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Patrick R. O’Malley. Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Price: US$95.00.

  • Oliver S. Buckton

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  • Oliver S. Buckton
    Florida Atlantic University

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The Gothic—primarily associated with the explosion of Gothic fiction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with novels such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)—remained one of the most intriguing and enduring literary forms of the nineteenth century, and was reanimated by such fin-de-siècle texts as Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Patrick O’Malley’s approach to the Gothic, focusing on its close association with Catholic discourse and anxious representations of sexual deviance, is at once historically informed and theoretically sophisticated. Beginning with a reading of key Gothic novels, O’Malley devotes the majority of his attention to mid- and late-Victorian works in which Gothic imagery, rhetoric, and narrative tropes make frequent and at times surprising appearances. Yet the originality and impact of O’Malley’s book lie in his thesis that the Gothic itself is deeply intertwined both with the (often phobic) representation of Catholicism, and the representations of sexual deviance as a disruptive presence in narrative literature. In his admirably lucid introduction, O’Malley explains the persistent connection in the nineteenth-century between tropes of Catholicism and those of “non-normative sexual expression or identity” (3) which he subsequently calls “sexual deviance,” a condensed phrase that includes homosexuality, as well as “adultery, celibacy, mannishness, cross-dressing, coarse frankness of gaze, and the sexless marriage” (2). In arguing that the Gothic is a privileged site for this coupling of Catholicism and sexual deviance, O’Malley’s broadest claim is that “the cultural history of religion and sexuality in nineteenth-century England is a cultural history of the Gothic” (3).

O’Malley’s first chapter establishes that Catholicism was closely associated with the Gothic novel from its origins in Castle of Otranto (1764)--whose author, Horace Walpole, was fascinated with both Catholicism and Gothic architecture--and Udolpho, in which Radcliffe combined an anti-Catholic rhetoric with portrayals of sexual deviance. It is striking that the Catholicism of Gothic novels so often turns out to be Protestant anti-Catholicism, and at times O’Malley uses the terms interchangeably writing, for example, that in Melmoth the Wanderer, “it is telling how the ultra-Protestant threat to mainstream Anglicanism is troped as itself a kind of Catholicism” (25). The persistent, even obsessive, encryption of Catholicism within Protestant Gothic writing comes to seem like a campaign of anti-Catholic propaganda, in which a domestic, Protestant and pure version of Britishness is contrasted with a corrupt, deviant, and perverse “foreign” Catholicism.

Yet the most intriguing dynamic traced by O’Malley is, perhaps, that by which the threat of Catholic perversion, located partly in colonized Ireland, comes home to roost, as it were, in the very heart of English culture and society. At first contained by its setting in a distant medieval past and/or in continental Europe--as in The Monk, where the Catholic monk Ambrosio is shown to commit “fornication…murder, incest, and rape”(42)--what O’Malley terms the “Irish Gothic” of Charles Maturin brings the danger within the ambit of the British Isles, as “the Catholic Church in Ireland is itself a Gothic monster, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [sic] constructed out of the dead and mouldering material of the past” (48). Shelley’s novel receives scant treatment in the book, which is surprising given that O’Malley refers to Frankenstein as “the early nineteenth-century Gothic tale that most dramatically explodes the distinction between the alien and the domestic” (69).

The work of John Ruskin establishes the Gothic as a central component of Victorian culture, one of O’Malley’s most successful moves being to insert Ruskin’s writings about Gothic architecture as a link in the chain connecting the early nineteenth-century and the Gothic revival in the 1890s. Ruskin’s famous essay on the “Nature of Gothic” (from Stones of Venice) is a powerful appraisal of the motifs that make medieval architecture a model of artistic production. While O’Malley admits “the architectural Gothic cannot be immediately mapped onto the literary Gothic”(58) he does in fact connect the two, showing that Ruskin’s contrasting of an English, “manly” Protestantism opposed to the “impotent passivity of the south and Catholic Rome” (61) replays some of the oppositions in the Gothic novel. O’Malley’s rhetorical analysis of such anti-Catholic tracts as The Oxford and Roman Railway advances his argument that Gothic tropes found expression in non-fictional religious discourse in the Victorian period. The Protestant anxiety about the secretive, potentially deviant nature of the auricular Confession yielded a particularly rich vein of Gothic writing, portraying Catholic Confessors as “‘beastly sensualists’” and “‘hideous monsters’” (75). Intriguingly, O’Malley goes on to argue that the Gothic is also a source for the pro-Catholic writing of John Henry Newman. O’Malley’s attention to the Gothic features of Newman’s alternately lyrical and melodramatic account of his Catholic conversion in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) is illuminating, yet O’Malley underplays the extent to which Charles Kingsley’s attack on Newman produced the sexual meaning of “perversion.” In claiming that “by mid-century its [perversion’s] sexual implications had begun to overlay the older suggestions of religious transgression” (91), O’Malley suggests that Kingsley drew on an already existing recognition of sexualized “perversion,” rather than producing that meaning.

O’Malley then turns to the Victorian sensation novel, exemplified by Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) with its setting at the medieval Audley Court, and the revelation that Catholic priestly vestments have been concealed in the stately home. Braddon’s novel imports crucial elements of the Gothic and continues its vein of anti-Catholic rhetoric, yet the elements of sexual deviance and Catholic ritual are now located at the heart of the English establishment. O’Malley points to intriguing parallels between the deceit of Lady Audley--who conceals her working-class background and sexual transgression behind a mask of respectability--and the English aristocracy, with its homoeroticism and buried Catholic past, arguing that “the narrative can exorcise neither homoerotics nor foreign Catholicism from its vision of Britain” (128).

O’Malley then forges a convincing argument about the relation between Catholicism and sexual deviance in vampire narratives, illustrating the thesis that the changes in vampire stories reflect the “move of Britain’s understanding of sexual and religious deviance from foreign alterity to haunted domesticity” (132-33). Hence, while Polidori’s Ruthven, in the 1819 short story “The Vampyre” is an English aristocrat with no plans to reproduce, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) replays the Gothic tension between English domesticity, represented by Laura, and the “indeterminately foreign” (139) lineage of Carmilla. Introducing sexual deviance through the “frankness of lesbian desire” (138), Carmilla prepares the ground for the century’s most famous and influential vampire story, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which the “infiltration of England by the Continent”(146) is given its fullest embodiment.

The volume and diversity of critical interpretations of Dracula, is of course a challenge for any critic addressing this novel, and O’Malley’s tack of stressing the novel’s representation of Catholicism is at times problematic. Recognizing that Dracula’s racial “degeneracy” has been ascribed to “Jewishness” by scholars such as Judith Halberstam and H.L. Malchow, O’Malley seeks to replace Jewish signifiers with Catholic ones, and makes a plausible case both for the importance of Catholicism to Nordau’s degeneration theory, and to the Eucharistic significance of the Count’s blood-drinking “perversion.” Yet O’Malley conflates the signifiers of Judaism and Catholicism in a way that muddies his argument. For example, having argued that the Catholic, rather than the Jew, is the real threat of degeneracy, O’Malley insists on the resemblance of the Catholic cleric in a Punch cartoon to the stereotype of “a Jew.” Moreover, O’Malley’s eagerness to establish an interchangeability between Stoker, Van Helsing, and Dracula as three obsessed men using “the same forces”(163) seems strained at times.

In his final two chapters, O’Malley turns to writers whose inclusion in a study of the Gothic might be surprising: Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Hardy. In fact, Pater’s famous reading of La Giaconda takes on new significance in light of “the vampire’s national, sexual, and religious implications” (166). Describing Dorian Gray as “a new form of the Gothic for the 1890s…urban, sophisticated, and--most importantly--contemporary” (172), O’Malley has little trouble establishing the novel as a “confessional text” that reaches back to the Gothic’s “ecclesiastical imagery” (174). Unfortunately, the conclusion of this chapter is strangely anti-climatic. Given that O’Malley’s chapter on Wilde follows the one on Stoker, his point that in the “new English Gothic” the “new monster is merely the sodomite” (192)--a rather less compelling deviant than the vampire and one that “removes the ambiguities and ambivalents” (192) of the Gothic--suggests that the Gothic is winding down at the end of the century.

The Oxford context for Wilde and Pater’s aestheticism prepares for the final chapter on Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, in which Christminster becomes the setting for a “horrible trauma of the past’s eruption into the present”(195). Jude is a working-class man whose entrapment by the past has a harder, realist edge, yet the most striking “Gothic” episode of the novel--the killing of the children by Jude’s son “Father Time,”--drew objections from critics because of its violation of realism. O’Malley’s argument that the event is structured like a Gothic narrative, in which a shift of perspective serves “to impede the horrible revelation” (200), accounts for aspects of Hardy’s text that seem resistant to a realist analysis. O’Malley concludes by contesting Foucault’s dubious distinction between “initiators of discursive practices” (such as Freud and Marx) and an author such as Ann Radcliffe whose work has “put into circulation a certain number of resemblances and analogies” (213): implicitly making a case that the Gothic is as culturally significant a field of discourse as Marxism or psychoanalysis. Given the endurance and proliferation of the Gothic over two centuries, it is hard to disagree with O’Malley’s striking conclusion. The cumulative effect of O’Malley’s chapters is to establish and illustrate that the Gothic has permeated British culture and society since the early nineteenth century. Moreover, O’Malley suggests that Freud himself “brings the Gothic into the twentieth century” with his work on the “uncanny” and Dora’s “attempts to escape the confinements of psychoanalytic theories”(214-5). O’Malley concludes his study with Radcliffe, a narrative return to origins that nicely reproduces the structure of a Gothic novel. Indeed, one might say that O’Malley has achieved the feat that he ascribes to Freud, in that “he rewrites the Gothic for his own age”(216).