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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)

  • Nicola Trott

…plus d’informations

  • Nicola Trott
    University of Glasgow

Corps de l’article

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,

Against the expectations of rationalists, the invisible world was not to be demystified, deactivated and nullified by contact with a modern world of commerce and enlightenment. On the contrary: the smooth absorption of the ghost story into the rationalised apparatus of commercial production would depend on the material's continuing powers of fascination.

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):

The thematics of conspiracy which range between political and literary discourses in these years did not belong to official discourse alone; to an extraordinary degree suggestions of subversion, disguise, manipulation, criminality are the phenomenal attributes of a material practice: the specific mode of production of terror fiction. Just as the concrete economy of the circulating library had from the beginning summoned up images of sexual circulation, promiscuity, prostitution ... so the industry in Gothic fictions of the latter part of the 1790s was bound to tropes of threat and paranoia, of the undermining or masking of identities, to the extent that the characteristic contents of the fictions appear as a natural extension of the framing melodrama of selling and buying.

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 involved in transposing a discourse of terror (and the Burkean sublime) to a commodity market.

The overall thesis about the production of the gothic leaves scant room for the frothily absurd or frankly ridiculous - or, in short, for the humours of the form. But Clery does offer many vivid spots of local colour. Her starting-date acknowledges the appearance of the Cock Lane Ghost, whose knockings regaled polite and impolite London in 1762, and whose company was sought out by an ironical Horace Walpole, with the Duke of York and sundry other nobles in tow. We are also told (or reminded) of Mary Tofts, whose claim to have given birth to a litter of rabbits was verified (how, one wonders?) by the King's own anatomist; and of Elizabeth Canning, the domestic servant whose claim to have been abducted and to have survived by supernatural aid provoked rioting when her case came to trial. There are, in addition, many enlivening intersections of popular and literary culture: the magic lantern, for instance, invented in France and brought to England in 1801, which enters the middle-brow gothic in Schiller's Ghost-Seer and in Wollstonecraft's Maria (where it serves as a metaphor for memory).

All Clery's hypotheses have the additional weight and point of historical material. Ironically enough, though, her historicism also goes to show how a historicist criticism and fiction disappeared from view. The rise of supernatural fiction is described as a shift from an historicist critical code to the undifferentiated pleasures of the aesthetic - from the 'gothick', as forged by a Macpherson or a Chatterton (where a notional - and preferably Catholic and medieval - past serves to justify the recurrence of superstition in an enlightened age), to the 'gothic novel' proper, whose productivity also produced fears of 'an unregulated, hedonistic, irrational consumption of print'. As Clery demonstrates, the Minerva Press and the circulating library, to which the gothic novel so voluminously and contentiously contributed, become the apt and dubious symbols of this new literary code.

The Castle of Otranto is not just the first gothic novel; it is also, according to Clery, the first anti-historicist gothic novel. The two Prefaces, one claiming it to be the translation of a medieval MS., the other to be the work of Walpole himself, are said to expose the 'incoherence' of a prevailing historicist criticism 'by inviting orthodox assumptions which were then shown to have no foundation':

Walpole's two prefaces together invited an allegorical reading of the fiction of Otranto 's medieval origins as a satire on the prejudices and anxieties of modern literary criticism.

This satirical intent does not deter Clery from making her own historicist critique of the novel: its supernatural elements, she asserts, represent the 'contradiction between the traditional claims of landed property and the new claims of private family'.

Walpole apart, early gothic would seem to exploit the thrill factor of supernaturalism whilst appealing, for final judgment, to the moral and intellectual principles of 'modernity'. Clery manoeuvres observantly between the ambivalent attraction, for the later eighteenth century, of enlightenment scepticism and progressivism on the one hand, and self-conscious archaism and superstition on the other. The book is alert to the multiple functions of the gothic in this form, and to their interest, for modern criticism, as the indices of points of tension or fracture in the wider culture. Inevitably, though, more questions are raised than answered. If, for instance, the banditti of Radcliffe's fiction employ local superstitions as a cover for their own illegitimate activities, how, one wonders, does this reflect upon the author's own exploitations in this field?

This is a thoroughly and widely researched book: everything one would expect to find is here, plus a few surprises to boot. Despite being a touch on the 'busy' side, the writing is intermittently witty as well as given to acute and insightful analysis. Clery shows how Reeve's prudential revision of Otranto makes the gothic commercially viable; and, again, how the later sensation fiction ('Monk' Lewis and the German Schauerroman ) did away with the triple compromises of Walpole, Reeve, and Radcliffe. About the 'Romantic Gothic', however - the writings of Coleridge and Byron, Polidori and the Shelleys, Maturin and Hogg - Clery has almost nothing to say. Her terminal date (1800) means that her work sits most comfortably among eighteenth-century studies. Yet, although she doesn't explicitly acknowledge it as a source, her terms constantly suggest Coleridge's great formulation for poetic faith, 'a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment'. Only when imagination becomes properly and seriously theorized, one might suggest, does it begin to accrue the kind of authority it needs to speak for the beliefs of the present, or (in Coleridge's words again) to 'bring the whole soul of man into activity'.

The absence of Frankenstein et al. marks a welcome shift of critical attention from what is already a crowded scene. But it also puts off questions of 'value', in favour of cultural studies, and in this sense underwrites what Clery calls 'the "two nations" structure of cultural theory' - the high-low divide which, as she sees it, the commodification of fiction initiated.