Reviews

Emma Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 45316 X (hardback) Price: £30 (US$49.95)[Record]

  • Nicola Trott

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  • Nicola Trott
    University of Glasgow

Clery's central argument is that, over the period of time covered by her study, the supernatural underwent a transition from 'truth' to 'spectacle' - that is, from a culture in which representations of the spectral might be thought to carry credit, to one in which questions of credibility no longer arise. Initially, in literary culture at least, there is an uneasy sense that truth-terms still obtain, and that, to be presentable, the spectral must be hedged about with a rationalist caveat or two. In this, the 'explained supernatural' (a phrase attached especially to Radcliffe), Enlightened values anxiously serve to demystify the gothic, and hence the potential for credibility itself. Ultimately, this detachment from questions of faith leads to the gothic's establishing itself as an unabashedly spectacular fiction. In its exhibitionist mode, the gothic is independent of truth-criteria, but tied (and here we reach the second strand of Clery's argument) to the rise of the book trade, and to the growing commercialization of literature. Clery's larger agenda is to tell the by now familiar tale of how, once upon a time, before 'the autonomy of the aesthetic abstract[ed] literature from the realm of politics', its 'works' were able to 'engage with issues of the present'. This story has been so often recycled as to be virtually universal - and so without the historical specificity that is its raison d'etre. However, the case, such as it is, is not at all ill-argued here. The materialist argument - that, in the late eighteenth century, novels, and gothic novels par excellence, become 'emblematic of unregulated social and economic forces' - is ingenious and (just about) credible. It hinges on the contemporaneity of the gothic with the ascent of a consumer society, and of a publishing industry that seeks both to feed its consumers' desires and to impose its own commercial ends. These dual imperatives are felt, Clery maintains, in the drift of 'apparition narratives' from truth to entertainment, or from questions of faith to the latitudinarian pleasures of consumption. Lest this suggest too bland and complaisant a teleology, however, we are informed that, Furthermore, it is argued, Gothic fiction is not only the successful product of commodification; it is also a register of its disruptive social effects. Improbably enough, then, the period of literature's engagement with the present is said to be located in the emergence of gothic fiction. The issues at stake are suitably momentous: 'the inhumane enforcement of patrilineal property laws, the obscure legal status of women, and the role of mass action in the unfolding of the French Revolution'. These would seem heavy crosses for the Gothic to bear, but bear them it remarkably does, largely thanks to the conviction which Clery's historical material generally carries. Clery posits for the rise of the popular novel a 'reading revolution', which contemporary commentators readily associated with the jacobin tendency, and which ultimately saw the triumph of market forces over 'the legislation of writing from above'. The conflict of interests raised by these different models of textual authority is ably demonstrated in Chapter 9, 'The Terrorist System' (a title lifted from a contemporary magazine article): This 'framing melodrama' includes the techniques of translation and imitation, plagiarism and misattribution, pirating (in chapbooks and bluebooks) and adaptation (in drama, ballad, or magic-lantern shows); and of course, parody and formula-writing. By the 'terrorist system', Clery does not, as one might expect, understand principally the ready-made analogy between English gothic and the French Revolution. Instead, she offers an account of the politics of the gothic's transmission, as well as the contradictions that were ...