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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).[Record]

  • Jacqueline Howard

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  • Jacqueline Howard
    St Mary's College, Adelaide

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'. 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 …

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