Typically remembered for poems such as the popular “How Do I Love Thee”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not fit the traditional mold of a Gothic writer. While the Gothic period overlapped Barrett Browning’s life and the Victorian era, the majority of her work is “not prevailingly Gothic” (Beers 129). However, she composed several poems in the style of medieval ballads that are often overlooked by scholars, despite being rife with Gothic elements.
“The Romaunt of Margret”, “The Poet’s Vow”, and “The Lay of the Brown Rosary” are three samples of Barrett Browning’s immersion in the Gothic atmosphere. Though these selected ballads—also called romaunts or lays—do contain Gothic factors, they are not as potent as “The Rime of the Duchess May” (1844?). While Barrett Browning admitted that the piece was not a favorite of hers—which she confessed in a letter to Thomas Westwood in 1844—it bears the marks of classic Gothic literature, and also holds numerous parallels to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Through a close reading of “Duchess May”, one can see how Barrett Browning uses classic Gothic components and medieval imagery to weave a new story in which female bravery and devotion can stand alone against a traditional male setting.
What Makes Gothic, Gothic?
The Gothic movement is typically attributed to the afore-mentioned Walpole. Of course, the ideas were not solely his, as “gothic” details had been a part of poetry and folk-tales for centuries. But in the mid 1700s, something different happened—England became obsessed with all things medieval. Enraptured by “the romance of ruin” (Bloom 27), artists, musicians, and writers began to invent their own songs and poetry in the style of the past. As pointed out by Professor Clive Bloom, “there was never enough of the medieval to go round” (28). Enter Horace Walpole. He bought a house in 1747, which he christened Strawberry Hill. In keeping with the current mania, he remodeled the place in the style of a Gothic castle. Inspired by his new surroundings, he decided to try his hand at the imitation trend, and produced The Castle of Otranto. Otranto was different than any of the other poems or songs that had attempted to recreate the mood of the Dark Ages. It wasn’t simply set in a crumbling castle. It didn’t just feature a knight in shining armor. It encompassed everything that scholars now term as classic Gothic imagery, and it spawned an entirely new sub-genre.
As Gothic literature has expanded and changed over the years, there are numerous attributes that can be considered Gothic. However, for the purpose of this paper, we will focus on style and imagery as opposed to the two most common themes of terror and horror, the former of which was explored and defined by Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s. The aspects to be observed within “Duchess May” include setting, mood, the role of the innocent female heroine, and the theme of confinement. Confinement is a common motif in Gothic literature, and “many critics have commented on the sense of claustrophobia found in Gothic fiction. Often this occurs with the entrapment of the heroine in some ancient castle” (“Gothic Literature” 14). Continue reading