The Victorian Gothic – Briefel


I give up – I’m making a separate category for the Gothic, even if it will take me some time to sort out any that I already posted (probably in ‘Other genres’)… anyway, ‘Defining the Victorian Gothic’, Aviva Briefel writes:

“Like its characters, the Victorian gothic is haunted by the past: in this case, by the period between 1764 and 1820, in which the gothic genre first established itself in the British literary scene. This period begins with the publication of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), whose popularity inspired a pervasive literary trend, featuring Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, published posthumously in 1818, frequently appears on this canonical list for its parodic appropriation of gothic conventions. The scholarly story goes that following [-p.509] the publication of Maturin’s novel, the gothic ceased to be a cohesive genre and its conventions were dispersed among a range of literary contexts [Briefel goes on to cite examples].” (pp.508-509)

“Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was one of the first Victorian authors who revived the gothic as a discrete genre in his novel Uncle Silas (1864) and his collection of supernatural tales In a Glass Darkly (1872), which includes his female vampire story “Carmilla.” The Victorian fin de siècle witnessed a fascination with the gothic that rivaled its popularity in the eighteenth century. This period was marked by the publication of such works of terror as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), and H. G. Wells’s novels of scientific horror, including The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898).

“Such evolutionary histories may end up creating their own monsters by portraying the gothic as a literary creature that slinks from one text to another. David Punter argues that there is something “parasitic” about the genre in its tendency to invade literary spaces (“Introduction” 3), while Julian Wolfreys describes it as a “spectral” form that engages in textual and cultural “hauntings” (Victorian Hauntings 7). But what exactly is this gothic creature that, like the vampire, is so good at insinuating itself in multiple periods and fictions? Defining the gothic is not an obvious enterprise; most discussions of the genre begin by acknowledging how difficult it is to classify. Eugenia DeLamotte explains that attempts at definition often result in a “shopping-list approach” (5) that dissects the genre into individual tropes: ghosts, labyrinths, hidden passages, forbidden trysts, family secrets, terrified young women, terrifying fathers, and so on. To avoid this fragmentary tendency, DeLamotte turns to Eve Sedgwick’s influential study The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1976), which sets out to identify essential formal aspects of this literary mode. Writing against the critical tendency to discuss the gothic through images of depth associated with secrecy and psychology, Sedgwick argues that the genre operates through a spatial model based on surfaces, in which the self is “massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access” (12). DeLamotte extends this definition to a feminist context, arguing that the gothic is concerned with the “boundaries of the self ” (14), especially the female self. Later critics introduce temporally based models to these spatial ones: for Robert Mighall, the gothic “testifies to a concern with the historical past, and adopts a number of [-p.510] rhetorical and textual strategies to locate the past and represent its perceived iniquities, terrors, and survivals” (xiv), while for Patrick O’Malley, it entails the “thematic or discursive eruption of a traumatic past into the present, distorted into a suggestion of the supernatural” (12). Another major critical strain is to conceive of the gothic as an ideological enterprise.” (pp.509-510)

While inheriting the eighteenth-century gothic legacy, the Victorians manufactured their own horrors. One major departure is that the types of fears described in Victorian narratives are less containable than earlier ones. Whereas gothic events and characters in eighteenth-century novels were by and large confined to desolate places (an Italian castle, a Spanish monastery),Victorian horrors appear in “the world inhabited by the reader” (Mighall 78). Horror might emerge on London’s urban streets, as in Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1846) and in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hydeor at the heart of the domestic sphere, as in Wuthering Heights and DraculaWhat is more, these Victorian fears cannot easily be laid to rest. Anticipating the modern horror film, the monster is never truly conquered (even when it seems to be), and order cannot be restored fully.” (p.510)

“Finally, the Victorian gothic demonstrates a form of parasitism that is crucial to its resilience. In his preface to the anthology Victorian Gothic (2000),Wolfreys writes that “having been dismembered” after the first gothic wave, the genre is no longer a “single, identifiable corpus . . . it returns through various apparitions and manifestations, seemingly everywhere” (xiii, xv). The Victorian gothic emerges in – and, in turn, draws from – a range of literary and visual media, including poetry, decadent narratives, children’s fiction, and photography.” (p.510)

The creation of a menagerie of monsters is another major innovation of the Victorian literature of fear. Whereas the eighteenth-century gothic was populated by human or spectral terrors, its nineteenth-century counterpart – heralded by Frankenstein’s creature – isolates monsters as the locus of horror. These take on multiple forms: vampires, sinister doubles, men whose [-p.511] souls are rotting but who are beautiful in appearance, repulsive animal/human hybrids, to name only a few. According to Judith Halberstam, this nineteenth-century fascination with monsters “marks a peculiarly modern emphasis upon the horror of particular kinds of bodies” (3). Monsters are most prolific at the end of the nineteenth century, when they come to embody fears (and, in some cases, desires) specific to this tumultuous period: Darwinism, imperialism, degeneration, non-normative sexualities, and the rise of the New Woman. These creatures may reflect fin-de-siècle conflicts associated with racial, biological, or gendered identities in their blurring of the line between the human and the nonhuman.” (pp.510-511)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Aviva Briefel (2007) The Victorian Literature of Fear. Literature Compass 4(2), pp.508-523

Abstract: “This article examines the prolific field of literary criticism on the Victorian gothic. It begins by offering a brief history of the genre and by delineating differences between its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manifestations. The article then isolates major critical discussions on the important triad of anxiety, monstrosity, and identity, focusing primarily on the last fifteen years. Among the most promising developments are recent interventions from queer theory, postcolonial studies, and economic theory. The final part of the article offers suggestions for future research, calling for a balance between a particularizing and expansive approach to the gothic.” (p.508)


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