Gothic Britain
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Gothic Britain

Dark Places in the Provinces and Margins of the British Isles

William Hughes,Ruth Heholt

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eBook - ePub

Gothic Britain

Dark Places in the Provinces and Margins of the British Isles

William Hughes,Ruth Heholt

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About This Book

Gothic Britain is the first collection of essays to consider how the Gothic responds to, and is informed by, the British regional experience. Acknowledging how the so-called United Kingdom has historically been divided on nationalistic lines, the twelve original essays in this volume interrogate the interplay of ideas and generic innovations generated in the spaces between the nominal kingdom and its component nations and, innovatively, within those national spaces. Concentrating upon fictions depicting England, Scotland and Wales specifically, Gothic Britain comprehends the generic possibilities of the urban and the rural, of the historical and the contemporary, of the metropolis and the rural settlement – as well as exploring uniquely the fluid space that is the act of travel itself. Reading the textuality of some two hundred years of national and regional identity, Gothic Britain interrogates how the genre has depicted and questioned the natural and built environments of the island of Britain.

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Part I

Re-imagined Gothic Landscapes: Folklore, Nostalgia and History


‘Dark, and cold, and rugged is the North’: Regionalism, Folklore and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Northern’ Gothic

Catherine Spooner

Gothic regionalism
‘Dark, and cold, and rugged is the North’, Gaskell writes in her Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), misquoting Tennyson’s line from The Princess (1847), ‘dark and true and tender is the North’.1 The mock quotation gives the line the force of received wisdom – a stereotype that Charlotte Brontë, for Gaskell, partly confirms but also partly confounds. Throughout the Life, Gaskell is keen to emphasise that southerners’ rejection of Brontë’s depiction of over-exaggerated northern manners is contradicted by her Yorkshire readers’ warm recognition of their own lives and landscapes. Gaskell implicitly defends what is regarded as overblown and grotesque by the cultured south as realistic by local standards. In doing so, she constructs the north as a fictional space that is simultaneously Gothic and realist. Gothic, she implies, is the natural idiom of Haworth and its surrounds.
Gaskell is, of course, primarily known for her realist portrayal of the industrial north in novels such as Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854−5) as well as her light-hearted portrayal of a provincial community in Cranford (1851−3). She also, however, contributed ghost stories to Household Words and wrote a variety of short fiction that could be described as Gothic, collected in one volume for Penguin Classics by Laura Kranzler in 2000. Like her novels, Gaskell’s short stories are often set in clearly specified northern landscapes, although their focus is rural rather than urban. Nevertheless the identification of these tales as Gothic is far from secure and could be regarded as an opportunistic exercise: with the exception of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1852) and ‘The Poor Clare’ (1856), Gaskell’s stories often depart significantly from the characteristic atmosphere or aesthetic of ‘classic’ Gothic through their deployment of a comic or realist register. Reviewing the volume in Gothic Studies, Lisa Hopkins suggests:
A whole collection of Gothic tales by Elizabeth Gaskell would be a marvellous thing, which one would love to have. Unfortunately, however, the present volume... doesn’t really fit the bill. [Only three of the stories] could reasonably find shelter under a Gothic umbrella.2
With a flounce, she concludes, ‘I think I’ll go off and read something Gothic’.3
Part of the problem in defining Gaskell as Gothic lies in the tendency of Gothic studies as an academic field to value non-realist literary forms. Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall’s excoriating attack on ‘Gothic Criticism’ in David Punter’s A Companion to the Gothic argues that the positioning of Gothic as radical other within the literary tradition often flagrantly disregards historical evidence in the service of what they call ‘the mainstream modernist, post-modernist, and left-formalist campaign against nineteenth-century literary realism and its alleged ideological backwardness’.4 Gaskell, as a prime proponent of that realism, remains uncomfortably positioned in relation to the Gothic canon. And yet, Gaskell remains reliant on Gothic narrative conventions even in the work that might be reasonably supposed to be most ‘realist’ of all: Nicola J. Watson argues that her biography of Brontë, beginning with a tombstone and ending with a funeral, inaugurates its subject as the typical heroine of feminine Gothic, shut up in a restrictive domestic space, and scripts the traveller’s experience of Haworth as a Gothic one.5
This chapter argues that Gaskell attempts to establish a specifically northern Gothic, a Gothic which engages closely with other forms of Gothic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which also has a specifically regional focus. Given that Gothic was not Gaskell’s primary fictional mode, although she continued to experiment with it throughout her career, the chapter also will ask what is at stake in her construction of northern Gothic, how it reflects or refracts the apparently more ‘serious’ concerns of her realist fiction. I suggest that through ‘northern Gothic’, Gaskell effects a kind of reconciliation between Gothic and realism. The first part of the chapter reflects in general terms on the construction of a Gothic north, both in Gaskell’s own textual strategies and in the wider literary context. I propose that Gaskell positions herself as a kind of antecedent to the modern psychogeographer in the form of a worldly female traveller who becomes a conduit for the colourful local stories that inhere in the places that she visits. In Gaskell’s northern Gothic, therefore, place is constructed not just through landscape, but also through the accumulation of legends and folklore that inform local identity. The second part of the chapter provides a close reading of ‘The Poor Clare’, arguing that in this story Gaskell constructs a regional Gothic that we might define not just as ‘northern’ but as specifically ‘Lancashire’.
Gaskell’s Gothic tales are almost always rooted in a specific locality, whether Heidelberg and the Vosges in ‘The Grey Woman’ (1861) or Cardigan Bay in ‘The Doom of the Griffiths’ (1858). However, the rural north of England looms large, whether the Cumberland Fells in ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’, the Trough of Bowland in ‘The Poor Clare’, or the North Riding of Yorkshire in ‘The Crooked Branch’ (1859). As such, they evoke the American literary critical concern with regionalism. Mary Austin, in her 1932 essay ‘Regionalism in American Fiction’, argued that ‘There is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment’, and suggested that attention to the ‘many subtle and significant characterizations’ found in regional literature could reveal ‘several Americas’, problematising the nation as mythic monolith.6 Regional writing of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, commonly celebrated for its mixture of the strange and remote with realistic local detail, has proved a rich source of American Gothic, encompassing writers as diverse as George Washington Cable, Bret Harte and Ellen Glasgow. However, critics generally locate British Gothic fiction in the Orient, in Mediterranean Europe, in Scotland or Ireland, in London – anywhere but in provincial England, the literal space which Gothic authors and readers were supposed to inhabit. In contrast, the strong sense of place conveyed in Gaskell’s writing indicates the existence of a regional English Gothic – a complex fictional geography that may reveal ‘several Englands’, or indeed, ‘several Gothics’.
Folklore, travel and Victorian Gothic
Since Henry James’s review of Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd in 1865, critics have repeatedly noted that the exotic European locations of earlier Gothic fiction are replaced in the Victorian period by locations closer to home.7 A critical preoccupation with the Freudian ‘Unheimlich’, however, or with London and the urban environment, has resulted in a surprising neglect of the wide range of actual places depicted in the texts. The fictional shift from exotic locations to homely ones over the course of the nineteenth century matched a corresponding movement to collect and preserve British folklore, in the wake of industrialisation and urban migration. The term ‘folklore’ was in fact introduced by the antiquarian William John Thoms in 1846, and marked a shift from the leisurely pursuit of a handful of amateur antiquarians and gentleman tourists, to an increasingly professionalised endeavour to catalogue and document the disappearing traditions of the British Isles. In the second half of the nineteenth century, then, oral narratives concerning the supernatural were crystallised into written form, fashioning a kind of supernatural map of Britain that still persists today. In their book The Lore of the Land, Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson literally draw up these maps, constructing a supernatural cartography of England.
While most parts of England are revealed as rich in supernatural tradition, Westwood and Simpson discover that some areas are particularly dense sources of local legend. They attribute this in large part to the presumptions of those gathering the data:
In partic...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Notes on Contributors
  8. Introduction: The Uncanny Space of Regionality: Gothic Beyond the Metropolis: William Hughes
  9. Part I: Re-imagined Gothic Landscapes: Folklore, Nostalgia and History
  10. Part II: Unnatural Gothic Spaces
  11. Part III: Border Crossings and the Threat of Invasion
  12. Bibliography