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Gothic Horrors: The Regency Vampyre


The “modern” vampire genre (or Vampyre, if you will) stems from James Polidori’s 1819 novel, The Vampyre, however the Gothic craze of the entire Regency era led to this printing, and in fact, real events in Europe led to the fascination of all things mysterious and horrible, as characterized in Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. It should come as no suprise, then, that Northanger Abbey has finally been rewritten as an actual Vampire inspired novel (see Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, 2014). Writers have been trying to mash the two genres for years now, beginning with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (supposedly a nod to Pride and Prejudice) and Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, to Jane Bites Back, and other similar tales.

According to legend, vampires are mythical beings who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures (not unlike General Tilney, one might suppose…) In folkloric tales, undead vampires often visited loved ones and caused mischief or deaths in the neighbourhoods they inhabited when they were alive. They wore shrouds and were often described as bloated and of ruddy or dark countenance, markedly different from today’s gaunt, pale vampire which dates from the early 1800s. Although vampiric entities have been recorded in most cultures, the term vampire was not popularised until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe,although local variants were also known by different names, such as vrykolakas in Greece and strigoi in Romania. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to what can only be called mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.

Frotspiece to Polidori's "The Vampyre".
Frontispiece to Polidori’s “The Vampyre”.

The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. However, it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula which is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.

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Strawberry Hill: A Gothic Fantasy

Strawberry Hill House, often referred to simply as Strawberry Hill, is the Gothic Revival villa that was built in Twickenham, London by Horace Walpole beginning in 1749. It is the type example of the “Strawberry Hill Gothic” style of architecture, and it prefigured the nineteenth-century Gothic revival. Walpole, an author in his own right (among many other things) was said to have been inspired by his home, to write the  novel, “The Castle of Otranto” generally regarded as the first gothic novel.

Strawberry Hill House in 2012 after restoration

Walpole rebuilt the existing house in stages starting in 1749, 1760, 1772 and 1776. These modifications added gothic features such as towers and battlements outside and elaborate decoration inside to create “gloomth” to suit Walpole’s collection of antiquarian objects, contrasting with the “riant” (smiling) garden. The interior included a Robert Adam fireplace; parts of the exterior were designed by James Essex. The garden contained a large seat shaped like a Rococo sea shell.

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Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons a review by Heather Laurence

Castle of Wolfenbach

The Castle of Wolfenbach – Eliza Parsons

“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”
–Northanger Abbey


If you were recently introduced to Northanger Abbey through the ITV film, or if you’ve already read the book, you may be curious to know more about the Gothic novels Catherine and Isabella planned to read together.

The Castle of Wolfenbach was written by Eliza Parsons and published in 1793. Our heroine is a “wretched Matilda” as per Henry Tilney’s Gothic pastiche, and we meet her in flight from her lecherous uncle, seeking refuge in the suitably ancient and haunted Castle of Wolfenbach. As in Northanger Abbey, Matilda explores a forbidden wing of the castle, and makes the very discovery Catherine Morland had hoped for: the horrifying mystery of the missing Countess of Wolfenbach. But when Matilda’s uncle tracks her down, can she escape his despicable intentions? Will she ever discover the secret of her parentage? And what must and will happen to throw a suitable hero in her way?

Other Northanger touches include Mademoiselle de Fontelle and the young widow Mrs. Courtney, who feign friendship with Matilda while slandering her and poaching her beau – these two could be older sisters of Isabella Thorpe. Matilda’s true friend, Adelaide de Bouville, is a modest and cultivated young lady (not unlike Eleanor Tilney) who just happens to have an unmarried older brother. And our valiant hero, Count de Bouville, makes a desperate port-to-port chase around the Mediterranean in pursuit of Matilda, who is imprisoned on a Turkish pirate ship (!). Henry Tilney got off easy: he only had to ride as far as Fullerton.

The Castle of Wolfenbach is much shorter than Ann Radcliffe’s novels, and does not indulge in the lengthy descriptions of the picturesque which may make The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian slow reading. Melodramatic plot and characters and the heavy-handed anti-French, pro-Protestant English propaganda make Radcliffe seem moderate by comparison, but these excesses provide a lively (and snark-worthy) read: for example, Matilda spends the book alternating between fainting and crying, and when reunited with her long-lost mother, they simultaneously sob and swoon. (The apple didn’t fall far from that tree.) It’s easy to imagine Jane Austen, who warned against fainting fits in Love and Freindship, having a laugh over this overly sentimental scene.

Castle of WolfenbachValancourt Books, an independent press based in Chicago, is in the process of publishing a complete set of the “horrid” novels on Isabella Thorpe’s list. Many of these books have been out of print for several years, and until they were described in Michael Sadleir’s 1927 essay, The Northanger Novels: A Footnote to Jane Austen, there was some question whether Jane Austen had simply made up the titles. Now a few editions can be found with some detective work, but Valancourt’s series is readily available and especially useful to Jane Austen fans:

I’m in the process of reading Valancourt’s “Northanger Novels” and have found the editor’s notes very interesting and useful. Notes typically include the author’s background, discussion of each novel’s contribution to Gothicism, and how it applies to Northanger Abbey. To date, Valancourt Books has published The Italian, Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, and the most recently published Necromancer of the Black Forest. Also available: The Veiled Picture by Ann Radcliffe, a chapbook reduction of The Mysteries of Udolpho for those who are wild to know what lurks behind the black veil, but perhaps are put off by the length of the original. Valancourt Books is a treasure trove of rare and previously out-of-print Gothic goodies, and their web site is well worth a look.

Northanger Abbey is a lively, entertaining novel in its own right; knowledge of the Gothic tradition is not at all necessary to enjoy it. As I work my way through Isabella’s list, my appreciation grows: I admire Jane Austen’s ability to pack so many rich, clever references into such a concise and elegant package.

List Price: £8.99

Publisher: Valencourt Books

ISBN-10: 0977784169

ISBN-13: 978-0977784165


Like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, Heather Laurence enjoys country walks and horrid novels. Her web site Solitary Elegance is best known as a resource for all Northanger Abbey-related radio plays, stage plays, and screenplays. She also writes for AustenBlog and lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and two sons.

This review orginally appeared on Austenblog. Used with kind permission.

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William Thomas Beckford: Author, Architect and Rogue

You certainly must have heard before I can tell you that Col. Orde has married our cousin, Margt. Beckford, the Marchess. of Douglas’s sister. The papers say that her father disinherits her, but I think too well of an Orde to suppose that she has not a handsome independence of her own.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
May 29, 1811

William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844), usually known as William Beckford, was an English novelist, art critic, travel writer and politician. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and again from 1806 to 1820.

Beckford was born in the family’s London home at 22 Soho Square. At the age of ten, he inherited a large fortune from his father, a former Lord Mayor of the City of London, William Beckford consisting of £1 million in cash, land at Fonthill (including the Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens) in Wiltshire, and several sugar plantations in Jamaica. This allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, as well as writing. He was trained by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in music.

Thirteen years later he married the fourth Earl of Aboyne’s daughter, Lady Margaret Gordon on May 5, 1783. However, Beckford was hounded out of polite English society when (probably unfounded) gossip accused him of “sexual irregularity”- at that time a capitol offense. Beckford chose exile, in the company of his young wife, whom he grew to love deeply, but who died in childbirth at the age of 24.

Having studied under Sir William Chambers and Alexander Cozens, Beckford journeyed in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book on his travels: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783). Shortly afterwards came his best-known work, the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), written originally in French and, as he was accustomed to boast, in a single sitting of three days and two nights. There is reason, however, to believe that this was a flight of his imagination. Vathek is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity. His other principal writings were Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a satirical work; and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1835), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners. In 1793 he visited Portugal, where he settled for a period.

Beckford’s fame, however, rests as much upon his eccentric extravagances as a builder and collector as upon his literary efforts. In undertaking his buildings he managed to dissipate his fortune (estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income £100,000 a year, which (although probably never exceeding half that) made him very rich. The loss of his Jamaican sugar plantation to James Beckford Wildman was particularly costly. Only £80,000 of his capital remained at his death.

The opportunity to purchase the complete library of Edward Gibbon gave Beckford the basis for his own library, and James Wyatt built Fonthill Abbey in which to house this and the owner’s art collection. Nelson visited Fonthill Abbey with the Hamiltons in 1800. The house was completed in 1807. Beckford entered parliament as member for Wells and later for Hindon, quitting by taking the Chiltern Hundreds, but he mostly lived in seclusion, spending much of his father’s wealth without adding to it, so that the great house he had built became a ruin. In 1822 he sold Fonthill to John Farquhar for £30,000 and moved to Bath where he bought No 20 Lansdown Crescent and No. 1 Lansdown Place West, joining them with a one-storey arch thrown across a driveway. In 1836 he also bought Nos. 18 and 19 Lansdown Crescent (leaving No 18 empty to ensure peace and quiet).

He spent his later years at Lansdown Crescent from where he commissioned architect Henry Goodridge to design a spectacular folly on Lansdown Hill (Lansdown Tower). Now known as Beckford’s Tower, this is where he kept many of his treasures. It is now owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and operated by the Beckford Tower Trust as a museum to Beckford; it is also available for hire as a holiday home from the Landmark Trust. The museum contains numerous engravings, chromolithographs of its original interior and a great deal of information about Beckford, in addition to objects related to Beckford and his life including signs and etched glasses advertising “Beckford Blend Scotch Whisky” and the skull and femur of a horse, believed to be Beckford’s.

After his death at his residence in Lansdown Crescent on May 2, 1844 aged 84, his body was laid in a sarcophagus placed on an artificial mound, as was the custom of Saxon kings from whom he claimed to be descended. Beckford had wished to be buried in the grounds of Landsdown Tower, but was instead interred at Bath Abbey cemetery in Lyncombe Vale on 11 May 1844. The Tower was sold to a local publican, who turned it into a beer garden. Eventually however it was bought back by the Beckfords’ elder daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, who gave the land around it to Walcot parish for consecration as a cemetery in 1848. This enabled Beckford to be re-buried near the Tower that he so loved. His self-designed tomb — a massive sarcophagus of pink polished granite with bronze armorial plaques — now stands on a hillock in the centre of an oval ditch. On one side of his tomb is a quotation from Vathek: “Enjoying humbly the most precious gift of heaven to man – Hope”; and on another these lines from his poem, A Prayer: “Eternal Power! Grant me, through obvious clouds one transient gleam Of thy bright essence in my dying hour.” Goodridge designed a Byzantine entrance gateway to the cemetery, flanked by the bronze railings which had surrounded Beckford’s original grave in Lyncombe Vale.

Beckford left two legitimate daughters, the elder of whom, Susan Euphemia, was married to Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton. It is the younger daughter, Margaret Beckford, whose marriage was commented on by Jane Austen in a letter to her sister in 1811. Here, she calls her a cousin, though the family connection is unclear.

Beckford, himself, as a writer of Gothic fiction has a closer relationship with Jane Austen. As a professed lover of novels, she was, no doubt familiar with his works, whether or not she actually read them. Although Vathek is more like the Monk, in many ways, touching on aspects of life best left undiscovered by young ladies, it was, nonetheless popular in its day, partly due to the rage for anything remotely oriental in nature.

Several works have sought to link these two authors, including From the Polar Seas to Australasia: Jane Austen, “English culture,” and Regency Orientalism, Beckford, Godwin, Austen, and the divisive 1790s, which was originally presented as a session at the JASNA convention in Toronto, Canada, in 2002. Another volume, Parodies of the Romantic Age: The Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin and Other Parodic Writings includes works by “established authors of the period [who] delighted in parodic prose: Austen, Beckford, Carlyle, Coleridge, De Quincey, Hogg, Lamb, Lewis, Peacock, Scott.”


Beckford, Godwin, Austen, and the divisive 1790s

They Came to Bath: William Beckford

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All Hallow’s Eve

Halloween, Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve…they all sound mysterious and spooky; but where did this celebration of the underworld come from and when did it begin? Did Jane Austen ever go trick-or-treating?

The celebration now known as Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, one of the four Druid “Bonfire” festivals. Celebrated on November 1, midway between the Autumn and Winter Solstices, some scholars believe that it marked the end of the old year and start of the new. Samhain (pronounced sów-en) was not a god to be worshipped, but rather a term meaning “The End of Summer”. It was at this time that the harvest was brought in, preparations for winter completed, debts were settled and the dead buried before the coming winter. In the highly superstitious Celtic culture, it was also believed that at this time when “a new year was being stitched to the old” the veil between the present world and the next was especially thin, allowing the spirits of the departed, both good and evil to roam.

Because of this belief, October 31 became a highly superstitious night. Some used the opportunity to entreat the dead for guidance in the coming year. Others carried on traditions involving the revelation of one’s sweetheart or good fortune for the coming year. Towards the close of the evening priests and townsfolk, dressed as spirits would parade through the village in order to lead the wandering ghosts back to their resting places. Far from being a burning Hell, the Celtic “underworld” was a place of light and feasting, much more akin to the Christian ideal of Heaven.

Charles Smith's maligned 1815 rendering of a Druid Priest As it was also the close of the year, the bonfire, kindled by the priests served an extra purpose. Each villager would let their hearth fire die out that night to be lit afresh by embers from the bonfire, symbolizing a new year and hope for prosperity. During the night of spooks and ghosts, homes would be lit by rustic lanterns carved from turnips (known early on as neeps) beets and rutabagas. Pumpkins would be used later, as they were brought to Europe from the New World in the 17th century. These flickering lights were set out in hopes of welcoming home friendly souls and chasing away the evil spirits who wandered that night.

Another important part of the celebration’s revelries included lawlessness and mischief. It was during this time that rules were lifted and pranksters were given a free hand. Cows would be found it far off fields, gates unhinged, women dressed in men’s clothing and servants ruled their masters.

When the Romans conquered Britain in AD 43 they drove the Celts to Scotland and Ireland, building Hadrian’s Wall across Britannia in order to protect their settlements from raiders, officially dividing the two countries. Though they brought with them their own polytheistic religion, they were not above incorporating the holidays already in place in the land, adding a celebration to their goddess of fruit trees, Pomona, to the revelries, forever linking apples and feasting to Halloween.

The result of the Roman invasion and subsequent adoption of the Julian Calendar, which moved New Year’s Day to January 1st, was that for some, the entire period between October 31st (the Old New Year) and January 1st became a time when Ghosts were free to wander the earth and meddle in the affairs of mortals. It was with this in mind that, in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a ghost story. A vivid picture of this kind of noctunral wandering can be found in Ebenezer Scrooge’s first meeting Marley’s Ghost. “The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.”

Such was the power of tradition begun by the Druids. With the spread of Christianity in the 7th-10th centuries came the desire by the church to wipe out pagan rituals and holidays and replace them with festivals of Christian significance. Accordingly, Pope Gregory III (731–741) moved All Saints Day (originally celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost, signaling the official end of Easter) from May to November 1, followed by All Souls Day on November 2. All Saints Day, which involves a vigil kept the night before (October 31) was set aside to commemorate all saints two numerous to be given their own feast day. With the far reaching influence of the Catholic church, the day was soon celebrated across Europe and later the Americas.

All Souls day became a day for celebrating the memory of the dead, whose souls were still in purgatory. Beggars would traipse from door to door pleading “soul cakes” from each home in return for prayers made for their relatives. This connection with the departed tied the holiday once again to the earlier festival of Samhain. The new name, Halloween came from the Christian Festival. As a night of vigil, the 31st was a “Hallowed Evening”, shortened to Hallowe’en and then Halloween. It was also known as Hallowmas, a begging holiday, as mentioned in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona when Speed accuses his master of “puling (whimpering and whining) like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

In 1605, a group of Catholic rebels planned to blow up Parliament in the now famous Gun Powder Plot. The plan was discovered and on November 5, key insurgent Guy Fawkes was arrested. Though he was later executed for treason, the day of his arrest became a holiday and the bonfires which once burned on October 31st were now lit on November 5th. Guy Fawkes Day became a time of revelry and mischief. Though “souling” had since died out, children would often beg pennies off of passing adults in order to buy fireworks for the night’s illuminations, keeping alive the tradition of ritual begging.

Later, under the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell, Halloween, as well as most other holidays and feast days were abolished. For many years there had been a push to eradicate witches, with whom the festival was especially popular, and even cats who were seen as their familiars (a spirit guide who takes the form of an animal) This destruction of cats may have actually hastened the spread of the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) in which is spread by rats and fleas. The London outbreak in 1665-1666 killed between 75,000 and 100,000 people—one fifth of the city’s population.

The Celts who populated Scotland and Ireland, however, were loathe to relinquish their old ways in favor of Christian feast days or lack there of. Instead, they incorporated these new rites into the old celebration. It is clear from Scottish poet Robert Burns’ 1786 work, Halloween, that by Georgian times, the holiday was still alive and well, with much of its superstitious symbolism intact. The poem describes the tricks (such as eating an apple in front of a mirror in hopes of seeing your beloved) and treats (Flummery and Barmbrack) of the season to which most Scots or Irishmen would have been familiar.

The extended Regency was an era fascinated by the mysterious and horrible. Frightening gothic romances, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, were being written and were read by all. Some of the more familiar icons of modern Halloween such as Frankenstein (1816) and The Headless Horseman (brought to life in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 1820) were created during this era.

Jane Austen, an avid reader with a taste for novels was no doubt familiar many of these gothic masterpieces as well as with the work of Robert Burns. She would have been aware of these celebrations and divination rites; however, as the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, it is doubtful that she would have partaken in such goings on. Surely, growing up in a houseful of boys, she would have celebrated with a bonfire on Guy Fawkes night, but we nowhere find that she dabbled in any of the occultic practices of the more ancient holidays still celebrated by the local villages. She mentions neither of these holidays or her feelings towards them. The trappings of Halloween which we now so regularly employ would have been foreign to her, even if their roots lay deep in the English history, of which she was so fond.

Halloween was brought to the United States by Irish settlers in the 1840’s where it was eventually embraced by all nationalities. In 1915, the Boy Scouts of America scheduled the first “trick-or-treating” as a way of discouraging damaging mischief, but it was not until 1938 that the term actually appeared in print. As each decade since has passed, costumes, parties and decorations have become more elaborate finally evolving into a multimillion dollar industry replete with specially wrapped candies, ornate costumes and a fascination with all that is frightening and evil.

This lack of evidence supporting a universal celebration of Halloween in Georgian and Regency England has not stopped numerous authors from sliding it into their works. There are many “Regency” inspired novels now in print which employ elements of the various superstitions of the holiday as well known fact, some employing the paranormal, and others playing off the themes of Harvest and plenty.


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