History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914
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History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914

Jarlath Killeen

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History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914

Jarlath Killeen

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History and the Victorians
It has long been recognised that Gothic is in many ways a grappling with the forces of time and history. In one critical intervention, Mark Madoff argued persuasively that the eigh-teenth-century use of the term ‘Gothic’ is bound up with notions of ‘ancestry’ and inheritance, with establishing an imaginative connection to the now anachronistic past rather than the present or the future.1 The investment of the Gothic in history has not always been taken seriously. There has been a marked tendency in literary critical terms to distinguish Gothic from the historical novel as it emerged in the writing of Sir Walter Scott. The Marxist Georg Lukács, in his The Historical Novel (1937), argued forcefully that fiction before Scott – particularly Walpole’s Otranto – used history as atmosphere and costume, while Scott took historical knowledge seriously.2 However, as Fiona Robertson has explained, the division between the historical and the Gothic novel ‘did not seem obvious to Scott’. She insists that ‘Gothic modes of history were not preparations for the real thing [the historical novel] but ways of presenting the past and imaginative responses to the past which survive in the Waverley novels’.3 This helps to explain the continued relevance of Gothic tropes and themes in Scott’s writing, and also dispels the suspicion that Gothic novelists were not ‘serious’ when they invoked the past; both the historical novel and Gothic fiction ask important questions concerning the relevance of history to the present, and interrogate versions of legitimacy central to national mythology. There is no clear line demarcating the historical novel from the Gothic, and most Victorian writers with an investment in the Gothic, including Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, Charles Reade, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy, also wrote historical novels. The relationship between these two genres was osmotic and cross-fertilising, and together they highlight the centrality of historical inheritance to the nineteenth-century mind.
In the Gothic the past is never completely finished with; instead, it has a nasty habit of bursting through into the present, displacing the contemporary with the supposedly outdated. Although time was a concern for eighteenth-century Britons, Victorians had even more temporal baggage to grapple with, for many reasons. In the first place, the Victorians were enthralled by the idea of Progress and, superficially at least, devoted to the notion of ‘modernisation’, self-consciously modern in social and cultural terms. In broad terms, ‘modernity’ is centrally concerned with both rejecting the past and laying it to rest. As Michel de Certeau has argued, ‘modern Western history essentially begins with the differentiation between the past and the present’.4 In this model the past is configured as a nightmare plagued by superstition, tyranny and backwardness, while the present is conversely thought of as enlightened, tolerant and progressive.
Raymond Tumbleson has traced how this credulous, autocratic past was identified as Catholic, while the progressive present resulted from the break with Catholicism in the Reformation. During the reign of the Catholic King James II, Protestant polemicists aggressively depicted Catholicism as a sink of superstition and idolatry and concomitantly praised the Protestant present as sourced in pure reason, a dichotomy seen in such significant Protestant exercises in apologetical propaganda as Edward Stillingfleet’s A Rational Account of the Grounds of the Protestant Religion (1665) and Originae Sacrae, or a Rational Account of the Grounds of the Christian Faith (1662), Samuel Johnson’s The Absolute Impossibility of Transubstantiation Demonstrated (1688) and Robert Boyle’s Reasons Why a Protestant Should Not Turn Papist (1687).5
Rejecting the Catholic past by configuring it as grotesque and monstrous is central to Gothic literature. In its fetishisation of the present and the future, the nineteenth century displayed an almost neurotic fixation on escaping the burden of the past, in which exercise the Gothic played no small part. The Industrial Revolution, with its accompanying transformation of communication and manufacturing technology, encouraged those living through it to see the age as ‘modern’, as never before. Jerome Buckley has called the belief in Progress ‘a primary dogma of the Victorian period’.6 For many, ‘History’ was concerned with the emergence of the modern, it was the history of progress, and historians like Thomas Macaulay emphasised the barbarism of the past and the progressivism of the present. His History of England from the Accession of James II (1849–61) is considered one of the greatest examples of what is called ‘Whig’ history, a reading of the past as a way to the present; indeed, a reading of the past as directioned towards the present, moving from medieval darkness to modern light. Macaulay believed that
The history of England is emphatically the history of progress … To us, we will own, nothing is so interesting as to contemplate the steps by which the England of Domesday Book, the England of the Curfew and the Forest Laws, the England of the crusaders, monks, schoolmen, astrologers, serfs, outlaws, became the England which we know and love, the classic ground of liberty and philosophy, the school of knowledge, the mart of all trade.7
To some commentators the Gothic aesthetic served to enunciate and confirm this general progressive spirit that can be sensed throughout the Victorian age. Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall argue powerfully that the Gothic is a mode centrally concerned with expressing antagonism towards the atavistic, Catholic past, and loyalty to the enlightened present and future. ‘Gothic fiction’, they argue, ‘is essentially Whiggish … [the Gothic] delights in depicting the delusions and iniquities of a (mythical) social order and celebrating its defeat by modern progressive values.’8 This mythical anachronistic social order is precisely Catholic in culture, which explains the Continental location of many Gothic texts:
For if the good characters are ‘modern’ types drawn from Richardsonian sentimental fiction, the villains are characteristically archaic, their principal function being to represent the values of a benighted antiquity. Modern values are confirmed and modern virtues rewarded in the denouement, when the heroine escapes finally from the clutches of the Inquisition and is allowed to marry the suitor of her choice as she takes up residence in a tastefully designed villa, allowing the feudal castle to fall into ruins.9
In his important study of Victorian Gothic Mighall extends this claim and insists that ‘The Gothic dwells in the historical past, or identifies “pastness” in the present, to reinforce a distance between the enlightened now and the repressive or misguided then.’10
As rhetorically persuasive as this argument is, however, ultimately the Gothic does not work in precisely this way; for Gothic writers the past was a place which could also be used to highlight the existential emptiness of the present, rather than its optimistic plenitude. After all, Jerome Buckley has theorised that as well as being fascinated by the future, the Victorians were ‘obsessed’ with the past, an obsession he finds in places as diverse as John Henry Newman’s attempt to trace nineteenth-century Anglicanism back to the primitive Church, Charles Darwin’s musings over the ‘origin’ of species, the proliferation of memento mori, the public fascination with dinosaurs, geological investigation into the ages of rocks, and the development of photography.11
Rejection of the past, enchantment with the present and hope for the future was not the only attitude to time and modernity that can be detected in the nineteenth century, and the Gothic represents not simply a mode for ecstatic celebration but also one of melancholic warning. Many were concerned that there was something seriously wrong with modern culture, something missing, and they sought that lack in the ruins of the past and the Catholic culture that had been rejected. As well as denuding the world of ‘magic’ and ‘superstition’, after all, modernity was believed to have drained meaning and wonder from creation. The sociologist Max Weber has described modernity as bound up in a ‘disenchantment’ of the world, and this ontological bleeding left a spiritual, emotional, moral and psychological vacuum at the heart of ‘progress’.12 Peter Berger puts it like this:
If compared to the fullness of the Catholic universe, Protestantism appears as a radical truncation, a reduction to ‘essentials’ at the expense of the vast wealth of religious contents … Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary … At the risk of some simplification, it can be said that Protestantism divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred – miracle, mystery, and magic.13
As the burden of making-meaning of the cosmos fell on to the shoulders of modern man, the weight became increasingly difficult for him to carry with psychological ease. The expansion of human responsibility for the world turned out to be an existential load so evident in the anxiety characteristic of modern men and women. Berger calls modern man ‘a very nervous Prometheus’,14 and this was certainly marked in Victorian Britain. While a belief in human potential seems to be liberating, social and psychological difficulties quickly emerge from such new pressures. This sense of national psychological trauma – the trauma of what the sociologist Emile Durkheim termed ‘anomie’15 – creates nostalgia for the pre-modern period. The development of Romanticism was the most important expression of this nostalgia for the things denied by modernity, but it also explains why much Gothic literature reverts to what Robert Miles calls the ‘Gothic cusp’,16 the intellectual fault-line dividing the Protestant English present from the foreign Catholic past, not simply to re-inforce that boundary, but to breach it and allow the past to return and, in some cases, undermine and banish the present.
Nostalgia for a more spiritually coherent past became more important in the nineteenth century after the detection of what has been called ‘deep time’, the discovery of a much longer past for both humankind and the earth. Geological investigation in general, and especially the publication of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–3), announced to the British public that the earth was of an extraordinary age – indeed, an age which, it is fair to say, is unimaginable. Lyell argued strongly against geological orthodoxy, which held that a series of natural catastrophes had produced the present shape and structure of the earth, and proposed instead that change had come about very slowly over mind-bogglingly vast periods of time, in a theory known as uniformitarianism. Whereas many had previously hung on to Archbishop Ussher’s claim that the cosmos was created ex nihilo in 4004 BC, this now seemed not only outdated but positively naive. Given the remarkable age of the earth, the idea that humankind, never mind individual men and women, were of cosmic significance came under extreme pressure. If the breach with the pre-Reformation past had appeared such an intense one to the societies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it began to seem rather parochial when viewed against the vast background of geological history. The reinvestigation of human history was one means of reorienting the self within the vicissitudes and vastness of time, and the Catholic Middle Ages took on an increasing fascination as an era when stability and meaning, time and self, appeared to be in harmony.
The Gothic is always ambivalent about the Catholic past; it desires that which has been excluded, yet it must repulse it simultaneously to maintain the coherence of the present. Rosemary Jackson’s important study of fantasy argues that non-realism serves an important function in demonstrating what ‘realistic’ accounts of the world leave out and marginalise, indicating what ‘cultural order’ rests on.17 The fantastic is a means to examine questions in ways which are deemed inappropriate in more ‘realistic’ kinds of literature, because in fantasy the desire which haunts the forbidden can be fully explored. A desire for the past has always been an aspect of modernity (hence the proliferation of nostalgia), and can be seen most obviously in the rhetoric of medieval merry England that pervades much conservative thought. Protestantism has always also desired the Catholic past as the Mother Church into whose arms it wants to return, but which it simultaneously despises. For this reason, anti-Catholicism should be seen as a version of Orientalism, since in fantasising about the Catholic Other, the average Protestant can indulge in many kinds of transgressive creativity. To paraphrase V. G. Kiernan, the rhetoric of anti-Catholicism has constituted a Protestant wetdream,18 and has acted, in Edward Said’s terms, as a ‘living tableau of queerness’.19 This transgressive desire can be found in the vehemence with which Catholicism has been characterised as a discourse of perversity. A good example of this can be seen in the accusation that Catholics were responsible for the Great Fire of London, with one writer in 1680 producing a vision of what an England overtaken by Catholics would look like:
your wives prostituted to the lust of every savage bog-trotter, your daughters ravished by goatish monks, your smaller children tossed upon pikes, or torn limb from limb, whilst you have your own bowels ripped up … and holy candles made of your grease (which was done within our memory in Ireland) … foreigners rendering your poor babes that can escape everlasting slaves, never more to see a Bible, nor hear the joyful sounds of Liberty and Property. This, this gentlemen, is Popery.20
Sexual desire and sexual disgust shadow each other in Gothic discourse, so that the average Gothic text is both a rapprochement with the Catholic past and a horrified reaction against it. The psychological knot of the Gothic form in which it subversively reaches out beyond the Protestant Real to its cultural and temporal Other, while simultaneously re-enacting the expulsion of Catholicism from the nation-state, explains a great deal about the convolutions of the mode and its attraction for a wide variety of people, for whom it provides some kind of historical closure. J. M. S. Tompkins points out that
[the literary men of Protestant England] are very conscious of the picturesque attractions of convents, vows of celibacy, confessions and penance; they are seduced by the emotional possibilities of the situations that can be based on these usages; but they seldom fail to make it quite clear that they regard the usages as superstitious and irrational.21
The Gothic writer attempts to both undo some of the religious consequences of modernity – the disenchantment with the world, the over-dependence on the individual making meaning for himself, cultural and spiritual anomie – while perversely remaining committed to the ideology which has caused this disenchantment (Protestant reason, the power of the state). Ian Watt has explained that ‘etymologically the term “Gothic Novel” is an oxymoron for “Old New”’ 22; this oxymoronic complexity works itself out in the competing discourses of the past inherent in the form, so that the Gothic novel is ultimately a reconciliation of competing discourses of history, Protestant modernity and Catholic medievalism, while also being a re-establishment of that competition. This intellectual and literary rapprochement with Catholicism was, of course, enabled in part by political changes. Colin Haydon has demonstrated that by the end of the eighteenth century, with the Jacobin threat effectively eliminated, it became more acceptable to express nostalgia for the Catholic past,23 and it is no coincidence that the erection of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House – an architectural embodiment of the potential reconciliation with Catholicism – began in the year after the Battle of Culloden. Catholic Emancipation in 1829 opened the possibilities for cultural investment in the Catholic past even further.
Gothicising the Past
As both a writer of historical fiction and a leading Gothicist, William Harrison Ainsworth is a crucial figure in the Victorian examination of the relationship between past and present, and the way in which modernity not only depends upon, but yearns for, and yet inherently fears and despises, the pre-modern past. In a very thorough recent book-length study of Ainsworth, Stephen Carver has argued convincingly that this often neglected writer is a central bridging figure between the old Gothic tradition of Walpole and Maturin, and the diffusion of Gothic in the writings of the Brontës and Charles Dickens – but he is also a figure who demonstrates, like Scott, how central Gothic tropes are to historical recreation,...

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Citation styles for History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914
APA 6 Citation
Killeen, J. (2009). History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914 (1st ed.). University of Wales Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/572994/history-of-the-gothic-gothic-literature-18251914-pdf (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Killeen, Jarlath. (2009) 2009. History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914. 1st ed. University of Wales Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/572994/history-of-the-gothic-gothic-literature-18251914-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Killeen, J. (2009) History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914. 1st edn. University of Wales Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/572994/history-of-the-gothic-gothic-literature-18251914-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Killeen, Jarlath. History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914. 1st ed. University of Wales Press, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.