Gothic for the Multitudes
The History of Gothic Publishing,
1800-1835: Exhuming the Trade
By Franz J. Potter.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 213 pages.
Reviewed by William Parrill.
The term gothic is so widely used today
as to be almost useless except as a subdivision
of Romantic publishing. Unless
a writer, such as Patrick McGrath,
specifically identifies himself as a gothic
writer and knowingly announces himself
as writing in that tradition, critics
would do well to avoid the term completely.
The term is properly used to
identify a group of sensational popular
novels, written mostly by women, of the
Romantic Period, roughly 1764-1835.
The novels and stories, written rapidly
and cheaply published, took advantage
of new methods of printing to appeal to
the lowest of literate tastes.
Readers of Jane Austen are, of course,
familiar with the list of gothic novels
included in Volume 1, Chapter 6, of
Austen’s early novel Northanger Abbey.
Although written in 1798-1799 and sold
to a publisher in 1803, the novel was not
published at that time. Shortly before
her death in 1817, Austen bought back
the manuscript and revised it. By the
time the novel was published some
months after Austen’s death, the list of
novels that entranced the heroine, all of
which were originally published during
the 1790s, already belonged to the historical
Franz J. Potter’s useful study examines
the phenomenon of gothic publishing
during the period of its greatest popularity
and gives the most complete bibliographies
of gothic novels and stories
for the 1800-1835 period yet published.
Potter does not, however, list novels and
tales by American writers, but they
could not have been, except for Poe,
either as numerous or as important. It
would be interesting to know how many
of the English gothics were pirated and
reprinted in the United States. Poe, of
course, wrote a famously disparaging
review of Maturin’s Melmoth the
Wanderer, but the notoriety of that novel
made it an obvious choice for American publication.
Potter’s study has three central parts. The
first is an analysis of the rise and gradual
decline of gothic publishing in England.
The second is a detailed examination of
the novels and stories of William Child
Green, Francis Lathom, and Sarah
Wilkinson. (The latter, a woman who
attempted vainly to support herself by
writing millions of words and who spent
time in debtor’s prison, makes
Hawthorne’s jibe at the “damned mob
of scribbling women” sound smallminded,
or worse.) Mary Shelley, whose
masterpiece Frankenstein (1818) has
already been closely studied by others,
receives shorter treatment. The third is
a three-part bibliography, which includes
gothic novels of the period, “bluebooks,”
and gothic tales. The so-called bluebooks
were cheaply printed sensational
novels characterized by their flimsy blue
covers. The bibliography may, I think,
be augmented but is unlikely to be
Then, as now, ephemeral fiction was
closely tied both to technology and to
the demands of the market place.
Potter’s research shows that the increase
in the numbers of readers fed the circulating
libraries—that is, the cheap rentalfor a day or two of popular titles. Both
sensational and moralistic, gothic novels
and stories, often translated, amplified
and changed from the German, were
already in decline when they were rescued,
artistically if not commercially, by
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and
Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the
Wanderer (1820) in England and Edgar
Allan Poe’s tales in America. Perhaps,
the popularity of gothic stories survived
longer in America than elsewhere.
All great writers both transcend their
times and are closely connected with it,
and the more we know about the context
of the times the better understanding
we can have of them. Although
Potter is silent on how many of the novels
and stories he catalogues still exist,
he has furnished us a valuable context
for understanding them. At a time when
libraries are discarding thousands, perhaps
millions, of volumes of ephemeral
fiction to save money and space, the
gothic fiction of the early nineteenth
century serves as a useful example of
how much can be lost.
Franz J. Potter, who has written extensively
on the trade gothic, is Assistant
Professor at National University,
Camarillo, California. The History of
Gothic Publishing, 1800-1835 is an
essential book for all graduate libraries
and a useful one for any college library.