Ruins are ubiquitous in the Gothic, and for many good reasons.When Horace Walpole first used the word "Gothic" to describe literature, most of the original Gothic buildings in England had fallen to ruins, and architects were building a new wave of popular imitations. This "Gothic Revival" period in architecture, immediately preceding and concurrent with the rise of the Gothic novel, was not truly a return to the designs of the high middle ages, but was, as termed by Frederick S. Frank, a "whimsical manifestation of a romantic impulse." All over England, sham ruins, counterfeit battlements, artificial devastation, cryptic grottoes, towers and spires indulged the landowner's taste for all things Gothic. In fact, this popular architectural movement is probably responsible for the redemption of the word "gothic" itself, which had formerly implied savagery, or barbarism. Now, the term "gothic" was fashionable, and in the process of being redefined.
It would be impossible to separate the Gothic movement in literature from the architectural movement, because two of the earliest authors of Gothic novels participated in both movements. In 1752, Horace Walpole constructed a playfully recreated Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill. William Becksford, author of Vathek had a fantastical Gothic abbey constructed at Fonthill in Wiltshire. It seems inevitable that the return of Gothic forms to the English landscape encouraged the literary movement.
In The First Gothics, Frank delineates a type of Gothic story called the "romance of the ruin," which is characterized by the devastated site at the center of the setting. The ruin is always haunted, and holds a secret of the heroine's family heritage and identity which is usually key in the climax of the plot. Aware of readers' romantic fascination with these crumbling locales, authors composed titles such as "The Ruins of Rigonda: Or, The Homicidal Father" (1808 by Helen Saint Victor) to lure audiences to their books.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Frank, Frederick S. The First Gothics : A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel. New York : Garland Pub., 1987. Print.