An Ardor for Armor


“Rushing downstairs, they found that a large suit of old armour had become detached from its stand, and had fallen on the stone floor, while, seated in a high-backed chair, was the Canterville ghost, rubbing his knees with an expression of acute agony on his face…. He had hoped that even modern Americans would be thrilled by the sight of a Spectre In Armour …. Besides, it was his own suit. He had worn it with great success at the Kenilworth tournament, and had been highly complimented on it by no less a person than the Virgin Queen herself. Yet when he had put it on, he had been completely overpowered by the weight of the huge breastplate and steel casque, and had fallen heavily on the stone pavement….”

—Oscar Wilde, “The Canterville Ghost,” 1887

We are witnesses here at a confluence of stereotypes. Hiram B. Otis, the American minister, has bought Canterville Chase, along with its furniture and ghost, “at a valuation,” since he comes from “a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy.” Because they are Californians, the Otis family are immune to the terrors of the English stately home. They clean the mysterious bloodstain from the library floor. They mock the efforts of the ghost to frighten them.

The Americans are comic stereotypes. The ghost, too, belongs to a stereotype cluster, along with the stain, the stained-glass window, the dark oak paneling, the armor. The idea of the stately home thus conjured up was, when Wilde wrote his story, of no great antiquity. Its literary origins are in the eighteenth-century Gothic novel—that is, in fantasy. But the actual homes of the gentry in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Gothic began to thrive, were not predominantly furnished with ancient objects. There might be a few such items around, but, as Clive Wainwright explains in The Romantic Interior, “the overwhelming character would have been one of modernity, with new carpets, curtains, wallpapers, light fittings and furniture. In 1750, for instance, the style of these furnishings could have been neo-classical, Rococo, Chinese or Gothic, but all newly manufactured and thus new in appearance.”1

When Catherine Morland comes to Northanger Abbey, her head full of Gothic novels, she is distressed by precisely this newness and comfort:

The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fire-place where she had expected the ample and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain, though handsome, marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the General talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure the pointed arch was preserved, the form of them was Gothic, they might be even casements, but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination…

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