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Robert Mighall, A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History's Nightmares. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-19-818472-7 (Hardback). Price: £45.00 (US$74.00).

  • Jacqueline Howard

…plus d’informations

  • Jacqueline Howard
    St Mary's College, Adelaide

Corps de l’article

What we call early Gothic fiction is nothing if not heterogeneous. The diverse affiliations of Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Reeve's Old English Baron, Radcliffe's romances, Lewis's The Monk, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have long attracted debate, and the texts themselves have eluded consensual generic categorization. Robert Mighall moves us on from attempts to nail the Gothic as a genre. Such attempts, for the most part, have posited coherence in perceived symbolic, ontological, and, especially, psychological features, and made of the Gothic 'a free-floating fantasy world' (p. xxv), often consciously divorcing it from historical and geographical considerations. In pointing out the seriousness of this rejection of geography and history, A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction does more than reassert the fundamental truth that historically specific interconnections of time and place—the ground for representations of any events—are what make Gothic plots possible. In mapping the Gothic as a continuing 'mode' or 'a process', Mighall sets out to demonstrate its coherence, for over more than a century, in a persistent attitude to the past and the 'unwelcome legacies' of the past, and in a rhetoric—the Gothic's adoption of 'a number of rhetorical and textual strategies to locate the past and present its perceived iniquities, terrors, and survivals' (p. xiv).

He thus announces an intent to contest Freudian and post-Freudian approaches which have dominated criticism and homogenized the Gothic for decades. This is a bold venture, given the number and eminence of critics who regularly assume that Freud's map of psychic typography is now a tenet of 'commonsense'. After all, to quote from one recent commentary, 'thanks to Freud (who knew his Gothic fiction) most of us are accustomed to the idea of the mind as spectropia, full of importuning, uncanny presences'.  [1]

But this naturalisation of Freud for literary criticism and theory attests to what Robert Young has called the 'vampiric proclivities' of psychoanalysis. And those who view Gothic fictions as 'dreamscape' repositories of repressed desires, fears and transgressive 'moments', had best look to neglected geographical and historical locales. For all his lengthy quotations from German dictionaries at the outset of his 1919 Essay on the Uncanny, Freud omitted to mention that, in Early New High German, 'unheimlich' meant 'foreign'. The 'unfamiliar' was 'fear-provoking' in the sense of being from a place other than one's Heimat (home, native land). Fleeting reference to this is given only in his examples of the use of 'heimlich' (originally meaning 'belonging to the house', 'secure', 'comfortable')—'Is it still heimlich to you in your country where strangers are felling your woods?' and 'The protestant land-owners do not feel … heimlich among their catholic inferiors'. Again, in his reflection on the extension of 'heimlich' to mean 'something withdrawn from the eyes of strangers', 'clandestine', Freud fails to explore the connotations of inimical 'pastness' in the also unmentioned affiliation of 'heimlich' with 'Heimstucke' ('insidiousness', 'treachery', 'foul play'), and with 'Geheimnis' ('secret', 'mystery'). Mighall's pursuit of the Gothicized, which begins with his historicist analysis of canonical Gothic's southern European Catholic locations and characteristic double time-scale, restores missing pieces to the Gothic jigsaw.

Examining the fiction of Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis and Maturin alongside eighteenth-and nineteenth-century responses to the role of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages—from writers such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Sir Walter Scott, John Laurens Mosheim, Edward Gibbon, S. G. Potter and W. E. H. Lecky—Mighall notes the way in which they are all consistently informed by a Protestant attitude of superiority in judging the past, an attitude of 'self-authenticating modernity' (p. 3). He concludes that Gothic fiction is 'essentially Whiggish' (p. 7). By this is meant the sort of attitude to the past defined by Herbert Butterfield in the The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). Butterfield was not referring to a type of interpretation specific only to nineteenth-century Protestant Whig or liberal politics. Rather, he had in mind the commonplace but deep-rooted and unexamined habit (in which we all at times indulge) of describing or organizing the past with reference to the present, of sifting historical personages into those who have promoted progress and those who have thwarted it. Undeniably, such an attitude is implicit in early Gothic romances. Set in the medieval past, or on the 'Gothic cusp', these works dramatize a conflict between characters whose practices are either those of the old feudal order of tyranny, Machiavellian (or British) intrigue, ambition, and popish superstition, or those of the new order of liberty and enlightenment. Mighall views the latter characters, who anachronistically have the fashionable sensibility, manners and tastes of eighteenth-century England, as the counterparts of the reader. He argues that early Gothic's articulation of the medieval with the modern, far from being derisible for its patent anachronisms, allowed the figuring of those collisions between forces barbaric and civilized, reactionary and progressive—with all their concomitant, pleasurable evocations of terror and victories of enlightenment—for which the Gothic is renowned.

Given postmodern suspicion of Enlightenment values, Mighall's use of Butterfield is timely. We can detect a certain affinity with Bakhtin in Butterfield's injunction to scholars to undertake specialized historical research, to complicate rather than foreshorten historical narratives, and to open up history to the winds by examining the motivations in any era of all parties to change. Butterfield would, no doubt, have been pleased with the close research of James Watt's Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832 (1999), which complicates Chris Baldick's view, in his influential Introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, that the dramas of Gothic romances were usually set in what was perceived to be still feudal, southern Catholic Europe. Devoting an admirable chapter to the surprising number of 1790s self-styled Gothic romances set in medieval England, and which were written after the model of Reeve's Old English Baron, Watt describes the ways in which these 'histories', often set around real castles, employed 'a lexicon of Gothic ancestry' to display, in varying degrees, a sentimental attitude to the medieval past. While this anomaly might be thought damaging to the argument of Mighall, for whom a Gothicizing rhetoric always carries connotations of negativity when imposed on 'epochs, institutions, places and people' (p. xxv), the reverse is actually true. For 'loyalist Gothic romance', too, is very obviously 'Whiggish'. It stages the purging of corrupt feudal tyrants from amongst England's chivalrous Gothic ancestors in the interests of legitimizing the present. It is simply that, as has been frequently remarked, the actual depiction of and purging of such unprogressive, reactionary forces by supernatural or other means is tame, and kept to a minimum. A rhetoric of inimical pastness at such points in these narratives is nevertheless still discernible.

Indeed, returning to an earlier point, it could be said that loyalist Gothic romances are heimlich; their barbaric plots of the past are secrets concealed within the house. Their gist is that the realization of England's future was once threatened by perceived instances of insidious, domestic, medieval, 'Protestant' treachery at home. In contrast, the canonical Gothic romances which Mighall describes in his first chapter are unheimlich. Their rhetoric depicts a more fearful threat of the medieval past—both as the European Catholic past per se, and as the perceived survival, in the present, of vestiges of that past. Here, his qualms about the legitimate claim of the philosophical novel, Frankenstein, to be considered 'Gothic' (p. xx), could be tempered by recall that one of Frankenstein's most fearful threats to the present is the stranger's —Victor Frankenstein's—unenlightened youthful affinity with the works of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, those overreaching, medieval scientist-monks of the occult from the Germanic Catholic heartland. Significantly, when Victor takes up residence at the University of Ingolstadt, his mentor, M. Waldmann, acknowledges their wisdom while moving him onto the modern. The apparent ease with which Victor collects bones, flesh and skin from charnel house and graveyard would have reminded Shelley's readers of the scandal of a further Gothic vestige —one to be exposed in sickening, 'Gothic' detail by G. A. Walker, in 1839, in his Gatherings from Graveyards, Particularly those of London, with a Concise History of Modes of Interment among Different Nations, from the Earliest Periods: and a Detail of dangerous and fatal results produced by the unwise and revolting Custom of inhuming the Dead in the midst of the Living.

That Gothicity frequently resides in the depiction of the 'haunting' of the present by anachronistic and often scandalous survivals is the foundation for Mighall's restoration of the vital importance of setting or place, not merely symbolically, but in its own right, as a coordinate of history. The focus of mid-Victorian Gothic's Whiggish preoccupation with 'identifying and depicting such threatening reminders … of an age from which the present is relieved to have distanced itself' (p. 26) is frequently the city, its 'squalid habitations', 'rookeries' and 'cholera districts' being also the subject of contemporary non-literary discourses. These are used by Mighall to situate his original and compelling readings of urban fiction, but not before he has demonstrated that the city has become the counterpart of the medieval castle and Catholic convent. In Reynold's The Mysteries of London, for example, the 'sublime' imagery of the dark, impenetrable labyrinth—analogous to that of the earlier unheimlich Gothic tradition, but self-consciously superseding it—is imposed on low life courts and alleys, the rookeries of London, to produce a dark 'Gothic of the city' (p. 30), an 'outcast' environment which has nevertheless a palpable, terrifying proximity. In the Gothic geography of Bleak House, filth and stench abound, displacing the 'damp vapours' and 'pestilential fog' of Radcliffe and Lewis's ecclesiastical architecture. Slum smells and seeping mephitis, which now verily taint the stagnating British Constitution responsible for this vestige from the age of darkness, have entered the Gothic repertoire.

The Victorian need to Gothicize and exorcize the city's dark places, to deal with the problems posed by criminals and deviants, the 'haunters' as well as their 'haunts', is evident in Mighall's brilliant readings of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. He situates these novels in relation to a range of developments in the emergent disciplines of psychiatry, criminology, sexology, anthropology and historiography to explore how and why the body, and its metamorphoses, became the site of Gothic horror late in the century. His research has been broad and deep. Here, as in his readings of Reynolds and Dickens, and in his later reading of Dracula with sexological and pre-Freudian representations of vampirism as sexual sadism, Mighall respects the generic specificity and difference of his extra-literary, contextual material. He makes clear, for example, how comments in Maudsley's essay on Edgar Allan Poe are shaped by their own historically specific agenda (pp. 172-3). In the case of Dracula, there are some tricky convergences, as pre-psychiatric discourse appropriates snatches of folklore and fiction, which in turn are expropriated by a supernatural Gothic fiction seeking to authenticate itself by taking a scientific framework into its own inventory of the fearsome. But his awareness of living language as an uninterrupted process of what Bakhtin calls 'historical becoming' is evident. By diligent analysis, Mighall avoids that easy cross-reference between literary and other discourses which, in some historicist criticism, reduces both to readily-digested, homogenized sociology.

While Mighall's reading of Dorian Gray as a Gothicized fable about masturbation contradicts contextualized, psychoanalytic readings which claim the novel for bourgeois anxieties about homosexuality, his readings (in two sections) of Walpolean, deterministic tales of family curses take us on a more direct collision course with psychoanalytic criticism. For Freudians, the putative 'oedipal' nature of such tales is manifest in their linking of a 'surface' plot in the present to a second plot buried in the past. But read alongside contemporaneous medical discourse—which sought to explain moral dysfunction in terms of pathology and physiology— a novel such as Margaret Jane Hooper's The House of Raby (1851), is perceived to be about hereditary insanity. Here 'the pathological appropriates the supernatural mechanism' of earlier curse narratives 'while paying tribute to its earlier discursive provenance in its allusions to Gothic conventions' (p. 98). The haunting disorder or taint of the aristocratic 'House' thus lies not in repressed 'oedipal' secrets, but in the legacy of the diseased body from a heimlich ancestor, the exorcism of which can be effected only through reproductive renunciation. The departures of this and similar novels from prior curse narratives, in terms of generational dynamics and figurative patterning, point to The House of Raby as a new cultivar in Gothic mythmaking. This is developed in Mighall's Foucauldian suggestion that the deployment of the cursed lineage or hereditary taint in such mid-century fiction is a bourgeois strategy for depicting the 'House' of the aristocracy in ruins, and for legitimating its own 'class body' and sexual practices.

If Mighall's compelling readings expose the folly of ignoring the marks of past historical engagements which texts bear, and the ways in which such marks place some limit on the nature and degree of recontextualization which can occur without grossly violating the text, his 'Postscript' explains effectively why psychoanalytic criticism has gained hegemony in Gothic studies. In an extended discussion which hinges on Freud's ontogenetic and phylogenetic expropriations of Victorian evolutionary biology, Mighall describes how, in Totem and Taboo (1912-13), Freud's treatment of such themes as 'inheritance, archaism, the vestigial, atavism … reveal a rhetorical complicity and historical continuity with earlier modes of thought. The suppression of these relationships has allowed critics to collapse historical differences, allowing Gothic criticism to mirror what it discusses' (p. 261), and to generate readings which are Gothic and Whiggish in themselves. The suppression of history has enabled, for example, the eroticizing of the vampire. Read through the psychoanalytic lens, taciturn Count Dracula, at the service of jouissance and as new Whig hero, is made to take up any sexual positionality which 'unenlightened' freeze-framed Victorian England is perceived to have feared and denied.

Mighall's point is telling with respect to our own preoccupations with the fluidity and legitimacy of sexual and reproductive practices. He concludes by saying that 'what is Gothicized constantly changes according to the stories a culture needs to tell itself' (p. 286). Whether, at some future point, we, too, will be perceived as 'Goths'—heimlich or unheimlich — only history will decide.

A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction marks a watershed in our understanding of the diversity, motivations, development and rhetoric of Gothic fiction. It seems petty to mention that the book needs a more comprehensive index. With its judicious enmeshment of theory and practice, Mighall's invigorating historicism fractures the dodgy logic of reading texts as primal psychodrama or as symptomatic of bourgeois sexual anxieties. To the followers of Freud, who played fast and loose with Oedipus Rex, sweeping aside the religious, legal and political import of the city-state imagery which figures the pollution or loimos of Thebes, neglected geography and forgotten history are returned.

Parties annexes