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Eighteenth-Century Fiction

Volume 17 | Issue 4 Article 7

7-31-2005

Review Essay: "Gothic Anxieties: Struggling with a Definition"


Suzanne Rintoul
McMaster University

Recommended Citation
Rintoul, Suzanne (2005) "Review Essay: "Gothic Anxieties: Struggling with a Definition"," Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Vol. 17: Iss. 4, Article 7. Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/ecf/vol17/iss4/7

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Review Essay: "Gothic Anxieties: Struggling with a Definition"

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Rintoul: Review essay

Gothic Anxieties: Struggling with a Definition

Suzanne Rintoul

hroughout the late twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first, critics have expressed growing anxiety about the slippery boundaries of the Gothic genre. A prime example of this anxiety rings clear in Maggie Kilgours conclusion to The Rise of the Gothic Novel. Kilgour writes that she has watched the growth of Gothic criticism with amazement and sometimes horror as the bulk of gothic criticism has swelled with increasing rapidity to its present monstrous dimensions.1 This observation seems strange because, in the same chapter, Kilgour argues that the increased legitimacy granted to academic study of the Gothic coincides with an important interrogation of the canon as a site of power, and with equally important work that links social and political conditions with popular fiction. Kilgour may not be expressing horror at a spate of trivial scholarship but at the simply overwhelming quantity of Gothic criticism. But what does Kilgour find so especially frightening about this growth in Gothic criticism? Is it that the Gothic itself narrativizes anxieties? Perhaps a more likely reason is that the anxieties thematized in the Gothic are so spectral, so indecipherable and sublimely broad. By extension, then, the problem of too much Gothic criticism lies in the difficulty of definingof containingthe genre. Critics of the Gothic have tended to deal with the impossibility of defining the composite, varying genre by listing its qualities, then qualifying these lists and implying that the Gothic is particularly difficult to set within boundaries.
Maggie Kilgour, The Rise of the Gothic Novel (London; Routledge, 1995), 221.

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This kind of approach is often justified by a parallel drawn between the problem of applying a system of identificatory rules to the genre and the genres thematic emphasis on the impossibility of securing limits. Frustration at this recourse plagues Gothic criticism. In the introduction to the second edition of Gothic Writing, for example, Robert Miles credits David Richter with pointing out the Gothic genres multiplicity, yet laments that no single study since Richters review has set out to chart the multiplicity of dialectics shaping the gothic.2 In an attempt to give the Gothic a single, definitive quality, Miles points out the critical consensus that the Gothic traces the development of the subject in a state of deracination, of the self finding itself dispossessed in its own house, in a condition of rupture, disjunction, fragmentation (3). Miles moves beyond this consensus to acknowledge how the genres various ways of representing the fragmented subject compete with one another. Yet when Miles suggests that the genres dialectspsychoanalysis, feminism, or Marxismoverlap and compete, he seems to conflate Gothic narratives with the approaches that have been taken to read them. In response, this review attempts to clarify that just as individual narratives compete with each other within the genre to represent fragmentation and disjunction, so criticism of the genre follows this same trend to represent the genre itself as fragmented and disjointed. Its primary question, then, is how Gothic criticism might itself be read as it struggles to defineor resist definingthe fragmentary genre upon which it is built. Generally speaking, Gothic criticism comprises two structural camps. The first consists of surveys that attempt to cover several aspects of the Gothic in order to define it in its most expansive sense, such as Fred Bottings Gothic (1996), David Punters A Companion to the Gothic (1999), and Markman Elliss The History of Gothic Fiction (2001). The second consists of more focused studies of individual works that situate a definition of the genre along a historical, cultural, and political continuum, such as Eugenia Delamottes Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (1990), David Punters Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and the Law (1998), and Andrew Smith and William Hughs Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre (2002). In this review essay, I consider four recent books that evince the critical disparities between the two camps that I have just briefly described: Jerry Hogles collection The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Hellers collection Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, Frederick S. Franks edition of Horace Walpoles The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, and Toni Weins British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms and the Gothic Novel, 1764-1824. Each deals with the problem of defining the Gothic in the face of its ever-expanding criticism in a different way, but the divide among them in terms of the two camps makes them ideal texts through which to examine the current nature and role of Gothic criticism. While reading each text, I have kept the following questions
2 Robert Miles, Gothic Writing, 1750-1820: A Genealogy, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 2.

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in mind: How can someone add to existing Gothic criticism without first going back and dealing with the problem of defining it and redefining it? Starting with the survey books and then moving on to the Frank and Wein texts, I ask where these books benefit from their approaches, and where their reliance on either the survey or historical context further muddies the waters of Gothic definition, and thus further contributes to anxieties around the bulk of its criticism. The first sentence of Hogles introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction reveals the inherent problems of any attempt to define the Gothic (and of constructing a history of the genre, as this book attempts): Gothic fiction is hardly Gothic at all. Hogle is referring to the history of counterfeit, as he puts it, of Gothic literature, of borrowing from other genres, of pseudonymous authorship, and of scattering its own ingredients into various modes. Already, Hogle labels the genre unstable, suggesting that it might be best thought of as a symbolic realm rather than as a clearly definable entity. Hogle then reveals the purpose of the collection, to explain the reasons for the persistence of the Gothic across modern history and how and why so many changes and variations have occurred in this curious mode over 250 years. In spite of Hogles claim that the Gothic is a symbolic realm, and not a secure set of literary practices, he goes on to undercut this statement with a noteworthy nevertheless, and proceeds to catalogue parameters to use in order to identify the genre: the Gothic usually takes place (at least some of the time) in antiquated or seemingly antiquated space; this space holds some manner of secret important to plot and character development; this space is haunted by the blurring boundaries between the natural and the supernatural; the genre emphasizes the repressed or unconscious; the genre has social and political functions.3 While these parameters can help identify the genre (although not necessarily altogether), that qualifying nevertheless does cause concern. Instead of asking why the Gothic is so difficult to set defining parameters on, or how this has been attempted in the past, this book continues its own attempts at setting boundaries. Hogle does, however, provide a historical context for the word Gothic, thus offering a way to define the genre at specific times and places. The chronology at the beginning of this book is a helpful companion to this mode of thinking about the genre, particularly since the book is intended to give undergraduate students a firm foundation in the Gothic and its variations. Indeed, this is the essence of the collection, to offer a historical analysis of Gothic fiction that might assist its new students in comprehending what, exactly, the giant of a genre has to offer. One of the predictable problems of this approach is its tendency to dismiss a number of texts when attempting to illustrate something like a particular nations or centurys Gothic. That is, some of the chapters subsume entire Gothic traditions under one or two texts, not even acknowledging the
3 Jerry Hogle, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 12.

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potential pitfalls of this reading mode. For example, David Punters Scottish and Irish Gothic is a useful overview of the generalities of Scottish and Irish Gothic traditions, but confines itself to two books to do so, inevitably missing some vagaries of the genre that Hogle asserts in the introduction as an essential aspect of Gothic criticism. That being said, the book offers a general impression of the Gothic for any student who is less than familiar with the workings of the genre. Steven Bruhms The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It might be particularly attractive to students trying to understand the current relevance of the genre, since it links current horror films with the Gothic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This articles emphasis on contemporary film and pulp fiction is a welcome oddity in comparison to the collections overall reliance on the canon. In an age when interrogation of the canon increases (as Kilgour suggests is so important to Gothic criticism), it is difficult to embrace any text that affirms its own authority by foregrounding the authenticity of the canons Gothic members while shutting out alternative texts. If Hogle favours a canonical approach, and from this approach one can glean that certain ages and nations are afforded more legitimacy than others in terms of Gothic writing, one wonders first about how the traditional marginalization of the Gothic as a genre might complicate any canonical approach. In turn, one asks why so many aspects of the genre are missing from this collection. In the entire text, although several authors mention gender ambiguity and homosexuality as an anxiety running through most Gothic fiction (Alison Milbanks chapter on Victorian Gothic is particularly interesting in this respect), no chapter deals explicitly or exclusively with Queer Gothic, in spite of its recent critical popularity. Paulina Palmers Lesbian Gothic, for example, analyses the ways in which criticism has used a genre that is notable for its marginality and stylistic eccentricities to portray an eccentric, disruptive subject who exists in marginal relation to mainstream societythe lesbian.4 Moreover, Hogles book neglects to provide a chapter on feminist Gothic literature, an important aspect of a genre so linked to political subversionAnn Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frances Burneys Evelina, and Mary Wollstonecrafts Maria; or, the Wrongs of Women in the eighteenth century; Elizabeth Gaskells Ruth, Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre, and the short stories of Vernon Lee in the nineteenth century; and Margaret Atwoods Lady Oracle, Iris Murdochs A Severed Head, and Angela Carters Nights at the Circus today. Given the broad range of feminist Gothic criticism, this is a strange gap in the text. In particular, resisting emphasis on this particular aspect of the Gothic ignores the valuable work of critics such as Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (1995), and Kate Ferguson Ellis, The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (1989), who have, albeit in different ways, worked to distinguish between a masculine and a feminine Gothic. Although Hogle makes a brief reference to Williams in his introduction in order to indicate how the patriarchal confinement of
4 Paulina Palmer, Lesbian Gothic (London: Cassell, 1999), 1.

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women shifted to female empowerment in the eighteenth-century Gothic novel (10), the text resists any reference to the notion that the Gothic itself is divided in terms of how this empowerment signifies. A chapter devoted to an analysis of critical approaches to the genre would likely have been unable to avoid mentioning the feminist agendas of the Gothic more explicitly. Such critical awareness would provide the necessary insight into more than how the Gothic has changed over 250 years; it would provide insight into how its criticism has changed over 250 years, and how this change in criticism has borne on the variances in the definition of the genre. Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction comes much closer to expressing awareness of the agendas behind Gothic criticism. This collection for instructors of the Gothic analyses approaches not only to teaching but also to reading the Gothic in productive ways that The Cambridge Companion does not. The introduction heavily emphasizes the problem of defining the Gothic, with particular attention to the pitfalls and benefits of enforcing a rigid definition. Specifically, one instructor is quoted as saying, As a teacherand a teacher specifically of undergraduatesI find a limited definition of the genre useful ... . As a scholar, on the other hand, I am convinced that the presence of certain formal and thematic elements in texts published well after 1820 makes the term Gothic meaningfully applicable to a much wider range of texts.5 Rather than attempt to enforce a definition of Gothic, then, this collection takes a long-overdue look at how criticism of the genre shapes the genre, how the variability and mutations of the Gothic have everything to do with not only national identities or periods but also the approaches that are taken when studying and teaching them. The materials section of the book begins by briefly outlining the various responses instructors of the Gothic had to the survey that the editors conducted, dividing these into criticism by period (eighteenth century and Romantic, Victorian, and Fin-de-Sicle and later Gothic) and critical approaches (feminist and gender studies, psychoanalytic, Marxian-historicist, formal and aesthetic, cultural studies, and topic areas or subgenres). The second section enters into these approaches. Many of the articles are quite useful for teaching a genre so difficult to define. Judith Wilts And Still Insists He Sees the Ghosts: Defining the Gothic proposes a contract between students and instructors formed gradually to collectively arrive at a definition. Wilt also acknowledges the impossibility of defining the Gothic and thanks heaven for the sober urgencies of pedagogy in a thirteen-week semester (40). Wilt, like so many others, thus resorts to listing the genres traits for the sake of convenience. In several ways, the self-consciousness about Gothic criticism demanded by a teaching guide allows this text to surpass the coverage of the genre afforded by The Cambridge Companion. Aware that students might find the victimization of women in the genre problematic as a whole, Hoevelers article, for
5 Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, ed. Diane Hoeveler and Tamar Heller (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2003), 4.

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example, links the development of feminism to the development of the Gothic. Similarly, Anne Williamss Horrors of Misogyny addresses feminisms fraught relationship with the psychoanalytic modes of inquiry now so entrenched in Gothic criticism. Canon Schmidt cleverly notes that reading the Gothic is Gothic, that teachers can use the suffering we may endure reading the 1790s Gothics as a point of entry, an experience in some way parallel to the trials and tribulations in the novels themselves (120). Not all of the suggestions that instructors provide in this text seem entirely practicable. Sandy Feinsteins Teaching the Gothic in an Interdisciplinary Honors Class is creative yet outlines a term perhaps not quite realistic for most instructors. Feinsteins energy and passion are admirable, however; she recalls including a community service component to the course that suggested students give blood, meeting weekly in different locations to suit the landscape of the texts being studied (including a prison and the roof of the university administration building), and having chemists, biologists, and biochemists as guest lecturers. Mark Morreales article also offers a creative mode of teaching the Gothic: his Epistolary Novel Project combines creative writing with role-playing and e-mail discussion groups to make the genre belong to his students. Overall, this is a valuable book for thinking about what the Gothic is, and how the problem of arriving at a constructed identity for the genre works itself out in pedagogy. This book is a useful resource for any teacher, and for any student, particularly insofar as it emphasizes the relationship between teaching and learning, collaboration and instruction. Early on, the book pays a great deal of attention to instructors definitions of the Gothic. This section is extremely important and could have benefited from including some analysis of how those individuals who teach the genre collaborate to define its parameters. Unfortunately, although many of the articles take a metatheoretical approach and critique various modes of Gothic criticism, overall there is little to suggest that Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction is selfconsciously theorizing itself as a Gothic resource. Both texts rely heavily on a canonical approach to the Gothic, failing to address many of the genres more marginal texts and the ways they have served as political and cultural moments of subversion. Both are necessary texts insofar as they provide ways to conceptualize the ever-expanding genre. While The Cambridge Companion assesses the genre according to temporality and geography, Approaches to Teaching does so according to the various ways that one might read the genre. Both texts provide valuable analysis, but The Cambridge Companion does not seem complete without an analysis of approaches, whereas Approaches to Teaching provides an analysis of approaches combined with interpretations of individual texts as well as an organization of the genre according to place, time, and political agenda. How do more focused studies of individual Gothic texts compare to these two anthologies? Franks critical edition of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother defines the Gothic by providing a historical context of what

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the genre meant at a particular cultural moment. This approach leaves interpretation up to the readerthe book contains no articles, nor is it thesisdrivenand resists enforcing any particular notion of the Gothic. Nevertheless, it paints a picture of what the Gothic meant to Walpole and his contemporaries. The text thus fulfils its self-proclaimed function as a comparative study of the publication history of these two pivotal Gothic texts.6 Through this emphasis on the public notions of propriety and the role of the publishing industry in cultural production in terms of this comparative history, this particular mode of defining the Gothic comes to the fore. A valuable tool for any scholar of the Gothic, and especially of Walpole, the book includes a chronology of Walpoles life and work, a collection of his correspondence, responses and reactions to the texts, and a guide to the aesthetic and intellectual backgrounds influencing both texts. The edition also includes certain primary texts in the original French, providing more accurate versions for the reader. In the introduction to this edition, Frank notes the critical gap left around The Mysterious Mother, and his book does a fantastic job of both gesturing towards this gap and beginning the important task of filling it. While referring to the texts function of filling this critical gapas only the third printing of the play in the twentieth and twenty-first centuriesFrank also remarks that this is a strange oversight given the excess of Gothic studies and general interest in the revival of obscure and neglected Gothics since the 1950s (11). Again we see uneasiness on the part of a Gothic critic with the effulgence of Gothic criticism. The sheer amount of Gothic criticism appears to make critics nervous about studying it, just as the matter they study has been dismissed, at times, as pulp because of its prolific writers. Of course, being big does not negate the importance of being studied. So, while Frank is quite right to point out the importance of studying a neglected text such as The Mysterious Mother, his resources on a popular text such as The Castle of Otranto are invaluable. Franks work makes a welcome addition to critical editions on Walpole. It does recall to mind Stephen Gwynns The Life of Horace Walpole, which discusses the link between Walpoles travels, loves, the creation of Stawberry Hill Press, and his creative work. Gwynn also provides excerpts of Walpoles correspondence.7 Franks edition is unique, however, because it situates the genre on a historical continuum by juxtaposing a marginal text with a popular one. Of course, as a resource rather than a thesis-driven text, the book offers no overt interpretation of the importance of the juxtaposition. Weins British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms and the Gothic Novel examines the Gothics figuring of the British nationalist identity through a specific type of heroism. First, Wein suggests that while reaching into the lost Golden Age of the past, and adapting the present to suit this past, the Gothic reaffirms a
6 7 Frederick S. Frank, preface to The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, by Horace Walpole (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2003), 11. Stephen Gwynn, The Life of Horace Walpole (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1932).

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specific set of cultural values. This reaffirmation happens as the Gothic constructs a new kind of hero, one whose virtue is intrinsic instead of based on class or status, in fact, a hero who crosses class divisions like the heroes of the early romance.8 This new hero reaches into the past to reconstruct the present, and he embodies the coming together of traditionally male and female traits. In this sense, Weins argument begins to resemble one in Nancy Armstrongs Desire and Domestic Fiction. Armstrong discusses what she refers to as the eighteenth-century novels modern love, a romantic relationship through which heroes become more like the women they love (whose virtues are tied to their individual psyches and not their social status), thus becoming better men, if more effeminate.9 Wein goes on to link this heroism to the Gothic author, noting that authors of Gothic heroes frequently presented themselves as heroes through narrative and editorial strategies. Wein observes that Walpole constructs himself as a heroic editor who will reform British standards and resurrect linguistic morality through the reimportation of foreign models (212)that is, an editor who will reach into the aesthetic and moral values of the past to improve the present. Yet Wein also thoughtfully asks questions about the shift in authorial identities as modes of production and dissemination of Gothic texts made the author appear as an institution at odds with the narrative emphasis on the individuality of the Gothic hero. What strikes me most about Weins book is that, as though picking up where Franks edition leaves off, Wein sets up a much-needed look at the significance of the Gothic both as a popular and marginal genre. While the title suggests that the book will examine the relationship between British national identity and Gothic heroismand it doesit offers particularly interesting insights into the ways that the Gothic is both always in excess (as something indefinable) and on the margins (as something repressed, frightening, and socially shocking). It provides an especially interesting analysis of how Gothic chapbooks are marginalized texts yet were extremely important to the development of a British national identity. More to the point, Wein is asking to what extent popular literature might also be subversive literature. Figuring the chapbook as a text that links high and low literary forms, Wein argues that it elevates the domestic to the realm of the political, that it is therefore both apparently radical and conservative. At times, then, the text seems conflicted in terms of this tension, concluding that neither banal nor subversive, Gothic novels and chapbooks were nonetheless popular literature in the fullest sense, their cryptic encounters the British rendezvous with its own national spirit (238). Certainly questions about the degree of a popular texts subversiveness are difficult to answer. Feminist critics of the Gothic have also engaged with this dilemma in terms of how female protagonists can
8 9 Toni Wein, British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms and the Gothic Novel, 1764-1824 (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002), 45. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

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represent womens empowerment when such empowerment is predicated on their roles as victims. One response that adds to Weins argument comes from Michelle Mass, who argues that subversion in the Gothic depends on the illusion of submission. For Mass, the submissive Gothic heroine subverts by quietly masking her disobedience of the patriarchy that oppresses her.10 Of course, Mass does warn that her miming may become reality, its point forgotten over too many years of too thorough acquiescence (250). In this sense, Gothic texts are subversive, yet are always in tension with a sort of compliance with the target of subversion. Clearly, studying the Gothic has no best approach. While this review has attempted to discuss some of the benefits and pitfalls of particular approaches, I am not prepared to suggest that either the survey method or focused study method of reading the genre ought to be considered superior to the other. Overall, reading these texts together evinces the ways in which criticism of the genre has learned to accept its own inability to define the Gothic while using this inability to arrive at a number of workable modes of interpretation. None of the books reviewed here claims to define the Gothic as a genre, yet each is nevertheless implicated in creating a definition in two important ways. First, on the individual level, each book suggests how the Gothic as a genre might be read. On a second level, these critical texts themselves collaborate to construct and define the genre. Criticism of the genre has reached a point where no one approach supersedes another. Consequently, anxieties about the sprawling wave of analytical work on the Gothic beleaguer the genres critics. Therefore, although reviewing these texts in tandem reveals that Gothic criticism is aware of its own inability to define the genre, and ways in which this awareness allows for an incredibly diverse body of criticism, it also reveals that a gap exists in the field. This gap, as I see it, awaits a kind of Gothic criticism that takes up self-analysis in terms of its own role in defining an increasingly malleable genre. This kind of self-awareness is crucial to understanding not only the literature that is Gothic, but also the field that collaboratively defines it. McMaster University

10 Michelle Mass, In The Name of Love: Women, Masochism and the Gothic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 250.

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