Gothic fiction was a very popular genre in the late eighteenth century. Generally considered to have been inaugurated with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, the genre reached its peak of popularity in the 1790s and early 1800s. Two of the most famous Gothic novels, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, first published in 1794, and Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk were both bestsellers in their day. Lewis’s novel also attracted controversy due to its lurid content. These novels helped establish a range of narrative conventions which occur with almost predictable regularity in other Gothic literature.
The literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick identified many of these eighteenth century Gothic conventions. She observed that the novels were usually set in the past, often in a Catholic European country, such as Italy or Spain, and the bulk of their narratives took place in a vast and crumbling edifice or religious institution. These buildings would frequently be situated in wild and rugged landscapes. The Mysteries of Udolpho is set in sixteenth century Italy while The Monk is set in medieval Spain. Much of the narrative of Radcliffe’s novel is played out in Castle Udolpho, a sprawling medieval fortress, whilst Lewis’s tale takes place in the monastery of the Capuchins.
The principal characters in Gothic novels were generally a young female protagonist, her lover, and a villainous older man. This triad of characters is apparent in The Mysteries of Udolpho with the heroine of Emily St Aubert; her lover, the dashing young Valancourt; and Count Montoni – a sinister nobleman bent on acquiring the estate of Emily’s late father, St. Aubert, and prepared to go to any lengths to achieve this goal. In The Monk however, the arrangement of character roles is decidedly different from Sedgwick’s observations. The protagonist is a male character, Ambrosio, a monk who functions as a sort of anti-hero as he is tempted away from his monastic vows. Ambrosio’s temptation is effected by Matilda, a woman disguised as a monk who later transpires to be an instrument of Satan. Matilda assists Ambrosio in seducing the innocent Antonia, a young woman who he later rapes and kills.
The theme of incarceration figures prominently in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk, and is another Gothic convention noted by Sedgwick. The orphaned Emily and her aunt, Madame Cheron, are essentially trapped in the remote Castle Udolpho, which is located high up in the Apennines, by the rapacious Montoni. In Lewis’s novel, the nun Agnes is imprisoned in a dungeon under her convent.
Regarding narrative form, Sedgwick describes the typical Gothic novel as being discontinuous and involuted, in that it frequently digresses from the central story. This is particularly apparent in The Monk, where a series of vignettes are interspersed throughout the main narrative. These include the stories of the ‘Bleeding Nun’ and the ‘Wandering Jew’.
The revelation of obscure family ties in the denouements of many Gothic novels is another of Sedgwick’s observations regarding eighteenth century Gothic fiction. Both The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk feature significant revelations concerning their principal characters. In Radcliffe’s story Emily learns that the Marchioness de Villeroi was not the lover of St. Aubert, as she had long supposed, but in fact his sister. In The Monk meanwhile it is revealed to Ambrosio that he has unwittingly committed incest as it transpires that the murdered Antonia was also his sister.