to the rise of a formal Gothic scholarly tradition in the early decades of the twentieth century. Often through drawing attention to the ruined castles, abbeys, monasteries, towers and convents tirelessly invoked in the titles of eighteenth-century Gothic romances, early critics tended to denounce the architectural preoccupations of early Gothic literature as mere ‘claptrap’ or superficial ‘paraphernalia’, as a repeatedly rehearsed convention that took its place alongside the other many ‘fatuities’ of the school.

Montague Summers, howGothic Antiquity ever, was the first early critic to take Gothic architecture seriously, and in his landmark study The Gothic Quest (1938), he influentially argued that the ruined castle or abbey was so fundamental to the Gothic literary mode that it ought to be conceptualised as a literary ‘character’ in its own right, thus initiating a particular way of thinking about the role of architecture in Gothic fiction that is still prevalent today. With the rise of Anglo-American feminist criticism in the 1970s, critics often tended to read the architectural preoccupations of Gothic literature in symbolic terms, variously seeing in the heroine’s imprisonment in an ancient Gothic castle intimations of female ‘incarceration’ within the contemporary domestic sphere, or interpreting the Gothic pile, with its imperious battlements above and the dark, subterranean passages below, through the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.

In the wake of David Punter’s The Literature of Terror (1980), however, critics tended to interpret the architecture of Gothic literature in more historically nuanced ways, identifying in the heroine’s inhabiting of the aristocrat’s Gothic castle a politically charged allegory for the rise of the middling classes, or reading the preoccupation with architectural ruin and ruination in 1790s British Gothic writing as displaced cultural negotiations of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath. An equally well-established critical tendency has been to trace back the architectural structures that we frequently encounter in early Gothic fiction. Say, the eponymous castle in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), or the extraordinary architectural formations figured throughout William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), and even the Chateau-le-Blanc in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) – to certain ‘real-life’ architectural structures: respectively, Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, and Haddon Hall, Derbyshire. In a sense, then, the primary questions that I explore in Gothic Antiquity are as old as the critical study of Gothic literature itself.

Despite this interest, however, few if any critics have attempted a sustained, monograph-length investigation of this intriguing topic, and it is this gap in the scholarly field that the book attempts to fill. My methodology is also considerably different from the approaches employed by critics before me: unlike earlier studies, I am not overly preoccupied with identifying the ‘real-life’ antecedents behind the fictional architecture, and in place of offering psychoanalytic or feminist readings, my argument is more closely historicist, paying particular attention, for instance, to the ways in which Gothic architecture was politically codified in the period, as well as the extent to which sites of architectural ruin prompted imaginative literary constructions of the British nation’s ‘Gothic’ or medieval past.

Throughout, the book seeks to situate Gothic literature written and published in Britain between the years 1760 and 1840 in relation to the architectural debates, theories and aesthetics with which it was contemporary. As I show, the writers whom we now designate as ‘Gothic’, including such well-known figures as Walpole, Beckford and Radcliffe but including a range of lesser-known Gothic romancers and poets too, were deeply preoccupied with architectural concerns. They thought intensely about architecture and its political meanings, and actively exploited its associative, imaginative potential as the source for their poetic, dramatic and fictional texts.  In these senses, then, Gothic Antiquity is addressed as much to scholars of the literary Gothic as it is to scholars of the early Gothic Revival in architecture: though several architectural historians have made illustrative recourse to the literary context, few have analysed Gothic literature in any detailed fashion. Kenneth Clark in The Gothic Revival (1928), in fact, went so far as to argue that there was no connection between the light, sublime and airy Gothic Revivalist architecture of the eighteenth century and the dark, umbrageous piles that we routinely encounter in the literary Gothic, and that to suggest otherwise was sheer folly. This dismissal of Gothic literature has worked its way through most modern and contemporary accounts of the Gothic Revival in architecture, although it is fair to say that this oversight has been considerably rectified in more recent work by scholars such as Chris Brooks, Michael Charlesworth and Megan Aldrich.

My primary argument across the book, then, is that we as critics separate the architectural and the literary manifestations of the Gothic aesthetic at our peril: Gothic literature and Gothic architecture, both medieval or ‘survivalist’ and ‘revivalist’, are so closely entwined as to be utterly inseparable from one another. Showing how the architectural context illuminates and informs the literary and vice versa, the book argues that these two forms of Gothic are best read, conceptualised and understood in relation to one another.

Can you give a particular example of how practicing architects were influenced by Gothic literature? 

There are several examples of this throughout the period that I focus on in Gothic Antiquity, but one of the most compelling examples must surely be the architectural work that Horace Walpole and his ‘Strawberry Committee’ undertook at Strawberry Hill from the late 1740s onwards. As I show in the book, Walpole’s architectural experiments were firmly guided by what he and other literary antiquaries such as Richard Hurd took to be realm of ‘Gothic Story’ – ostensibly the imaginative fictions of what we would now term the medieval and the Renaissance periods, but which the eighteenth century routinely designated as the literature of the ‘Gothic’ past.  Though by ‘Gothic Story’ Walpole did not necessarily mean that which we would describe as ‘Gothic literature’ today, he certainly took his inspiration for Strawberry Hill from the imaginary architectural forms that he encountered in the romances, masques and dramas of writers such as Torquato Tasso, Ludovico Ariosto, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and John Milton.

More pertinently, and as I show in the Conclusion to the book, the Gothic Revival of the early nineteenth century, much of it galvanised by the burning down of the Old Palace of Westminster in 1834, was motivated by a desire to ‘cleanse’ or ‘purge’ the revived architectural styles of the Middle Ages from the associations with ‘Gothic’ romance that it had received in the work of Walpole, Radcliffe, Walter Scott and Mary Shelley. Regardless of whether it was embraced or rejected, and irrespective of how we understand the phrase, ‘Gothic Story’ was crucial to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic Revival in architecture.

How long have you been working on the book – and has there been a particular piece of research that has really had an impact upon you during the course?

This book has been a long time in the making, and, although I’ve completed a number of other projects in the interim, it has taken me no less than a decade to write and research. There have been many moments of exhilaration (and despair) in the course of writing, but one of the greatest highlights is my having been awarded an AHRC Leadership Fellowship for its completion, Writing Britain’s Ruins, 1700–1850: The Architectural Imagination (2015–2017). In addition to facilitating an 18-month-period of full-time research on the project, this AHRC Fellowship also made possible the formation of an interdisciplinary network of scholars, all of whom are internationally recognised experts in the fields of art history, antiquarianism, architectural history and literature of the long eighteenth century. Working with such a distinguished group of scholars greatly enhanced my own research on Gothic Antiquity, and I am truly grateful for their input. Together, we collaborated on the edited collection, Writing Britain’s Ruins, which was published by the British Library in 2017.

Another particularly memorable highlight was the time that I spent at the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, in November 2016, an intensive period of research on Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill that was generously funded by a Lewis Walpole Library Fellowship. While at Yale, I was also able to consult valuable sources in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where I, by pure chance, stumbled upon some hitherto overlooked manuscript material by Ann Radcliffe. Needless to say, this has worked its way into the book, as have the other manuscript sources that I consulted at libraries in London, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford. Like many eighteenth-century scholars, I thrive on visits to rare-book rooms and archives, and, in the course of writing Gothic Antiquity, I was fortunate enough to spend many long hours in some of the world’s finest research libraries.  

Can you recommend a historic locatiFurness Abbeyon in the North that we could visit – and a piece Gothic and/or Romantic fiction we could take as a fitting companion?

While it’s tempting to recommend a visit to Whitby Abbey with a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in tow, I’d advise, instead, a day-trip to the ruins of Furness Abbey (illustrated left, painting by Edward Dayes), Cumbria. As I show in Gothic Antiquity, this was a site of architectural ruin that greatly captured and inspired the imaginations of Gothic and Romantic writers – a key place, that is, where the contours of what I term the ‘architectural imagination’ were clearly laid down. Ann Radcliffe, for instance, wrote a particularly influential account of Furness Abbey in the domestic sections of her A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), an evocative description that would later prompt Thomas De Quincey in his retrospective account of a childhood visit to the Lake District to describe Radcliffe as ‘the Great Enchantress’ of his generation. William Wordsworth included a description of Furness Abbey in 1805 The Prelude, and wrote two further sonnets about the ruins in c. 1840 and 1845.  Letitia Landon was another Romantic poet who responded enthusiastically to the site, particularly in ‘Furness Abbey, In the Vale of Nightshade, Lancashire’ (1832) and ‘Chapter-House, Furness Abbey’ (1835). A popular destination for Picturesque tourists in the early nineteenth century, the ruins were also regularly sketched and painted by artists, antiquaries and architectural draughtsmen. Many of these texts and images are available online.

I’d suggest, then, that you compile for yourself a small anthology of this eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century material, and, having visited the site, perhaps even attempt to produce your own creative response to Furness Abbey, be that through writing a short prose description, a poem or even through taking an atmospheric picture of the ruins on your mobile phone. I think that it’s both interesting and fulfilling to try to recapture through modern technologies the ways in which Gothic and Romantic poets made ‘muses’ of the architectural forms around them, inspiring our own architectural imaginations in the fashion of the long tradition of painters, poets and novelists before us.   

By Emily Oldfield

Caption for third image: Edward Dayes - Furness Abbey, Lancashire. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Dayes_-_Furness_Abbey,_Lancashire.jpg