Dear friends and readers,
An archetypal gothic scene: John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), A Lady by Moonlight
As I’ve written this summer now about a number of the gothic texts I read (Genlis’s Duchess de C***********, Smith’s Montalbert, Retif’s Ingenue Saxancour, and Sade’s La Marquise de Gange and Eugenie de Franval) and movies I saw (Quills), I thought it about time that I reported on a few famous (and not-so-famous) books that have helped me to understand the gothic anew.
I began this summer’s reading on secondary sources, with Anne Williams’s Art of Darkness: The Poetics of the Gothic and have at last discovered what is transformative about her book. It’s a theory or way of defining and seeing gothic that goes beyond the usual somewhat vague generalizations followed a listing of the usual motifs and conventions we find in these texts. I find it works extraordinarily way to explain them and the gothicism of works which participate in the gothic; it gets us beyond thinking of genres.
To cut to the quick and be brief, here it is: the gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, in the case of male gothic done from the point of view of men as they experience this (this may be written by women but is not commonly), and in the case of female gothic done from the point of vie of women as they experience it (this is not uncommon — Pope’s Eloisa poem is one).
Gothic stories are family stories and show us what the "law of the father" imposed and causes in interior lives.
The bereft (her child born out of wedlock, it was taken from her and then died) revenant-mother, out for revenge, from The Woman in Black (Pauline Moran as Jennifer Humphrys).
I don’t know if this persuades anyone stated so baldly, but it does work and explains and includes so much in the gothic. The conventions are ways of expressing disruption and conflict. There are many fault-lines. One is an opposition of how marriage is to be conducted: the older traditional system is of marriage as an alliance, built to sustain a system of hierarchy, property, with families headed by powerful men (primogeniture come in here); the other, a system of sexuality (so to speak) where what happens operates not according to visible rules but polymorphous, intangible, contingent and changeable individual sensations and thoughts.
In a blog I wrote about Williams, after reading just one section in the book (The Female Gothic and Northanger Abbey), she says is a prime part of the female gothic: the mythos or central story is that of Psyche who disobeys, gets up and explores, curious, and is punished for it; we are all familiar with the young woman getting out of bed in the dead of night with her candle gonig down to the dungeon, or with a key opening some forbidden place. I’m just getting up to her sections on male gothics.
Her book has led me back to Paul Backscheider the last third of whose book, Spectacular Politics argues that the drama went heavily gothic in the last part of the 18th century and early 19th century (romantic era, think Shelley’s Cenci). Again we are familiar with those drawings of Mrs Siddons, dagger in hand, stealthily gliding thought the dim; equally important is this of Edmund Kean, a drawing whose artist we don’t know, but is clearly him projecting the wild interior life of humanity:
The second is that part of Williams’s book where she distinguished (persuasively) male gothic (which may be written by women, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) from female gothic (which may be written by men, as in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw):
Alun Armstrong as Chief Inspector Bucket who sets all things right (back to patriarchal order), from 2009 Bleak House
The male gothic paradigms: At first I didn’t find her section on male gothic paradigms all that persuasive; it seemed to me take the same paradigms and see them from the heroine’s perspective, and you have female gothic; or take the same text and you can find the female paradigms as well as the male. But when she began to cite specific famous texts, influential and often praised, I agreed with her.
So, examples of male gothic: Section in Book 3 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (called a "gothic" poem in the 18th century); Lewis’s Monk, Radcliffe’s Italian (male at the center, a quest plot-structure, Schedoni central too) Maturin’s Melmoth, Byron’s Giaour, Lara; Shelley’s Frankenstein; Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (very violent) and Camilla; E Marion Crawford’s "For the Blood is the Life" and "Under the Berth" (famous and influential); Stoker’s Dracula; today Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby
Male gothic derives effects from multiple points of view; the narrator observes the heroine (as a psychological curiosity, mystery or monster); the supernatural tends NOT to be explained away; it is authentic (the devil in Rosemary’s Baby impregnates her); tragic rather than affirmative plot (according to Williams the conventional and most female gothics end happily in marriage) The male gothic hero dies, an isolated over-reacher Male gothic will have an orgy of violence permanently marking the males (males driving stake through Lucy’s heart); narrative closure is uncertain (vampires carry on); the special feeling is that of horror rather than terror. The suffering female can be there, but she is there for voyeur pleasures. We are invited to experience horrified fascination with her suffering (as in Quills, the movie). Women are seen as disobedient, weak, inconstant, also as mysterious powerful mother. Affinities with pornography strong: loathing and fear of female (Texas Chainsaw massacre, new bunch of horror-revenge movies, like I piss on our grave where women are vengeful figures who need to be utterly destroyed.
19th century illustration for Phantom of the Opera, the male as exile, outcast, wanderer, taking revenge
Etymology of the word pornography is writing about prostitutes indecently.
The key here is both are developments out of the common positions of men and women in patriarchy where the accent is grief, loss, a dark mirror; both perceive a world of cruelty and violence and/or suffering.
The gaze is a central motif: the male’s burning gaze, the gazer is the one with power (women not supposed to gaze, it’s violation and Psyche punished for it).
The demon lover a central figure where "horror of the female drives and shapes the narrative": so Marion Crawford’s "For the Blood is the Life"; Dracula the men destroy Lucy and are driven to protect Mina from becoming a Lucy.
The Monk shows an unconscious and uncanny dread of the female; it has the Oedipal plot of the son rebelling against the father, son weak, irrational, carnal, bitten by the serpent, led along by evil Matilda (unchaste in extreme). Female characters whether comic or tragic exhibit patriarchal views of weak women: Agnes who is in the dungeon with the rotting baby yielded to her lover; Antonia must die when she loses virginity in rape (this is like Richardson’s Clarissa). Elvira ineffective and we discover she is mother to Ambrosio; cannot protect her daughter, Elvira, but also casually abandoned her son when she fled with his father.
Male gothic shows desire for female to be stable, to be one thing and that only, controllable
By contrast, Female gothic generates suspense through limitations imposed on heroine, her imprisonment, mistaken perceptions, her curiosity which leads her to look into parts of the house/other self (the male) forbidden her. She has an awakening and it often ends with some affirmation for her.
2) That the gothic must have a metaphysical and uncanny basis for the genre to have its effect, that kaftkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:
From "Afterward": Mary Boyne enters the numinous space (not a dungeon here, but attic), about to encounter the ghost
With the best will in the world I do believe Anne Williams’s thesis that the center of gothicism is the patriarchal system and its conventions emerge from rightly disturbed reactions to this, and also Paula Backscheider’s brilliant (I’m now realizing) study of gothic drama on the later 18th century stage (a couple of hundred pages). Unlike the Reynolds’s image which somehow makes the heroine wholesome because so obviously well-fed and calm, the lesser known artists of the era bring home how what was mesmerizing was (as as in Keane) the wild interior life and project of unjust suffering, the abhorrent in nature seeping through the action and words of a story.
But I have had a pause over it. I’m not so sure Williams is right about what’s central. I watched last night possibly one of the best films ever made of a ghost story: Wise/Kineal/Burt’s Woman in Black from Susan’s Hill’s ghost novella (now a tremendously long running play in London) The woman in Black. Watching the movie has made me move back to thinking the truth lies somewhere inbetween Jack Sullivan’s Elegant Nightmares on the Kafkaesque meaning of this genre, Eva SEdgwick’s brilliant archetypal readings, and Williams and Backscheider.
But it is true that in the 18th century this paradigm was uppermost in formulating the stories. It’s later (19th century) that you begin to move outward from it and now especially in the later 20th. It is true the gothic exists without the supernatural but also that with it, the gothic is more powerful.
I also find that the supernatural, the unnerving, the uncanny and a playing with metaphysical realities are important and even at times essential l to its effect. So Eve Sedgwick’s archetypal approach in the Coherence of Gothic Conventions must be included in an assessment too:
Thornton Hall burning down (2009 Jane Eyre), so too Manderley, taking with it the secrets, manuscripts, buried alive people
This central or occytal meditation on the gothic and for the first time actually understanding it. One problem for me though is when I’ve finished reading a section, I ask myself what have I learned that I can repeat or that is useful to me. I had something of the same response when I first read with some understanding her Epistemology of the Closet, and it was only later on I realized she had provided a fundamental new way of talking or seeing novels that allowed one to talk about their GBLT subtexts. I do find for specifics or details I often disagree with her, even fundamentally or profoundly (a flattering kind of word): she is one of those who likes to pretend utter disinterest or open-mindedness when it comes to amoralities, the Nietzschean perspective, and I think she speaks without realizing it as a person who lived in a privileged position all her life.
I think especially of her rejection of the virtuous heroine as such in her essay on Diderot’s Nun in her Tendencies. She’d be a Fanny Price mocker and I suppose on the basis of the characterization of Demelza in Graham’s Poldark novels and his apparently unquestioned heterosexual perspective she’d call the novels second rate. In The Sadeian Woman, Carter writes that "one of Sade’s cruellest lessons is that tyranny is implicit in all privilege." But as we find in Sade and other Neitzschean texts, a "liberation from the limitations of femininity" may be "gratifying," "may extract vengeance for the humiliations" women have been "forced to endure" as "passive objects," but if it is a "liberation without enlightenment," it "becomes an instrument for the oppression of others" (Penguin, 1979, pp. 27, 89).
So what is useful or does one come away with from Coherence of Gothic Conventions. Well I find she does name all the conventions that repeat over and over in most gothics, both female and male, especially those found in later 18th century texts (and for me that now includes Sade’s Eugenie de Franval, which I read yesterday, on which more tomorrow): some form of live burial, a ruin, a wild landscape, a Catholic or feudal society, heroine trembles with sensibility, lover impetuous, vililan is older tyrant has piercing glance and might just rape or kill the heroine or weak hero. It’s discontinunous, involuted, tales within tales, changes of narrators, interpolated histories, oneiric states, subterannean spaces, doubles, obscured family ties, incest, garrulous retainers, poisonous effects of guilt and shame, nighttime, dreams, apparitions, civil insurrections, charnal house, madhouse, monasteries, nunneries, castles, parapets:
She shows that the many kinds of rationales and explanations (including probably the one I’m going to use about oppression of women in these causes celebres as transferred into the gothic), but herself also finds an underlying pattern to unite them:
The position of the self to be massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access.
It can be a wife or any woman, a cleric, a son (for the tyrant is the all powerful male) and they are cut off from what they normally expect to have: air, light, baby, food, freedom, pinned down.
The self is incapable of connecting to the outside.
The novel then has to go to great lengths to reintegrate the sundered elements, but it cannot restore them.
The self is then profoundly undermined and all its assumptions.
The "massive inaccessibility of those things that should normally be accessible" is seen in the enormous difficulty the story has in getting itself told. Narratives within narratives, manuscripts found, and there is this terrific trouble saying what it is that was terrible. Novels of this type have so many secrets that must not be told that you despair of communication. "Privacy is not only characteristic of the pain, but is itself the pain" (p. 18).
Wright, Sunset, Coast near Naples — Radcliffe again Sicilian Romance, looking out from imprisonment
It’s this barrier that matters, and ghastly things happen inside that would not happen outside. Violence greets any attempt to get past the barrier again.
Piranesi’s carceri as figuring the atmosphere of these things, the obscurity, and difficulty of finding at all where you are.
Piranesi, Carceri (Prisons), an illustration for Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest
I do notice she tends to cite men’s texts as examples of her gothic, not women’s, and am troubled by this. And by her abstraction she can avoid talking about the input of the weak.
She does admit in her books on GBLT that homosexual men have advantages over women, all women but then in her books I’ve read concentrates on male homosexuality not female: lesbians would presumably have the worst position of all.
3) Sheer grief, what loss is like, suffering and depression central too: the melancholy genre is what it is:
Atonement, the getting together that never happened: both destroyed first (from Wright’s Atonement)
On my way to NYC yesterday I reread Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, began The Turn of the Screw and then turned to Michelle A Masse’s In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism and the Gothic. Hill’s book retains its power to shock for time and again one forgets the real ending in the book. The movie may stun, but not like this. Then turning to Masse’s attempt at real candor over the gothic, In the Name of Love (where masochism as a word appears in the subtitle), it struck me how hard it is to tell the truth about what gives people pleasure, to articulate it.
Despite all Anne Williams wants to do to re-write Gothic into sanguine at the end so that it becomes more feminists as she understands this, and all others can do to stick to talk on the conventions and archetypes, there is this root center of suffering. That’s Masse’s insistent terrain and her books include Rebecca, the pornographic Story of O, Jane Eyre (and other usual suspects), plus Yellow Wallpaper. The Woman in Black reminded me that central figures are often males, males write it, and the suffering here is the book’s whole tale, all that is told, not just the sexual aspects of it.
Pauline Moran is never given her name: Jennet Humphries — except in the book and film. People talking about it distance themselves from her. I did find a still of her face; despite her glaring malevolence in Kipp’s nightmare (unforgettable), if you look at her face, it’s not menace or not just, but also sorrow. In the book we are told the figure is emaciated, and continually in a kind of agon.
Friedrich, Silent Evening: there is often such a vision in gothic and it can end the story
Further elements left out of so many feminist and just women authored studies of gothic (men authored too) is the real drive to safety and comfort and security in them. That’s what the heroines want and sometimes get at the end. This appears to embarrass many of those writing about gothic, even Anne Williams who is determined to bring in the happy ending and empowerment of heroines, but eschews words like comfort or security. She prefers "triumph," "integration into the group as a chief respected person." Why is this? Why is this natural desire not acceptable. It goes a long way to explaining why women never tire of the formula and will read new variations seemingly forever. A false pride? In public it won’t do?
Now Eugenia de La Motte does bring up this need or drive for security and comfort, and discusses the idylls at home as well as sublime moments in the texts in front of scenery. However, she does so to show the delusions. She does not validate this behavior as a genuine existential response to life. For some women (often working class or lower middle, or in traditional societies or part of a racial group that is discriminated against) there is no other choice. Such a woman gets respect and place only in the home; she is offered nothing else even if the home is so fragile and tenuous as security. Women reread these romances to be reassured and the need for reassurance is no delusion. This is part of what is meant by fourth-wave feminism. See my blog outlining the four waves of feminism
That the gothic shows us there are victims, innocent victims savaged by mischievous forces let loose.
Such a figure is Arthur Kidd in Woman in Black — who rescues an innocent dog who (in the film) returns the favor
One last walk or turn through that corridor:
Lady’s Maid’s Bell, the companion walking through the corridors (from Wharton’s story, a film adaptation)
Eugenia De LaMotte’s Perils of the Night
I was led to this book by both Anne Williams’s Art of Darkness (on the female gothic) and Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse in mid-18th century France. Whether you agree or not with its argument, one of its admirable qualities is it includes the Victorian in its terrain.
She includes the Sedgwick perspective (archetypal), the historical (listing of conventions and events and objects that must be there), and the sociological: the gothic focuses steadily on social relations and social institutions. She agrees male gothic differs from female: the common plot of the male is often one of exile, the common mythos the outcast wanderer, often pursued as well as pursuing; the plot of the female is the Psyche story: Cain versus (to be Biblical) Lot’s poor wife and daughters; Oedipus versus Eurydice (classical types). The male mythos is often a quest type too; the female concerns imprisonment, live burial, quite different motifs.
Her first chapter contains an excellent summary of the different schools of thought — and she does write clearly in natural easy English.
Again the house, this time daylight (from 2009 Sandy Welch’sTurn of the Screw, see also below)
The book comes into its own — becomes original and useful — in the second half of the first chapter. She begins by talking of how Sedgwick sees the gothic in spatial terms rather than in terms of depth the surface and structures matter. She finds a "dialectic of fear and desire related to the problem of individual identity." The female feels under attack, not just bodily but in her soul. (I remember how Clarissa dreads not just Lovelace’s taking her over sexually if she should marry, but changing her identity so she becomes his thing and corrupt herself as she sees this.)
In the female gothic we find a pronounced emphasis on architecture, especially as a repository of dread, mystery, enclosure. She quotes Henry James on his ghost story, "The Jolly Corner" where he says what he attempted to do was study "the spirit engaged with the forces of violence." The house represents a repository of memories of such violence, of the past, of histories, and is so built that its threat is the heroine will never get out. The labyrinth is confusing, the doors locked, thick walls. (This would include what the governess in The Turn of the Screw experiences: all alone and then harassed by threatening personalities in the ghosts.)
Versions include railways and libraries:
Joanna David as the lady’s maid at the railway station (Lady’s Maid’s Bell)
Illustration for Oliphant’s "The Library Window"
None of this is all that new — or can be surmised if not put together this way. What is new is LaMotte says the social relations that appear in this world are the gothic’s primary subject, and that what the female discovers within herself is not another freer version of herself (or different one) but an alien, an oppressive self who has been super-imposed and is not wanted. So in "The Turn of the Screw" the subject is the children, the master — just as Sandy Welch’s commentary adaptation of the story reveals.
This Other is also found in the ghost or supernatural creature who is hostile to the heroine and her concerns and needs. What the heroine is doing is not just protecting her virginity from genital sex but trying to find who her very self is and protect its boundaries once she does. This obsession with boundaries of the self is a crucial issue for women she says. (This made me think of how women have babies, how their bodies are usurped by natural forces and then how they are forced into bodily linkage with another who is not them and may be very different from them and whose interests are in some ways opposed — as in the process of childbirth which threatens the woman’s life.)
Sedgwick talks of how repeatedly in these gothics the central figure is "massively blocked off from something it ought normally to have access to." The focus can be the dead baby (as in The Monk The Sicilian Romance, potentially the Duchess of C***********), but also the outside world; at the same time she is vulnerable to intrusions from the outside world. Famously Emily’s door to her room in Udolpho is locked from the outside; she cannot lock it from the inside.
The barriers are often deeply unjust and experienced as arbitrary and unfair (like she is accuses of this or that and punished for what she did not do). Sophia Lee’s Recess is this par excellence (another book alluded to in NA).
She is not in control in comparison with men of course and the enemy is often an older male tyrant or young cruel rake type. The better man may be a younger brother, but in Sade’s Eugenie de Franval he is just another harasser, envious of his brother and his brutal instrument.
What the gothic is doing here is masking or making what is called and treated as normal and okay in the real world into what is clearly unfair, should be abnormal, is cruel and unjust. This disguise — some of the conventions — are then absolutely needed for there to be a gothic at all.
Two things she mentions she wants to explain too: that the heroine in gothics often refuse to exonerate themselves, and there is often an "educational" idyll. There is one in Eugenie de Franval (where she is taught and reads away); the opening chapter of Austen’s NA is an educational idyll which Davies reinforces by the idyllic interlude at the Abbey when the tyrant father leaves and Henry, Eleanor and Catherine go tree climbing and gathering apples (an anti-Garden of Eden trope).
So self-defense is the first motif LaMotte will explore: in Radcliffe, Brockden Brown (we read Wieland on ECW one summer) and Henry James– and his poor unnamed (at times overwrought maybe silly) governess
The governess arrives at the mansion, from Turn of the Screw (2009 film, by Sandy Welch)
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