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Mad about Castles (part II)

February 10, 2012

(To read Mad about Castles, part I, click here)

While his father was still alive, the Marquis de Sade was granted use of the Lacoste Château and from 1768 until 1796 it was his primary residence, although he didn’t actually pass much time there. He spent many of these years in prison for crimes ranging from blasphemy to poisoning to pornography.  In 1803, his family, at wits’ end, began to rely on an insanity plea to keep him out of prison. And it worked.  He was locked up in Charenton, an insane asylum southeast of Paris, and, eventually, really did go insane.  But what made people believe he had lost his reason before he actually had?  I wonder if this opinion might have been related to the Marquis’ performance of a grand exercise in the principles of Enlightenment reason, an exercise that went far beyond the acceptable norms of philosophical experimentation.

In developing his peculiar philosophy, the Marquis de Sade proceeded from the Enlightenment concept that subjecting things to rational scrutiny was the only way to uncover truth.   For his principal experiment, he put morality, specifically Christian Western European morality, to the test.  The results proved, to his mind, that morality was a false concept and, worse than that, it was a form of control.  In response to his findings, he developed his own philosophy of amorality – the lack of any moral code – and began producing literature illustrating his philosophical views.  His written works, including Justine, are therefore rife with situations in which people, mostly young women, come to understand that adhering to any moral code is tantamount to slavery. And in his Lacoste Castle, the Marquis not only attempted to force young servants to participate in his amoral lifestyle (understandably the majority got the heck out of there almost as soon as they were hired and ran to the local authorities with chilling tales), but also built a theater space where he, his wife, his sister-in-law and a hired troupe of professional actors would play out his scenarios of debauchery, all framed within a medieval structure that, he felt, provided the perfect environment for his philosophical exercises.

While the law might have dealt leniently with the Marquis with respect to the goings-on up at the Château, they were less indulgent of his writings.  Yet, try as they might to burn everything he wrote, many copies of his books still circulated and word soon spread outside of France about the mad Marquis who tied poor unsuspecting maidens up and locked them in his medieval castle in Provence.  And although any respectable person probably wouldn’t have gone so far as to read these works (or at least admit to doing so), they would have probably recognized it as part of a growing fascination with the dark side of the human psyche that fueled a major trend in art, literature, theater and architecture from the 1780s through the middle of the nineteenth century.  The trend was known as the Gothic.

But why was the Gothic, a movement that enticed and repulsed simultaneously, so popular?  It seems that Enlightenment philosophy was partially responsible for this as well.  As Martin Myrone has argued, the Enlightenment created a space, and arguably a need, for extraordinary humans, both evil and good.[i]  While Thomas Jefferson’s famous words “All men are created equal” (a concept put forth previously in the writings of de Torqueville and Voltaire) is a wonderful tenet for human rights and governmental principles, it no longer allows for superhuman humans – whether they be heroes like Achilles or magicians like Merlin and Morgan le Fey.   But these sorts of figures were still so well-liked that room needed to be made for them in relation to the modern world, but not in the modern world. So in order to satisfy the still-present passion for a good hero story without transgressing modern boundaries, heroes were simply put in a different time and place.

 The nation most interested in doing this early on in the Gothic movement was England since the English cherished restrained behavior yet recognized the need for unfettering one’s imagination from time to time.  And creators of Gothic literature, painting and engravings often relied on castles for full effect.  The Swiss-born painter Henry Fuseli, for example, who worked in England from 1779 until his death in 1825, knew how to present thrilling themes of madness set in spooky medieval keeps.  A great example is Belisane and Percival under The Enchantment of Urma from The provenzal tale of Kyot.

(Belisane and Percival under The Enchantment of Urma from The Provenzal Tale of Kyot.John Raphael Smith after Henry Fuseli, 1782, Kunsthaus, Zürich)

The Tale of Kyot is a real thirteenth century work that was popular with troubadours in Provence and provided excellent grist for Fuseli’s phantasmagoric mill. The tale is located in a gloomy castle with lots of secret passages and dungeons, an environment Fuseli conveys through rich chiaroscuro and a background of large, rough-cut stones. There is a wizard, Urma, who succeeds, for a time, in enslaving the hero Percival and his beloved Belisane with magic.  Belisane embodies the perfect hapless maiden.  She is beautiful and, as elegantly articulated in her hands delicately placed one on top of the other, utterly incapable of vigor or force.  Only a hero can save her and Percival, head thrown back in what appears to be a sorcery-induced snore, doesn’t quite look fit for the job until…


(Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, 1783, Tate Collection, London)

… with his amazing mental strength, Percival casts off Urma’s spell and springs into action!  He even dispatches the evil wizard with one hand, loathe as he is to remove his other arm from around the grateful Belisane’s shoulders and deprive her of his embrace.

These images were a smash hit when first shown.  People thrilled at the sight of the heroic Percival and even more so at the lunatic Urma, enthralled by demonic magic. Prints of both sold well and, wishing to make the most of the craze for all things Gothic, Fuseli was soon cranking out all sorts images of mad people running around in their castles, particularly those drawn from literature.[i] And he was an equal opportunity painter.  Women got their moment as well as seen in one of his many iterations of a somnambulant, distraught Lady MacBeth reeling around Dunsinane castle, unable to wash the imagined blood of murder off her hands.

(Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking, 1784, Louvre, Paris)

For many, images such as Fuseli’s were enough. But for some the desire for complete immersion in this sort of fantasy world ran very strong and so they took it upon themselves to craft real environments of irrationality and drama.  Those who did so by creating garden follies still maintained the healthy balance between rational real life and fantasy escape.  But others tipped the scale in the favor of fantasy quite extravagantly, and the most extravagant of all was William Beckford and his spectacular Fonthill Abbey.

(Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey, John Rutter, 1823)

Before he built it, he was known as an eccentric but during and after its construction he was considered by many certifiable – a reputation that only increased fascination in his Gothic Xanadu.  He was said to have ordered round the clock construction, done by close to 500 workers, which he would observe in the wee hours of the morning from under a tree, pen and paper in hand in case the sight of the creation of his beloved architectural vision should prompt him to wax poetic.  There are also accounts of his crafting extravagant light and music productions along the main carriageway to delight new visitors and requiring the kitchen staff to prepare dinner for 12 every night, although he almost always dined alone.  A huge reversal of fortune (literally) forced him to sell the Abbey in 1822 and when word reached him of the main octagonal tower’s collapse on Christmas Day in 1825, his great regret was that he hadn’t been present to see firsthand the sublime tumble of his imagination’s greatest endeavor.

At the same time that Beckford was building Fonthill, perfectly ordinary people also began to desire the kind of fantasy escapism that the Gothic provided but on a more reasonable scale, which helped fuel the passion for Gothic Revival residential architecture.  But inside these pleasantly “castellated ” domestic interiors, they thrilled, as we still do, at the terrific sublime of Gothic madness.  By the fire on dark and stormy nights, they let themselves be carried away to the gloomy castles in which resided the demented Bertha who escapes her prison tower one night to set the whole place alight in Jane Eyre, the cruel, love-crazed and sadistic Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and worst of all, the monsters – both the scientist and his creation – in Frankenstein.

(Illustration for frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Theodor von Holst)


[i] Myrone, 304.


[i] Martin Myrone. “Henry Fuseli and Gothic Spectacle,” Huntington Library Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2007): 296.

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