In the first post of our ‘Reading the Gothic in the Time of Covid-19’ series, Professor Dale Townshend and Dr Emma Liggins (both of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) reflect upon Gothic literature’s arresting depictions of historical moments of crisis and contagion. Their overview reads predominantly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manifestations of the Gothic, and suggests a number of novels and texts that resonate with our culture today at the time of the pandemic.

Gothic scene

Of all modes of creative cultural expression, the Gothic is, and has long been, that which is best suited to describing and exploring moments of historical crisis similar to those in which we currently find ourselves. In fact, over four decades before the deliberate revival of the medieval or ‘Gothic’ aesthetic that commenced with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in late 1764, Daniel Defoe employed what we might retrospectively describe as a ‘Gothic’ tone, atmosphere and register when he set about describing the Great Plague of London (1665–66) in his A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  In this stirring eyewitness account, the effects of the bubonic plague are consistently figured in the language of horror and terror, while London itself becomes a decidedly Gothic locale of infection, devastation and omnipresent death.

Although there is little in Otranto and other early Gothic fictions of the so-called ‘first wave’ (1764–1820) of Gothic novels to suggest a preoccupation with disease and infection, there is certainly a sense in which Gothic romance, as a ever-expanding cultural phenomenon, itself came to be perceived by many of its detractors as a dangerous literary ‘disorder’ that was spreading through the nation with alarming virus-like alacrity, feverishly ‘infecting’ those who consumed and exposed themselves to it with its tales of the supernatural, the terrifying and the horrific. That the conventions set up by such well-known Gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe were frequently imitated, adapted, recycled and copied by a host of more obscure writers only served to reinforce the Gothic’s virus-like qualities.  After the publication of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s scandalously obscene and supernatural fiction The Monk in 1796, in particular, the mode of writing that we now designate as Gothic was, for many, a near-fatal literary ‘disease’ that was in danger of ‘poisoning’ and ‘infecting’ the British body politic. Its effects, conservative critics such as T. J. Mathias opined, were likely to be nothing less than culturally, politically and religiously apocalyptic.

‘Summer without a summer’

In part, this was the tradition upon which the writers and intellectuals gathered together on the shores of Lake Geneva in the Summer of 1816 drew as they set about creating Gothic novels and poems that were more self-consciously associated with notions of disease, infection and the impending end of times. For instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), certainly the most well-known Gothic fiction to have emerged from this influential gathering of minds, depicts the ravages that scarlet fever wreaks upon those who are closest to the eponymous Victor, thereby drawing certain equivalences between the murders, both vicarious and deliberate, that are committed by the Creature and this often fatal, highly contagious disease. In Lord Byron’s ‘Darkness’ (1816), another fruit of that ‘Summer without a Summer’, the poet muses poignantly upon the theme of apocalypse, giving expression to a devastating vision of humankind and the universe in a way that is not too far removed from Cormac McCarthy’s searing post-apocalyptic Gothic fiction, The Road (2006). Byron’s physician and travelling companion John Polidori, meanwhile, bequeathed to British literature what was then the most fully realised figure of the vampire, installing at the heart of The Vampyre (1819) a figure of monstrosity that, in the European tradition, had long been associated with fears of taint, disease and infection.

Victorian Gothic

Fears of disease and contamination haunted the Victorians, whose novels and stories reflected their struggles against high infant mortality rates and the effects of poor sanitation. Infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, smallpox, diphtheria and tuberculosis were rife, spread both within the family and on the streets of the new industrial cities. In an age obsessed with spatial restrictions, the dangers of crowds and fearful encounters with other classes or races, keeping your distance was a significant nineteenth-century rule. Distancing, isolation and quarantining were often explored in mid-Victorian narratives. Set in a dark and gloomy Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) dwells on the deaths of malnourished children and homeless women who are the victims of industrialisation, protesting against the ‘filth’ that contributes to the spread of fever. Gaskell’s worries about the class-based difficulties of isolation - ‘the poor are fatalists with regard to infection! In their crowded dwellings no invalid can be isolated’ – sound uncannily familiar. The Gothic undertones of Charles Dickens’ famous novel Bleak House (1853) are also apparent in its depictions of London as a nightmarish city of contagion, where the transmission of disease occurs across classes, illness is ‘catching’ and keeping your distance is tricky in the over-crowded streets.

But Victorian contagion, as Chung-Jen Chan argues, is ‘never just about the transmission of disease’, but bound up with fears of pollution, abnormality, the medicalisation of the body and concerns about public health. New fever hospitals, or ‘houses of recovery’ such as the Liverpool Fever Hospital (1801) and Monsall Fever Hospital in Manchester (1871), were established in the nineteenth century, offering one response to quarantining. However, as echoed in the testimonies of today’s NHS staff, these were still inadequate in the face of the spread of viruses and limited medical supplies. Victorian ghost stories often used haunting images of dying or diseased family members to scare their readers not only about transmission but about the legacy of disease. In Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’ (1881) the sickly son and heir can hear the ghostly voices of the dead servant’s son from his sick-bed and can only recover once the lost story is told. Even more explicit connections are made between disease, haunting and the threat of the past in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s chilling story ‘The Ghost’s Name’ (1891). The secret of the haunted room which produces bad dreams of horror and suffocation and often results in the death of children is revealed to be not a strange apparition but a more material ancient cesspool and ‘rotten’ drain beneath the floor of the ground-floor bedroom: ‘the ghost’s name was Typhoid Fever’. The sacrifice of ‘little innocent lives’ is here related to ignorance and neglect, the rot and pollution which threaten the guests in the Victorian country house. For a modern twist on these concerns about contagion and pollution, Matthew Kneale’s neo-Victorian novel Sweet Thames (1992) is an interesting reconsideration of the sacrifice of innocents to disease and scientific ways of countering transmission. It addresses concerns about public health in its focus on an engineer trying to introduce a new drainage system in London to prevent dangerous infections during the deadly cholera epidemic of 1849. Men of science often save the day in Victorian contagion narratives, though female philanthropists and nurses, like Dickens’ Esther Summerson, are often prepared to risk their own health for the greater good.


 In late nineteenth-century Britain, vampire fictions such as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) developed this fascination with images of disease and contagion. In both, the Gothic becomes the register through which to explore concerns around gendered, sexual and cultural ‘transmission’ more generally.  One aspect of Dracula’s threat as a foreigner is that he will infect British women, as his bite and the mingling of blood evoke fears of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, which have been characterised as syphilophobia. Dracula also appears in a mist like a miasma and is associated with decay and stagnancy, his animal-like qualities signalling the threat of rabies. While Le Fanu’s female vampire is undoubtedly a carrier of a host of unnamed and unnameable disorders, the pains that she, a foreigner, takes to secure her own well-being when abroad are, in themselves, another possible source of infection: ‘The precautions of nervous people are infectious,’ observes Laura, the novel’s narrator and the vampire’s primary victim, ‘and persons of a like temperament are pretty sure, after a time, to imitate them.’ For better or for worse, we see in this observation adumbrations of much of the language and behaviour of Covid-19 society: that the safety masks, the social distancing and the frequent hand-washing of the Covid-compliant fosters and inspires similar behaviour in others, or, in the more disturbing words of the Covid-deniers, that this disease is no more real than vampirism, and that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.