A Brief History of Gothic Romance

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
October 4, 2018
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
An 1868 illustration of two women by a set of castle stairs
Terrace Scene. Art and Picture Collection, NYPL (1868).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1704161

As a genre, gothic fiction was first established with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Characterized by a dark, foreboding atmosphere and outlandish, sometimes grotesque, characters and events, gothic fiction has flourished and branched off into many different subgenres in the centuries since its creation. 

While Walpole introduced what would later become the definitive tropes of the genre (creepy castles, cursed families, gloomy atmosphere), it was not until Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance in 1790 that gothic romance began to develop as its own legitimate subgenre. Radcliffe kept many of the same tropes established by Walpole’s work, such as isolated settings with semi-supernatural phenomena; however, her novels featured female protagonists battling through terrifying ordeals while struggling to be with their true loves. This concept is what ultimately separates gothic romance from its cousin, gothic horror.

Female leads would come to dominate gothic romance, especially after the publication of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1847. A young woman struggling to maintain her independence as she falls for a dark, brooding, handsome man became a genre-defining plot of gothic romances published in the decades that followed.

A renewed public interest in gothic romance came on the heels of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca upon its publication in 1938.  Authors such as Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and Phyllis A. Whitney  dominated the gothic romance trade paperback market from the 1960s to the 1990s. The image of a young woman running away from a darkened castle became a staple of gothic romance novel covers. Then, in 1983, Gaywyck, by Vincent Virga, became the first published gay gothic romance.

Modern additions to the genre continue to reflect its interest in both terror and romance, while also delivering updated or reimagined versions of familiar tropes. As an example, here's a list of 15 gothic romances that will thrill both new and veteran readers! (You can also check out our brief history of gothic horror, and our top selections of YA gothic fiction!)