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Exploring the Tradition of the English Gothic Novel

A copy of the Gothic novel, The Old English Baron, sits on a gold frame and gun club check jacket.

Horace Walpole (Castle of Otranto, 1764) and Ann Radcliff (Mysteries of Udolpho,1794) are generally considered the mother and father of the English Gothic novel. While both of these tend to continue to be read today because of this status, the novel of the same era that is often overlooked is Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777).

The novel is similar to Otranto in length, is styled as a “found” manuscript, and deals with the common theme of usurper/primogeniture. However, Reeve upsets the traditional Gothic setting of southern Europe (ex: Italy or Spain) by placing her action in England. She also highlights Catholic values, whereas many Gothic writers positioned Catholic symbols and roles as the “evil” ways of the past.

Reeve’s writing philosophy was first to grab the reader’s attention and then instruct them in a socially responsible way. In fact, she actually thought Otranto overused the supernatural elements, and so limited them to (mostly) dreams in her own story. So, we can think of Reeve’s novel as a bridge between Otranto, which uses supernatural events, and Udolpho, which explains supernatural events.

A short read, I recommend this book to those who love a classic Gothic tale. It is interesting to identify how it fits into the larger tradition. Happy reading!

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