The craze for Gothic fiction of the 1790s and early nineteenth century was partly driven by the revolution that was occurring at the time in printing and publishing. The restrictive practices of the earlier eighteenth century, whereby publishers were able to buy up perpetual copyrights to any text, were abolished, and printing became very much a free for all with presses springing up all over the country. The development of circulating libraries, operating on a subscription basis brought new fiction at affordable prices into every middle class home. At the same time, the burgeoning printing industry was able to supply the famous Blue Books, or “shilling shockers”, with plots crudely ripped off from the latest gothic novels, filled with bloody murder, ghostly castles and shady liaisons to the masses. Everyone from the stately home to the backstreets of London was, for the first time able to share a reading habit.
Within this there grew the genre, often referred to now as Female Gothic. For the first time there was a branch of literature written by women and aimed at a predominately female readership. Tales of strong heroines, who, although at the end of the novel usually married the hero and produced a large and happy family, necessarily endured hardships, exhibited strength of character and experienced adventures in reaching their happy ending. They were tales with a central female character, often alone in the world searching for her background. The Female Gothic remained a moralising form of literature, but in teaching young women "important life lessons" it also provided excitement and escapism on the way.
The degree to which these stories were taken up is evinced by the parodies written at the time, laughing at the innocence and gullibility of Catherine Moorland as she tries to reproduce the adventures of Mrs Radcliffe’s heroines in Northanger Abbey, or of Cherry Wilkinson, convinced that she was better than a poor farmer’s daughter and setting out, in true heroine style to find her noble ancestors in E S Barrett’s The Heroine.
An important element was that women were allowed to be members of circulating libraries in their own right, which was a particular novelty at the time as Fanny in Mansfield Park discovers
…but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books!
The female romance reader of the 1790s in some ways set the tone for her descendents through the Victorian era and right up to today.
As an avid reader of these romances myself, it is interesting to realise that I am following in the footsteps of my great great great grandmothers, able to enjoy the same thrills and adventures that they enjoyed, albeit from a very different level of experience and expectation.
I have spent several years compiling my family tree, producing lists of names going back through the centuries, recording the bare bones of unknown lives, lives of people who unwittingly lead to my birth. So one of my tasks for this summer is to try to put some faces to those names, and in this way, to look at the lives of my ancestors who lived through the 1790s, to see how these women lived and whether they would have been sitting on the lawns, anxiously talking about the latest volume from the circulating library, or have been in the back streets of the town, sharing the scandals from the shilling shockers.
So, the Misses Bebbington, Judgson and Bratt of South Cheshire, the Misses Page of Shropshire, the Misses Fairhurst of Lancashire and all my other five times great grandparents, perhaps we have not one but two slender links between us, our genes and our secret dreams of Udolpho.