Introduction: Catholicism, Sacrilege, and the Modern Gothic

  • Daniel Darvay


On a first reading, Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” appears to be a country-house poem, a popular seventeenth-century genre in which the poet praises the owner through the description of the house. The poem was written between 1650 and 1653, during the period of Marvell’s employment as tutor to the daughter of the retired general Thomas Fairfax. Its overarching theme rests on the identification of the moral integrity and elevated social status of Lord Fairfax with the providential history and grand architecture of Nun Appleton House. However, in trying to incorporate the history of Appleton into his encomium, Marvell quickly found himself entangled in issues of dispossession, questionable heritage, and family drama—the very elements that would come to typify the Gothic genre at the height of its popularity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A Cistercian priory dissolved in 1539, Nun Appleton was acquired by the Fairfax family in 1542 as a direct effect of the Dissolution of the Monasteries decreed by Henry VIII in 1536 and gradually implemented over the course of the next five years. By Marvell’s time, the fate of the new Appleton House, which was built in part from the stones cannibalized from the original priory, was a politically charged subject as a result of a rich, century-long tradition of literature on sacrilege and impropriation of church assets. To stress the legitimacy of his patron as rightful owner, Marvell invented a providential version of the history of Appleton based on the idea that the functional shift from nunnery to country house meant a divinely sanctioned removal of corrupt Catholic nuns from a building that could finally live up to its reputation as symbol of purity, integrity, and justice. By grafting this idea onto a dramatized account of ancestry laced with suspicious familial relations, Marvell created in the story of the early sixteenth-century heiress Isabel Thwaites, Thomas Fairfax’s great-great-grandmother, a precursor to the Gothic.

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© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel Darvay
    • 1
  1. 1.Colorado State University–PuebloPuebloUSA

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