Richard Davenport-Hines,
Gothic
(North Point, 2000)

On commencing Richard Davenport-Hines' Gothic it is reasonable to attribute the words "Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin" that are found beneath the main title to a desire by the author for a stylish gothic flourish on the masthead. However, by the finish of this remarkable book it is obvious that the words have a serious intent, being in fact a succinct description of its content.

In Gothic the author sets out to provide a comprehensive overview of the gothic in all its manifestations, and as such I think he succeeds as much as anyone can who attempts to cage so extravagant a beast as this between the pages of a single volume. Other words that would equally have suited the subtitle are "Power, Cruelty, Duplicity and Decay."

I approached the subject of the gothic mainly from the literary perspective (including in this the many and various film adaptations of gothic fiction). I was not surprised therefore to find that one of origins of the gothic revival (revived from the earlier truly medieval gothic) lay with the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope. However, thereafter began the first of the many interesting surprises to be found in Gothic. It was a revelation that, although Pope's literary reputation is immense and secure, his impact on the gothic rests not at all on his literary efforts but instead on his style of landscape garden design. As Davenport-Hines brilliantly shows, because the gothic is fundamentally a product of the imagination, it encompasses all the visual arts (especially and including architecture), as well as the literary.

As always life and art intertwine, and nowhere more so than in the lives of those who build the great gothic castles. Built in Scotland and Ireland by the English colonial power to overawe and intimidate the native populous, the lives of their owners are shown to have often plummeted into macabre gothic tragedy. In these small biographies, as with those he provides of others gothic figures, the author illustrates lives that were lived at a pitch that was indeed stranger than any fiction.

As expected, the book also deals extensively with fictional gothic tragedy, with the canonical texts and authors examined both in regard to their historical context and their lasting legacy. Thus The Monk by Mathew Lewis (1796), Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1818), as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Poppy Z. Brite and English novelist Patrick McGrath, are among the great mix of work discussed, along with such works as The Uncanny(1919), a paper by Sigmund Freud, David Lynch's film Blue Velvet (along with the gothic in film generally), and the music of The Cure.

In this book the analysis is often deep but never dull. Typical in this regard is the manner in which the author, from an insightful survey of history and literature, marshals support for his contention that, in direct contrast to Europe, gothic imagery in America was adapted to exemplify the destructive powers of self and, especially, families.

In keeping with the breadth of its subject matter, eight sumptuously reproduced color prints of works of art adorn the book's central pages, among them a painting by Goya and the infamous The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781). These pages beautifully complement the literary quotes and anecdotes that litter the text, and further reinforce the conclusion that Davenport-Hines has produced a scholarly well-researched work of cultural and political history, which does justice to its subject. Such erudition in a work that never ceases to either interest or entertain its reader is indeed remarkable.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]



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