James Watt. Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. ISBN 0521-64099-7. Price: $55.00.[Record]

  • Lauren Fitzgerald

…more information

  • Lauren Fitzgerald
    Yeshiva University

Readers who tend to dismiss the first wave of the literary Gothic as merely a set of oft-repeated conventions will come away from James Watt's Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832 with a more nuanced understanding of the form. Rather than a recipe that can be easily accessed through one exemplary text—Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, for instance, the genre's apparent origins—Gothic romance, Watt argues, "is a hybrid genre, its diverse affiliations best understood by way of detailed case studies of authors, works, and publishing events, and via a focus on the kinds of classification made by contemporary critics and reviewers" (130). In other words, in order for us to recognize its diversity, the early Gothic needs to be situated as much as possible in its contemporary literary context, particularly by way of the interplay between authorial intention and critical reception. Also important is Watt's attention to lesser-known Gothic works of the period, which he is especially adept at using to sketch out contours of the Gothic territory that have generally been overlooked. Despite indications that he has not fully considered some of the more recent scholarship of both Gothic and genre studies, Watt's redirection of focus is an important one. One way to read Contesting the Gothic is as a series of "antagonistic relations" (1) between writers: Walpole v. Clara Reeve; Matthew Lewis v. Ann Radcliffe; and Walter Scott v. them all. In contrast to Reeve, Watt holds, Walpole established for himself an aristocratic position unsullied by labor, research, or competition. Watt usefully locates The Castle of Otranto in relation to Strawberry Hill, using this connection not to link Walpole to antiquarianism (which, Watt claims, Walpole wanted nothing to do with), but to argue that both faux castle and faux manuscript were directed toward a "leisured audience" and at "confounding" readers who could not penetrate their eccentricities (33). Such subterfuge, Watt holds, helps to account for the difficulty current readers face in isolating the politics of Walpole's romance. Undoubtedly Watt's most important contribution is his chapter on what he calls the "Loyalist Gothic." Looking at Reeve's The Old English Baron as well as lesser-known titles such as Richard Warner's Netley Abbey (1795) and the anonymous Mort Castle (1798), Watt uncovers compellingly similar concerns. Appearing between the American Revolution and the conflict with France, such Loyalist Gothics "located their action in a predominantly English medieval setting" (58) often in or around real Gothic castles, defined good and evil often in reference to English history, and offered comforting lessons to readers during a time of national crisis. In Reeve's case, especially, this strand of Gothic defined itself against Walpolean frivolity by accentuating the role of legitimacy and property and redeeming the hereditary castle. Not only does this new category rescue Reeve from the shadow of Walpole, but it also accounts for works by more major writers that have not quite found their places in the Gothic canon, such as Radcliffe's first and last novels, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne and Gaston de Blondeville, and Lewis's drama The Castle Spectre. In his chapters on Lewis and Radcliffe, Watt revisits the famous debate between the two over issues of propriety, but more useful are his comments on the material they imported into the Gothic, their relation to contemporary anxieties over the spread of literacy, and their critical receptions. In a helpful discussion of the vagaries of the term "German" in criticism of the 1790s, Watt notes that by the end of the decade the label signified an author's perniciousness and his (or her) succumbing to …