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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 popular taste; Lewis unashamedly seemed to have embraced both. Watt reminds us, however, that The Monk was not entirely without praise, critics' admiring Lewis's attempt to define himself as an innovator set "against a feminized notion of romance" (91). Radcliffe, by contrast, Watt suggests, attempted instead to educate her readers about the excesses of sensibility by introducing to the Gothic the bildungsroman, a focus on the heroine, and an emphasis on aesthetic theory. Unlike Lewis too, Radcliffe was the darling of the conservative critics of the period, which Watt accounts for, intriguingly, through the politicized interpretations of her use of the supernatural (or lack thereof). With superstition linked to "revolutionary idealism," Watt holds, Radcliffe's explained supernaturalism seemed to line the writer herself up with "the rule of law" (116). But as with Lewis's reception, there were two sides to the critical coin; if Radcliffe was spared political attacks (curiously, since her own liberal politics sometimes bubbled up into her works), it was because reviewers dismissed her as "naïve and ignorant" (126).
Defining himself against the Gothic as a whole, but perhaps especially its female writers, Watt holds, was Scott. As opposed to the apparently restricted scope of Reeve, Radcliffe, and Charlotte Smith—a scope that Scott helped to define, as Watt points out—the Waverley novelist aimed at infiltrating romance with "the more prestigious discourse of historiography" (140). Scott's move to history has long been seen as a final chapter to the Gothic, but as Watt's investigation of Scott's and the Gothic's later receptions reveals, both underwent a reversal of fortune. Through readings of Ivanhoe, The Antiquary, and The Bride of Lammermoor, Watt shows that romance is never completely subsumed by history in Scott's works. By the end of the nineteenth century, Scott was seen as complicit with romance and no better than the Gothic; the Gothic, in turn, came to be valued precisely because it lacked historical content and to emerge, with the rise of twentieth-century interest in the form, as a "unitary genre" (3).
A difficulty with Contesting the Gothic is its suggestion that current scholarship continues to be plagued by problems of earlier criticism of the Gothic. For instance, it is no longer the case that Walpole is viewed, at least by established scholars of the field, as the "father" of the Gothic. Likewise, critics have long recognized the shortcomings of holding up Lewis's intentionally scandalous novel as representative of the form and of the essentializing perils of defining "female Gothic" as "monolithic category" (109). One could wish also for a clearer definition of "genre" from the onset; Watt seems to ascribe to the category itself the normative, unifying limitations that earlier twentieth-century critics, as he rightly points out, ascribed to the Gothic. Blind adherence to its conventions is not a failure of any genre as such. (However, whether contemporary readers recognized the Gothic as a genre, or instead saw it as merely a mode of romance, has yet to be fully settled.) Nonetheless, Watt usefully re-maps the territory of the Gothic, marking out its heterogeneity in direct ways and offering up genuinely original research that yields important insights.