Tag Archives: gothic

Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863) http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.

Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.

We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”

At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”

After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.

I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.

Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).

Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.

Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.

The Monk (Le Moine): A Film Review

As I begin my dissertation chapter on Matthew Lewis, I try to think of not only what research I can contribute to the field but also what related teaching opportunities and activities could be useful in future classes. One possibility for teaching well-known literature is often to include a lesson on adaptation: how can a text change by portraying it through a different medium and all the different lenses that that involves? It helps me to reemphasize to my students the idea that the way a story is formed is a choice made by the author, director, artist, etc. This helps students to see literature as a crafted piece of art that invites multiple interpretations, not just a story that portrays objective, black-and-white facts. Particularly in the case of complex classic literature (or most literature, for that matter), the creator of an adaptation must make drastic sacrifices to reduce a 400-page text to an audience-friendly film under two hours. This is why we have so many different film versions of texts like Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, etc. (not to mention children’s books). Each one is different.

I know of three adaptations of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel, The Monk: two versions in English in 1972 and 1990, and the most recent and highly-anticipated French version, Le Moine, released in 2011. Those who have read The Monk would probably not be surprised to learn that all three versions are difficult to find: the novel is complex, with many simultaneous plots that would make a film version seem practically impossible without sacrificing some great material. In terms of the viewing experience of this film, it is a little on the slow side, though the scenery and atmosphere are beautiful and create a believable (if bleak) setting. It is certainly not an action film and involves a lot of contemplative silences and slow discussions. The English subtitles, while understandable, are probably not extremely accurate (or grammatical), placing more weight on the visuals to carry the film. However, while I would not say that Le Moine is a particularly fantastic film—especially with little or no knowledge of the novel—it does do some interesting things that could lead to a pedagogical discussion among higher-level students of what the Gothic does in the late eighteenth century and the way subtle changes in an adaptation help to accentuate those features.

(Click photo for trailer)

 

Warning: SPOILERS!

The central storyline of Lewis’s text follows the monk Ambrosio, who, seduced by the demonic Matilda (in disguise), proceeds to seduce the virginal Antonia (his sister), kill her (his) mother and eventually rape and kill her before standing trial at the Inquisition. He is then rescued by the devil, sells his soul, and is dropped off a cliff by Satan. Already, this sounds like it could be a Lord-of-the-Rings-sized trilogy! However, large parts of the novel deviate from this storyline to follow Antonia’s fiancé Don Lorenzo, his sister Agnes, and her lover Don Raymond. Agnes, a nun, has become pregnant by Don Raymond (after a long adventure of his own, involving banditti and the Bleeding Nun) and is imprisoned in the nunnery, where she gives birth and coddles her dead child in one of the most horrific scenes in Gothic literature.

Though it includes a few brief scenes of Agnes’s discovery and punishment and the growing love between Antonia and Don Lorenzo, the film, of course, focuses primarily on the relationship between Ambrosio and Matilda. Matilda, donning a stunningly-unsettling porcelain mask, enters the monastery as a deformed plague victim, who has an uncanny ability to quiet the “voices” in Ambrosio’s head. The devil is already among the citizens of Madrid according to this version, as an exorcism and the warning “It’s here!” foretell Matilda’s identity and Ambrosio’s fated association with her. The multiple layers of deformity, masking, and victimhood suggest an interesting link between illness/ misfortune and theatricality/artifice and (of course) the devil’s involvement in all of it. The exorcisms and the known presence of the devil suggest a more established and ongoing battle with evil that does not appear as strongly as in the novel, though corruption within the church is still present, notably in the Prioress’s dealings with Agnes.

One of the things that I found most interesting in this adaptation, however, is the emphasis on punishment. When Ambrosio turns Agnes over to the Prioress, he tells her that she should want and welcome punishment for her crimes. Yet, Agnes is the only one punished in the film (and she quickly dies of starvation, cursing Ambrosio’s name until the end). Romantic Gothic literature is nothing if not surprisingly conservative: crazy, evil, and scandalous things happen, but the ending is almost always about punishing those involved in some of the cruelest ways possible. In this way, it acts very much like Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque: controlled chaos turns peasants into princes and vice versa, but at the end of the day, order is restored and all goes back to normal.

In the novel, Agnes survives, but the Prioress who imprisoned her is graphically trampled to death by an angry mob. Ambrosio himself spends weeks in the dungeons of the Inquisition before he finally gives his soul to Matilda in exchange for his freedom. She delivers, but then she (as the devil) also brutally kills him. In the film, however, Ambrosio does end up crawling through the desert after his trial and is confronted by the devil. However, he markedly redeems himself (to some extent): when the devil offers to take him to paradise in exchange for his soul, he asks for the now-insane Antonia’s happiness, instead. He makes a choice to suffer, but that suffering is not imposed upon him, making him into a tragic hero of sorts. A martyr. Lewis’s monstrous and desperate villain of Catholicism has become a creature much more akin to later fiction starting with Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the monster is not all monster at all… or at least provokes a great deal of pity and admiration.

Despite this, the film is disappointingly conservative in other ways for modeling itself after one of the most shocking novels of all time. Empire magazine says it best in its review of the film when its author says, “An austere, cerebral reading of a book which is unfettered, blood-bolstered and wildly sensationalist — Lewis is the father of torture porn, not a master of subtle chills. It’s interesting and unsettling, with a charismatic lead performance, but nowhere near as shocking as it should be.” The most shocking second half of the novel is condensed into about twenty minutes, taking attention away from Ambrosio’s depravity and giving instead a slow, quiet view of monastic life and one man’s psychological struggle within it.

Getting to the Good Parts: Chapbooks and Blue Books

One of my favorite things about Broadview Press’s 2006 edition of Zofloya (1806), by Charlotte Dacre, is the inclusion of a chapbook version of the original text in the appendix.[i] Dacre’s novel, which occupies 216 pages in this edition, has been condensed into a 19-page document that speeds through the tale, sidestepping scenes of excessive emotion, dialogue, and prolonged action and cutting right to the barebones plot. A scene early on in the novel, in which the main character’s father is mortally wounded by his wife’s lover, the count, reads:

“Draw, monster, devil, and incendiary!” exclaimed the frantic husband, at the same time snatching his stiletto from his bosom.

“I have no sword,” cooly returned the count; “but I have, like yourself, a stiletto, that shall be at your service.”

The Marchese heard no more: he struck and struck again with desperate fury at the body of his antagonist; but his aim was rendered unsure by his thirst for vengeance, by the raging and uncontrouled passions of his soul. The count, calm, and self-collected, parried with hellish dexterity his indiscriminate attempts; but receiving, at length, the point of his adversary’s stiletto in his shoulder, he suffered an impulse of rage to nerve his hand; and, retreating for an instant, then furiously advanced, and plunged his dagger to the hilt in the breast of the unfortunate Loredani. (50)

In the chapbook, this same scene simply reads:

“Draw monster and defend yourself!” exclaimed the husband, snatching his stiletto from his bosom.

“I have no sword,” said the Count; “but I have a stiletto.” The Marchese struck at him with great fury. The indignant Count plunged his dagger into the breast of the unfortunate Leonardo. (280)

It sounds almost like an outline or as if recorded from memory. The chapbook, called The Demon of Venice: An Original Romance, By a Lady (1810), like most chapbooks, has been blatantly plagiarized from Dacre’s original, though Adriana Craciun speculates in her footnote to the Broadview introduction that there is a slim chance that Dacre could actually be the author (31). Regardless, the “borrowing” of plot details as the norm does not seem to bother either reader or author, and Alison Milbank claims that changing the names avoids any direct legal ramification for the often-anonymous authors.[ii] Milbank explains the difference between chapbooks and blue books (named, of course, for their blue covers): chapbooks are prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and had begun to die out in the early nineteenth century, whereas blue books—Gothic in nature and featuring a more sophisticated illustration style—were prevalent in the early nineteenth century and dealt closely with booksellers (perhaps even those carrying the original novels upon which they were based). Though I have only seen reference to The Demon of Venice as a chapbook, I suspect that it qualifies more as a blue book for these reasons. While books and even library membership were expensive, blue books “provided racy, entertaining and cheap reading for the literate poor,” and like many other more accessible forms of entertainment, such as theater, helped to perpetuate and continue the Gothic legacy among both the well-educated upper classes and the lower classes hoping occupy their minds for relatively cheap (Milbank). Milbank describes two lengths of these small books or pamphlets: “sixpence for 36 pages, and a shilling for 72 pages,” though some were even shorter.

I am just beginning to enter the world of chapbooks and blue books, hoping that this may offer insight into many Gothic novels that have not survived through to modern publishing and digitalization. Even Ann Radcliffe’s monstrous tome The Mysteries of Udolpho has been squeezed into under a hundred pages and re-titled as The Veiled Picture. I’m also interested in these types of abbreviations and how they change the stories themselves as well as the reading experience. I like to think of them as similar to today’s comic books or the series of Great Illustrated Classics with which many of us grew up (the ones with a picture on every other page. You know the ones!). They provide a different type of access to great stories. As Milbank points out, even our most revered literary figures, such as Percy Shelley, had a fondness for blue books, particularly in his youth.

Finding these texts today, however, is not easy. One of my goals for this post is to share with you a recent discovery that’s trying to make such texts as they were intended: accessible again. Literary Mushrooms, a spinoff project of Zittaw Press, is in the process of reprinting and re-illustrating fifteen Gothic chapbooks. They have just set up a great project page here, in order to gather funding for this project, which supports the 50’s-style comic illustrations, printing, and hand-stitching costs. Both Zittaw and Literary Mushrooms are dedicated in revitalizing an interest in these forgotten texts and to combine both nineteenth and twentieth-century elements to create a new (truly Gothic?) reading experience. I’ve just ordered a slew of copies of The Bloody Hand for the Gothic Reading Group that I run, distributing cheap thrills to the (poor) grad student masses, and we are anxious, amidst our regular studies of lengthy volumes, to discuss the difference in shifting from plot-driven novels to plot-only chapbooks, full (I might add) of exclamation points!


[i] Dacre, Charlotte. Zofloya. Ed. Adriana Craciun. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006.

[ii] Milbank, Alison. “Gothic Satires, Histories, and Chap-Books.” Gothic Fiction: Rare Printed Works from the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction at the Alderman Library, University of Virginia. Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Adam Mathew Publications, 2003. http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/gothic_fiction/AlisonMilbank3.aspx.

Love Letter to Mr. Lewis

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, the original Gothic tradition met with some pretty extreme ambivalence from other writers and pretty staunch criticism from reviewers in the late eighteenth century. Matthew G. Lewis—the writer of The Monk, who also happened to be an MP—got the brunt of abuse from those critical of his stories of terror and gore.  He mentions in one of his many undated letters to his mother, “You will observe that the Morning Herald continues to call [me] Monk Lewis, and to abuse me as much as formerly.” Though The Monk and much of Lewis’s poetry push the boundaries of the genre he helped create, I have found much of Lewis’s drama, including his best-known play, The Castle Spectre, to be surprisingly cautious and even conservative in terms of the supernatural. [i] In the same letter, however, he describes the failure of his play The Captive, which “proved much too terrible for representation, and two people went into hysterics during the performance and two more after the curtain dropped. It was given out again with a mixture of applause and disapprobation….”[ii]  Lewis, persisting in his penchant for creating tales of wonder and terror, was, nonetheless, not writing from an ivory tower but seemed keenly aware of the reception of his works. His letters reveal him to be especially sensitive of the impact his scandalizing works would have on the reputation and sensibility of his family, and he apologized profusely to his father for the outcome of The Monk, blaming his misjudgment of its reception on his youth (he was only 19 when it was published). After that, he sent some of his literary endeavors to his mother or his sister to edit for objectionable passages and eventually released a censored version of his novel.

Attracting severely negative attention from critics, Lewis also attracted his fair share of parody and satire.  The anonymous collection of poems, Tales of Terror followed the publication of his own collection, Tales of Wonder, an accumulation of original poems by himself and others such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey as well as translations of German pieces. There is no evidence to suggest that Lewis is in any way associated with Tales of Terror beyond being the model for its creation: it is unlikely that he contributed to it in any way, and it is a mistaken attribution in an early biography and a later combined version of Tales of Terror and Wonder that instilled this misguided authorship through to the present time (Thomson 239).[iii] One poem in particular found in Tales of Terror, “Grim, King of the Ghosts; or the Dance of Death” is dedicated to Lewis, making it especially improbable that he was involved in its authorship. On the other hand, it is thought that Tales of Terror ridicules and reproaches Tales of Wonder by its exaggerated mimicry of it. This also seems unlikely or overly simplistic, at best. Douglass Thomson says, in his article on the relationship between the two texts, that Tales of Terror is “less an attack on Lewis than an homage to him, a carrying-on of the good fun that Lewis had with his own production. ‘Grim’ underscores the fact that that parody is, if not the sincerest form of flattery, at least a form of imitation and tribute” (17).[iv]

In a very roundabout way, this fine line between condemnation and appreciation is the point I want to make in this post, and it extends beyond these two published volumes. Lewis was a source of criticism and disdain, as well as humor and real adoration in many contexts. I recently discovered a fantastic little “tribute” to him in the National Library of Scotland, a fourteen-page poem entitled “The Old Hag in a Red Cloak: A Romance,” attributed to George Watson-Taylor.  On the surface, the moral of the story and last stanza of the poem seems to make it very clear that the writer disapproves of Lewis’s antics:

If you wish me the moral, dear Mat, to rehearse,

‘Tis, that nonsense is nonsense, in prose or in verse,

That all, who to talents claim any pretense,

Should write not at all, or should write COMMON SENSE.

However, if the writer disagrees with Lewis’s style or subject matter, it certainly does not stop him from reading more or less everything that Lewis has ever written.  Only half of those fourteen pages contain the short poem. The bottom half of each page boasts two or three extensive footnotes detailing each and every reference to a line or a character in one of Lewis’s works.  For example, the first page reads:

Matthæus was little, Matthæus was young,

Of wonders he chanted, and quaintly he sung; i

Thro’ fire, and water, and clouds could he see, ii

For this bard, a profound necromancer was he. iii

i. “Lord Ronald was handsome, Lord Ronald was young,  / The Greenwood he travers’d, and gaily he sung, &c.” “The Grim White Woman”

ii. The Cloud King, the Water King

iii. This spectre, the Grim White Woman she was.

Matthæus is, of course, Matthew Lewis, referred to for most of the poem as simply “Mat.” The plot follows the consequences of Mat refusing to give a poor old woman a sixpence to buy some bread. The old woman turns out to be Mother Goose, a witch-like figure who torments him for both denying her the money and getting her kicked out of bookshops. She calls on all of the creatures of her literature to accost him. He tries to call on his own creations, but they fail him, and he is forced to admit that she rules the “realms of romance” and to vow to write more appropriate literature. Most of the footnotes just relate the lines from the particular poem the writer is mocking, but others give more detailed information. One provides a laundry list of “ghosts and hobgoblins, and horrible shapes” found in popular romances of the day, with which the reader should be familiar. This guy has done his homework! As Thomson says, “as imitation of a pre-existing style comprises an essential feature of parody, this satiric mode especially depends upon a degree of identification with its satiric object” (2). It’s clear from the detailed lists of Lewis’s creatures throughout the poem that a real enjoyment went into describing them, even though it is hidden behind the guise of criticism. I might suggest that it feels like a guilty love-letter to a writer and type of writing that had become fashionable to criticize but also fashionable (among a different sort, perhaps) to read. Crafting a poem with such subject matter, despite the didactic symbolism and moral, also speaks to a writer who has learned a thing or two from what he has read. It speaks to the complicated love/hate relationship endured by the Gothic as well as the Gothic tradition’s invitation to parody and a little bit of fun.


[i] At least part of the reason for this caution is due to the censorship restrictions on drama and the uneasiness with showing the supernatural on stage. Jeffrey Cox has a fantastic explanation of this in his introduction to Seven Gothic Dramas, Ohio University Press, 1993.

[ii] “The Captive” closed in 1803, so this letter was sent sometime after March of that year. The letter is simply dated “Wednesday___”. Papers Concerning Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1792- circa 1834.

[iii] Douglass Thomson gives a thorough overview of this in an appendix about Tales of Terror in his 2009 Broadview edition of Tales of Wonder.

[iv] Thomson, Douglass H. “Mingled Measures: Gothic Parody in Tales of Wonder and Tales of Terror.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. (May 2008) 50: 22 paragraphs. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ravon/2008/v/n50/018143ar.html

A Gathering of Gothics

It was a dark and stormy afternoon, and a small group of learned scholars gathered to whisper amongst themselves the secrets of haunted castles, monstrous creatures, and dark forbidden crimes. The rain pelted against the large windows as the wind howled through the trees… the palm trees? San Diego, CA had found its own way to welcome the First Annual Studies in Gothic Fiction Conference to its usually-sunny shores.

Though I have only been studying the Gothic for a few short years now, I have had the privilege to attend several fantastic Gothic-focused conferences in the UK and Germany.  For Gothic scholars in the United States, however, such conferences are travel-intensive and hugely expensive.  Though conferences such as the PCA (Popular Culture Association) almost always include at least one panel on the Gothic, I struggle to remember a single recent conference devoted to the Gothic or Gothic topics that has taken place within the US. Until now, that is! This fact makes the very existence of The Studies in Gothic Fiction Conference, held March 16th and 17th and sponsored by National University, an incredible ray of hope for Gothic scholars in America. Though its numbers were small, the academics who attended the conference—ranging from first-year graduate students and high school teachers to members of the IGA (International Gothic Association)—seemed well aware of this fact and hugely appreciative to have such a rare opportunity.  Every panel that I saw was well-attended and extremely active during the Q & A portion, and participants seemed to relish this chance to speak in a like-minded community about the complexities of texts that are frequently pushed to the sidelines of more canonically-based academic forums.

Overall, the content of the conference included a mixture of different time periods, from Romantic to contemporary, as well as media forms, such as film, music, and blogging in addition to the traditional print forms.  Two full panels focused on the works of Anne Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, and I heard papers that examined the religious background of these authors and their works, their contributions to the “Male” and “Female” Gothic, and aspects of economics and femininity within their texts.  The presence of Romantic-era Gothic was pervasive beyond these panels, however, as many papers on Victorian and Contemporary works referenced earlier works in newer contexts.  By far, the most frequent term used in many of the papers I heard was “hybridity,” a concept that, despite the Gothic’s aversion to definition, speaks to its unwavering dedication to its origins.  The keynote address, “A New Intensity of Feeling: Secretly Enjoying Ghosts, Banshees, and Derelict Lovers in Gothic Short Stories of British Literary Annuals,” was given by Katherine D. Harris.  Part literary analysis, part archival discussion, part technology demonstration, she shared her research with hard-to-find annuals from the perspective of the digital humanities.  Many papers throughout the weekend pursued similar contemporary takes on traditional works.   Some offered an analysis of a contemporary text in juxtaposition with a parallel or divergent analysis of a traditional Romantic or Victorian text in order to explore the direction in which more recent literature is taking the Gothic and Gothic Studies.  My own paper discussed certain aspects of Frankenstein in order to understand fragmentation in Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and another paper on my panel did a fascinating study of the feminine, the community, and the mob in both The Monk and Shirley Jackson’s We have Always Lived in the Castle.

Though scholarship has, from time to time, frowned on overt and strained blending of literary periods, I believe that the Gothic lends itself particularly well to the benefits of such inter-period communication.  Itself born out of a revival and reimagining of the Medieval (often to a highly anachronistic extent), the Gothic has always carried its own contemporary concerns to foreign times and places, transplanting the here and now to the there and then.  Does this make strategies of Gothic studies themselves as Gothic as the works with which they engage? To a certain extent, possibly.

For further interest in the concerns of this conference, see the online peer-reviewed journal, Studies in Gothic Fiction.  According to Franz Potter, editor of the journal and one of the conference coordinators, there will be a forthcoming special edition of the journal highlighting papers presented on that dark and stormy California weekend.

Teaching the Gothic

“We trust… that satiety will banish what good sense should have prevented; and that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured.”

Thus says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in response to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk in 1797, a strange statement from the writer of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel.”[i]  Treated with a certain degree ambivalence by many of the Romantic poets—Wordsworth expressing an outright disdain for “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies” in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads—the popularity of the Gothic in the late eighteenth century was difficult to ignore, as was the Gothic nature of the political climate that made most literary and visual descriptions of the French Revolution Gothic almost by default.  Indeed, the genre seems to almost anticipate such violent and bloody upheaval, revealing the period’s anxieties about tyrannical rulers and corruption of the aristocracy in its earliest texts.  Because of its popularity, bolstered through stage-productions and cheap chap-books, the Gothic’s place within “serious” Romantic literature, it would seem, is itself somewhat meta-Gothic: a position of ambivalence and abjection, of reluctant importance and acknowledgement.  It’s almost Twilight-esque status as “pop-lit” of the age (and most subsequent ages) deterred its recognition as a literature of value until surprisingly recently, despite the fact that many Romantic poets—Robinson, Southey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats to name a few… and, yes, even Wordsworth and Coleridge—experimented with the Gothic tradition or at least its features.  Clearly, it was something of which even the most established writers could not “weary.”  And some, like Mary Wollstonecraft, found ways of shifting Gothic tropes to work for their own purposes, to expose and contextualize the reality of horrors in the here and now:

“Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul and absorb the wondering mind.  But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavoring to recal her scattered thoughts!”[ii]

With these contemporary attitudes toward the Gothic in mind, I recently had the opportunity to give a guest lecture introducing the Gothic to an upper-level undergraduate class on Romantic Literature.  They had just finished Frankenstein and were two acts into The Cenci.  I will be taking my comps at the end of the semester, examining in the major field of Gothic literature, Romantic to Contemporary, and in the minor field of Romantic Literature.  I have, thus, had my head buried in Gothic texts for the past nine weeks, so it was easier said than done to distinguish between what I have been obsessing over and what might actually be useful for students in this survey class.

Some background: Gothic 101

We started with the basics: what does “Gothic” mean?  The term Gothic originated from the Goths, the Germanic tribes that brought about the fall of Rome.  Its original connotations were barbaric, primitive, uncivilized, and medieval.  Yet, around the mid-eighteenth century, a new interest arose in the Goths as conquerors, yes, but the conquerors of Britain.  As such, with a rise in nationalism, the British began to see the Goths as the origins of their own civilization and the values upon which it had been built.  Thus, the term “Gothic” came to have two meanings associated with the primitive: barbaric but also virtuous.[iii]  This second definition is facilitated by a subsequent glorification of the past, antiquity, and medievalism.  The perfect example of this is, of course, Horace Walpole, whose behavior even before he pens the Gothic grandfather, The Castle of Otranto, gives insight into the beginnings of the genre.  Obsessed with Gothic architecture and antiques, Walpole built Strawberry Hill, a construction which mixed styles, time periods, and materials to cater more to what Walpole considered Gothic than to the restrictions of historical aesthetics.  Thus, we have the fragmented mixing of pasts and present that would characterize the literary tradition, emphasizing atmosphere over realism in the interplay between truth and performance.  All it needed were a few ghosts. And thus we have the inspiration for the first Gothic novel.

What does that mean?: Making sense of the texts

While it seems obvious that The Cenci would fit into the same Gothic as The Castle of Otranto, it is less clear how Frankenstein can also fall into this classification.  We can trace the origins of the Goths, but the definition of what is “Gothic” is still (and probably always will be) contested among scholars, both past and present.  My favorite definition and one I see often-cited is Chris Baldick’s: “For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.”[iv]

By then breaking the two texts down according to how they depict time and space, we were then able to touch briefly on other important key terms and aspects.  We could begin to see how Victor’s dangerous preoccupation with the ancient forbidden texts of magical science and alchemy might line up with the dangerous power of the Cenci’s ancient and decaying line.  We noted the family structures in the two texts, highlighting the absence of the mother and the presence of incest.  We compared the structures of the texts themselves, both sprung from the fabrication of manuscripts that frame the narrative itself as old or dangerous.  Doubles, the uncanny, paranoia, isolation, excess, the return of the repressed: all could be structured, compared, and contrasted through time and space. I found that keeping it broad and simple, tempting though it was to go into other more dark and dusty corners of this tradition, provided the students with a general framework to apply to their upcoming readings… even those of Wordsworth and Coleridge.


[i] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Critical Review 2nd ser. 19 (February 1797): 194-200 in Matthew Lewis. The Monk. Ed. D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. Ontario: Broadview, 2004. 398. Print.

[ii] Wollstonecraft, Mary. The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 69. Print.

[iii] Punter, David and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2004. Print.

[iv] Baldick, Chris, ed. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xix. Print.

Spring Planning (before November!): Selecting Works for Teaching Intro. to Women’s Lit.

Isabella Bird in Tibet

I just received my spring teaching assignment in my mailbox, and am delighted to find that I’m teaching “Intro. to Women’s Lit.” for the first time. I am a little kid in a candy store (or a rock climber in a gear shop) when it’s time to select possible works to teach for the next semester’s course. I’ve also noticed a trend in romanticists’ online communities, in that we enjoy suggesting works to teach on a certain theme. For example, on Romantic Circles’ Teaching Romanticism blog, Katherine Harris requested suggestions for her Gustatory Romanticism graduate course, and Roger Whitson did the same for his Visualizing Nineteenth Century Poetry course. In addition, the NASSR-L recently saw a flurry of responses to Diane Hoeveler’s call for suggestions for her Romanticism and Religion graduate seminar, and she very generously collected all of the responses in this Word doc. I’m going to use our forum for a similar kind of request–please help me decide what to teach. And following Katherine Harris’ example, I plan to post my final reading list and course description to our blog as a follow-up discussion.

I’m especially interested in your suggestions for American authors and works to teach from earlier periods, within the romantic-era, and post-romantic periods. To date, I have been transatlantically challenged, so to speak, as far as including American texts in my teaching and scholarship. (Well, I’ve been specifically assigned to teach Shakespeare and surveys of British literature for the past 3 years.) Though I have chosen to specialize mostly in British romantic works for my dissertation, I see this course as a great opportunity to begin to fill in a gap or two in my reading.

Course theme: “Adventure.” I envision the theme of “adventure,” broadly, as one that will include the genres of travel literature, the gothic, experiments with form like those found in Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, as well as experiments with media, like Shelley Jackson’s electronic literary work Patchwork Girl. Namely, I’m interested in drawing attention to women writers over time who have ventured beyond society’s prescribed boundaries and who have taken risks that they convey one way or another in their authorship.

The CU catalog description requires that this course “[introduce] literature by women in England and America. Covers both poetry and fiction and varying historical periods. Acquaints students with the contribution of women writers to the English literary tradition and investigates the nature of this contribution.”

Initial brainstorming: I’m thinking of including the following authors/works (listed early to late): Sappho’s fragments (ed. Ann Carson), Julian of Norwich (med.), Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (17th c.), Eliza Haywood (18th c.), Mary Shelley (rom.), Joanna Baillie (rom.), Ann Radcliffe (rom), Mary Wollstonecraft (rom), Isabella Bird (Vict.), Dickinson (Vict.), Woolf (mod.), Angela Carter (contemp.), Annie Dillard (contemp.), Jeannette Winterson (contemp.)

All reading and assignment suggestions are welcome, and I’m especially interested in your ideas for:

  • 18th and 19th c. American authors and works–drama, fiction, poetry, essays
  • I work on the gothic quite a bit — any American women gothic writers or works to recommend?
  • 17th c works
  • If you’ve taught this course, have you used a particular anthology that you would recommend?
  • Assignment recommendations: I have been experimenting with my British Literature survey course with putting together student-made collections or exhibits that relate to works we’re studying in class. Any ideas how we could put together an adventure-themed exhibit for this course? (I’m thinking digital exhibit.)

Thanks in advance!