Gothic Mansions and Victorian Churches: Literary Discourses on Nineteenth-Century Architecture

Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2009

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



In this dissertation, I explain how it is that the gothic came to be the symbolic national architecture of Protestant bourgeois Victorian Britain, symbolizing a link to what contemporaries referred to as the nation’s Saxon and “gothic” past despite the form’s more accurate origins in the building of medieval French Catholic Cathedrals. According to the eighteenth-century immemorial theory of the English constitution, common law was like a gothic castle in that it had evolved gradually from an “immemorial” origin, a moment before memory and before written text. Consequently, it derived its authority from custom and tradition rather than from a written enlightenment-era document like the French and American constitutions. Moreover, the political rhetoric of the gothic castle provided the Victorians with a model for political continuity in the face of upheavals like the French Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The nation and its common law had survived watershed historical moments like the 1066 Norman Conquest, the Reformation, and the Glorious Revolution, and it was simply the task of the present to continue rebuilding and restoring that gothic edifice. Thus the gothic revival was a phenomenon directly implicated in the question of history, as Britain’s architects and writers debated what to do about the nation’s many gothic ruins, whether to restore them for present use or to allow them to decay as national historical relics.

I argue that for writers in the nineteenth century, debating the merits of the Victorian gothic revival style became a way of debating the merits of issues like political reform, the Anglican Church, the empire, and the status of institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. Focusing on three canonical literary figures who were also directly involved in the production and theorization of gothic architecture, Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin, and Thomas Hardy, I illustrate the way that the Victorian gothic revival—much debated, discussed, and written about—was as much a discursive phenomenon as it was a building one.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Miriam Bailin

Committee Members

Guinn Batten, Matt Erlin, William McKelvy, Angela Miller, Wolfram Schmidgen, Vincent Sherry


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