Francis Lathom

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Francis Lathom (14 July 1774 – 19 May 1832) was a British gothic novelist and playwright.

Biography[edit]

Francis Lathom was born on the 14 July 1774, either in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where his father, Henry, conducted business for the East India Company and returning to England around 1777, settling near Norwich, or he was born in Norwich and may have been the illegitimate son of an English peer. He joined the Norwich Stock Company, a stock theatre company, in 1791 and began his literary career there.

Lathom was a precocious writer, beginning to write plays before he had turned eighteen. His first play, All in a Bustle, was produced on the Norwich stage at the Theatre Royal Norwich in 1795; he would go on to write six other plays, including The Dash of the Day (1800), which went into three Norwich editions as well as a reprint published in Dublin.

Lathom's first novel, The Castle of Ollada (1795) was published in two volumes, anonymously, by William Lane's Minerva Press. This work, like most of Lathom's later Gothic novels, owed much to the earlier works of such writers as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. Although Lathom would occasionally employ bloody and horrific scenes reminiscent of M. G. Lewis, he typically followed Radcliffe's method of the "explained supernatural."

His next novel, The Midnight Bell (1798), is his most famous, not only because it is his best Gothic novel, but more significantly because Jane Austen lists it as one of "the horrid novels" in her Northanger Abbey. Lathom would go on to publish many more Gothic novels, all with sensational titles such as Astonishment!!!, The Fatal Vow, The Unknown, and The Impenetrable Secret, Find it Out!

But Lathom was not only a Gothic novelist: about half his works are works of contemporary satire or attempts at fiction in the mode of Walter Scott. Montague Summers called Lathom's Men and Manners (1799) his masterpiece and worthy of Dickens. Very Strange, But Very True! (1803), despite its enticing title, is not a Gothic novel, but a rollicking farce which still retains much of its humour after two centuries.

Lathom can be cited for two important achievements as a novelist. First, he was one of the first writers of historical fiction, with historical romances such as The Mysterious Freebooter; or, The Days of Queen Bess (1806), a novel which blends fact and fiction regarding Queen Elizabeth, predating the better known historical novels of Scott. Secondly, Lathom may be considered among the first gay writers. His Gothic novels often deal, albeit in a muted fashion, with subversive sexuality; his later works, including the novella The One-Pound Note (1820) and the novel Live and Learn, deal in a more surprisingly obvious way with the subject of mutual love between two men. Many of his novels attack infidelity however and champion a moral attitude to family affairs.

Little is known of Lathom's personal life. In 1797 he married Diana Ganning, daughter of a wealthy Norfolk lawyer, and the pair had four children, three of which survived, a baby boy dying in infancy. However, despite Lathom's burgeoning literary career and his growing family, some unknown cause led him to leave Norwich in 1810 and end his literary career. Summers has speculated this is related to Lathom's homosexuality, but there is no evidence one way or the other. He did separate from his wife shortly after this however and was given two thousand pounds a year in his father's will on condition that he break all ties with his children. His wife was awarded sole guardianship over the children in 1815 and the children were later renamed with their mother's maiden name. Lathom appears to have travelled extensively, visiting New York and Philadelphia and attempting to publish two novels in 1820. He also travelled in France and Italy, eventually settling in rural Scotland with the Rennie family, where he died in Aberdeenshire in 1832. He was buried under the name of 'Mr James Francis' in a plot in Fyvie churchyard belonging to the Rennie family.

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