Bats Optional – What is Gothic Literature?

Disclaimer:

I am not an expert and feel free to correct me (nicely) on any of this. The podcast is an evolving beast and I will happily revisit any of the ideas and texts we look at.

This is taken from this week’s episode of The FrankenPod.

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Before our podcast release next week I thought it might be a good idea to have a bit of a chat about Gothic literature and what exactly that entails. I am not assuming that everyone knows or doesn’t know about the gothic genre and this certainly won’t be a deep dive because I am simply not qualified. This is just to define the parameters of the initial genre we will be focusing on with Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

First up we need to acknowledge that the gothic genre is super problematic. There are stories that give a strong voice to people of all shapes, sizes, gender identifications, sexual orientations and nationalities but this progressiveness is a pretty recent development. Gothic literature can be racist, homophobic and is frequently classist and misogynist. Whilst we could dismiss these issues as being products of the time in which they were written I think it is important that we are aware of the problems in the things we love and to acknowledge them. The only way we can move forward is to understand the issues of our past. Frankenstein is classist, misogynistic and racist. It is my favourite novel of all time, but I completely acknowledge it’s flawed.  


Let’s get into my barebones overview of Gothic Literature.


Particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century, Gothic literature typically draws on a spectre of evil

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By Post Of Romania

from the distant past that threatens to reach forward and destroy the present. Bram Stoker creates a particularly threatening creature who oozes ancient evil in Dracula. With vampire myths existing in every culture, some tied to the bible, some tied to ancient Egyptian mythology Bram Stoker had a wealth of ancient evil to draw from. His Count is descended from Attila the Hun and himself is a spectre of ancient or at the very least medieval evil, being virtually immortal. He has been around for centuries, but in Stoker’s narrative, he ventures into Victorian industrialised society to act all creepy around the ladies of London.


The Corruption of the Innocent 

The predatory sexuality of Dracula is one of the most blatant examples of the corruption of the innocent, a trope that is revived again and again. He preys on young vulnerable and virginal women in the same way that monsters of his kind will again and again in the novels we cover. But the innocent does not have to be a young virginal woman. The good Doctor Jekyll is corrupted in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the innocent Dorian is corrupted by his own vanity, Sir Henry and a supernatural lack of accountability, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is usually a girl or a woman who gets shortchanged. Even in contemporary gothic tales, the innocent vs. the beast is trotted out regularly, look at Buffy and Twin Peaks. I promise this will not become a Twin Peaks podcast but that won’t be the last reference to the series.


Locked Doors and Secret Passageways

Often gothic literature features mysterious castles, decrepit houses or monasteries. Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) is commonly cited as the first gothic novel, which is a whole ridiculous story that we will get to in another episode. The Castle of Otranto has a lot of the features that would come to be prevalent in the gothic novels that would come after it; an old castle, a family curse, the corruption of the innocent, the supernatural and the sublime.

 


The Other Goths

The word Goth does allude to a mysterious Scandinavian people who come into the verifiable historical record suddenly in the first century A.D. and this part of the story I am horrifically underqualified to talk about, even more than everything else I have been talking about. If you know a lot about the Goths, the Visigoths or the Ostrogoths please get in touch. Absolutely willing to revisit this! All I know is that as a teenage goth it was a source of very real and deep disappointment that the goths were not pale skinned eyeliner wearing robed people with black hair lounging about nonchalantly waiting for The Cure to be formed. 


Dramatic Architecture

The Gothic became a pejorative term that was used to dismiss architecture as ugly or barbaric which is a little harsh not to mention more than a touch racist. I also know basically nothing about this aspect of the gothic so again… if you know your way around gothic architecture please get in touch. Gothic literature has a lot more to do with the emergence of the goth subculture as we know it today than the Germanic Goths and gothic architecture.


This architectural notion of the terrible, dramatic and brutal has carried over into the gothic as it pertains to literature. With gothic plots being frequently brutal and dramatic in their content. Gothic literature also blurs the lines between the natural and the supernatural. 


The Indefinable Threat

The gothic does not require a ghost or a ghoul but needs an analogous threat. In fact, some of the most ambiguously supernatural gothic novels are the most troubling. Oscar Wilde’s protagonist does not have to wrestle with a literal physical monster, but with his own bargain with a malevolent force and we never conclusively find out if the governess of Henry James’ Turn of The Screw (1898) is actually experiencing a haunting or a psychotic break.


Popular_Detective_August_1935
By Published by Beacon Magazines, Inc. – Scanned cover of pulp magazine, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9849556

Detective Fiction

Stemming from the romantic supernatural gothic novel is the detective novel which dabbles in the macabre and the mysterious. These stories might start with a supernatural interpretation, as in the Sherlock Holmes novels, and a shown by the genius detective to be wholly natural, however improbable. The blurring of the gothic and the detective novel is particularly prevalent in The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which we get an appearance of the moors which feature so heavily in gothic fiction, they are like naturally occurring labyrinthine castles full of mystery and unpleasant surprises.


Gothic Film

The gothic film genre is closely tied to horror as it often features a lot of evil, death and destruction, however, it is also closely tied to the genre of period drama as the movies that draw inspiration from the classic gothic novel often keep their narratives within the same time and space as the original narrative. Most of the films we will focus on will have a Victorian or Vintage flavour, but the neo-gothic and gothic noir film has moved the gothic movie into the city and the modern world so there is a rich vein, no pun intended of material to work with.


So what makes Frankenstein gothic? 

Well aside from the cliché that it happened on a dark and stormy night. Victor Frankenstein is beholden to a deep ancient desire to create life from whole cloth. The Doctor’s drive to emulate god has a lineage tracing back to ancient Greece. Mary Shelley even renders the curse of the doctor explicit in the title of the novel Frankenstein, or the modern-day Prometheus. The Prometheus myth is a huge thing to unpack so I might have to do that another time. The creature of the novel is not born of God, so while he is a creature of science and consequently science fiction he is also a supernatural innocent that seeks to find his way in the world. There is the corruption of the innocent, death and the fall of a great noble family.

So what do you ideally need for a gothic novel or film? Not all novels will have all these but these are the factors to look out for…


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By George Eastman House – https://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/2720790706/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53600367

The Gothic Text Wish List

□ Death

□ Mystery

□ A Haunting

□ A Curse

□ A Challenge to the conventional

□ An Artefact imbued with magic or supernatural properties

□ The Corruption of the innocent

□ Creepy architecture

□ Preferably a labyrinth of some kind

□ And an Ancient Evil

*Bats and ambiguous shadows optional


I’ll see you next week with Brent to compare the 1931 movie Frankenstein and the 1818 novel in which we officially apply the concepts of galvanism to the unsuspecting creature that is our podcast. 


How could this possibly go wrong?


You can watch the fall out from this act of hubris in real time @thefrankenpod on twitter and thefrankenpod.wordpress.com has all the resources I was diligent enough to include.


In the meantime hit up Project Gutenberg and Librivox for a free copy of Frankenstein and any other gothic tales in the public domain.


Resources

  • Smith, Andrew. Gothic literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
  • If you want to find books over 100 years old or thereabouts you can probably find it on Gutenberg Project Free Books outside of the Public Domain on Project Gutenberg
  • My copy of many gothic texts discussed are drawn from: A Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural: The Castle of Otranto; Frankenstein: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Dracula; The Turn of the Screw” 1981
  • Other research is drawn from the Macquarie University and Jstor
The feature image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 17 August 2008, 12:59 by Yuriybrisk. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.

Playing the Heroine and Distorting the Abbey – Northanger Abbey and Lady Audley’s Secret

Analyse the nature of parody (as exaggeration, imitation, or mockery, for example) as a narrative device in your chosen texts.

Gothic texts have often utilised parody to critique cherished foundational archetypes, twisting noble patriarchs into benevolent tyrants, heroes into anti-heroes and supernatural aids into deceitful harbingers of destruction. These decadent and flawed tropes of gothic fiction have been relied upon by writers in the genre, from Walpole onwards, as the building blocks of the gothic novel, but their definition and role in these texts are altered and changed as new texts are brought into the canon (Hanoosh, p.114). As the gothic novel alters the classical and even romantic archetypes, it continues further distort archetypes of its own creation through parody and invention. Parody in particular often adds a new dimension to the tried and tested character types such as in the novels Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1818) and later Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862).

Whilst many of the characters within these two 19th century texts fit commonly accepted archetypes (Frye, 94) their position within these roles is not a comfortable one, with many, particularly Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey and Lucy Audley of Lady Audley’s Secret feeling the pressure of conforming to their roles. It is certainly the role of the heroine that is most problematic in both these novels as the women who are expected to fulfil them are not entirely built for the purpose. Catherine is established early in the novel as being not at all heroine or maiden material, she is not predisposed to fulfilling the cultural expectations of her time but works to maintain some semblance of Georgian feminity. Austen leaves us in no doubt of Catherine’s unsuitability for the task asserting amongst telltale signs of a lack of feminine interests that “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine” (Austen, p.1). It is important to both the novel as a parody of gothic fiction and Jane Austen’s style as a whole that her protagonist is not what the reader has come to expect in Georgian fiction, as Catherine’s sometimes irrational curiosity and artless manner lays the foundation for the story that lies ahead (Shaw, p.594). In the hands of a more suited heroine, one who does not also border on the eternal child archetype, Northanger Abbey would be a rather dull romance.

Lucy Audley as a parody of the maiden archetype is not at all like her Georgian counterpart, she is stunning, deceitful and decisive. Taken at face value she is the very picture of a Victorian heroine, beautiful, charming and compliant, but Braddon takes this archetypal damsel in distress and turns her into cunning and murderous con artist. It is desperation, not curiosity that drives Lucy’s actions, and it is the appearance of virtue, without the substance of it that defines that parody at play within the text. She has been downtrodden and mistreated, but finds a way to pull herself up into a stately and comfortable position. In a different context her story would almost be a hero’s quest, but the social and moral transgressions she commits in order to secure her position make her abominable in the eyes of those around her when they are revealed making her ultimately fit the shape shifter archetype. The complex heroine would come to be an archetype in itself, but Lady Audley’s Secret “exploit[s] moral ambiguity and disclose[s] the more complex reality beneath the Victorian bifurcation of women as angels or demons” (Felber, p.472). She appears to be the demure, pretty and inoffensive heroine of her times, but in reality she is spiralling out of control. Her apparent madness shows her to have been clever, strong willed, manipulative and utterly self sufficient. Or as self sufficient as a woman of little means can be in the time. These virtues and flaws set her up as being the opposite of what she appears to be. Her beauty, rather than being a blessing, as with other heroines, becomes her curse: “Did she remember the day in which that fairy dower of beauty had first taught her to be selfish and cruel, indifferent to the joys and sorrows of others…”(Braddon, p.202).

Architecture plays a huge role in characterising the gothic; from the catacombs of The Monk (Lewis, 1796) to the sinister halls of The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe, 1795), the setting of these tales of misfortune and human failing plays as much of a role in creating a sense of foreboding, and foreshadowing events to come as any of the Archetypal gothic characters the reader encounters in these texts. Braddon constructs a similarly complex and divisive building to house the secrets of Lady Audley, imitating the secret passages and hidden chambers of her predecessors, with telling artefacts, such as the pre-Raphaelite portrait of Lucy Audley which portrays her true, almost demonic nature, to demonstrate the layers of secrecy and deception at play within the story. The portrait itself as described from the perspective of Robert Audley is a mockery and distortion of Lucy Audley as the Victorian heroine, with normally beautiful or striking features transformed; “… all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one” (Braddon, p.50). The painting is arguably a more accurate representation of the lady of the house than the subjective, immediate acquaintance with her person could convey, leading the reader to question which is the parody; Lady Audley’s portrait or her everyday demeanour and facade of perfection.
By contrast Northanger Abbey has all the appearances of hiding a sinister, gothic secret, but instead holds a rather mundane, if ugly, domestic truth. This is best exemplified by the horror felt by Catherine during the night when staying at the abbey and the reality of her “horrific” discovery, the papers that turn out not to hold some deep dark truth (Glock, p.33), but rather an old laundry list. To be fair on our unexpected heroine her expectations of the abbey are heightened by not only her own extensive reading of gothic novels and the abbey’s gratifying compliant appearance; “Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be in daily reach.”(Austen, p.31), but also by Henry Tilney’s jovial evoking of a classic formula of gothic fiction on their way to the abbey; “And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? – Have you a stout heart? – Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” (Austen, p.147). The imagined gothic adventure playfully related by Henry gets to the heart of what Austen is trying to achieve in her parody, it is an expression of the dangers and folly of succumbing to the tantalising and alluring world of the gothic novel, and letting in permeate through the psyche, manifesting it’s clichés and tropes in the mundanity of real life.

Austen deliberately conjures up such tyrannical patriarchs and archetypal ruler as Manfred in Castle of Otranto (Walpole, 1793) when developing the character of General Tilney. Whilst the general’s motivation for his abrasive conduct are not nearly so carnal and debased as Manfred the reader and indeed Catherine are lead to believe that he is just the sort of man who could be capable of immense cruelty, and even murder or imprisonment of his long suffering wife. In a text full of misdirection and miscommunication it is the conduct of General Tilney as a parody of the gothic patriarch that sets in motion the greatest misunderstanding and false assumption that places Catherine’s future happiness in jeopardy; “But the inexplicability of the General’s conduct dwelt much on her thoughts. That he was very particular in his eating, she had, by her own unassisted observation, already discovered; but why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable!” (Austen, p.203). This confusion at the general’s conduct and Catherine’s knowledge of the trope of gothic fiction allows her to construct a dangerous fiction in which she fantasises that Mrs Tilney, as a parody of the gothic wronged woman, was perhaps murdered or still imprisoned within the walls of the abbey;  “…and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed” (Austen, p.179). His financial motivations when revealed do not excuse his cruelty but rather move him from the realm of the gothic villain into something much more mercenary, but still villainous.

Braddon also plays games with our expectations of the masculine archetypes in her text. Robert Audley as parody of chivalry and the quest hero goes on a journey in which he must overcome challenges and faces trials of his moral and intellectual fortitude, but unlike the classic hero he acts in a thoroughly unchivalrous manner, but he is still possessing of the ideals of the masculine hero, he is of stately rank, good breeding and is well educated. However he is bitterly adverse to the opposite sex  (Braddon, p.142) and this hatred can been seen as a parody of the masculine attempts to subdue the feminine during a time of heavily gendered power. He goes so far as referencing the biblical misdeeds of Eve, and is rather cavalier with his cousins emotions, feigning ignorance of her affection and intentions towards him, until such time as it suits his needs. This is a far cry from the tales of sacrifice and courage that dominate the hero quest stories that precede it.

Braddon and Austen, whilst taking very different routes in getting to their goal, play with character archetypes to make the reader consider the reality of the maiden archetype in a masculine hegemony. Braddon utilises the tools of sensation fiction to construct a caricature of the perfect heroine in the facade projected by Lucy Audley (Schroeder, p.87) , whilst underneath the facade, the desperate Helen Tallboys lies dormant, until she is discovered. Conversely Austen’s most blatant parody is that of the father figure, and how this overbearing presence can be misconstrued by the heroine, whose happiness is ultimately at his mercy.

Northanger Abbey and Lady Audley’s Secret use the idea of the archetype heroine, hero, patriarch or gothic labyrinth in order to set up their reader’s expectations for the narrative which makes the eventual twist or deception more effective, and even shocking. The parodic nature of taking gothic and romantic tropes and manipulating them serves not only a narrative purpose but strikes a jarring note in the collective unconscious, providing both incidental a deliberate social commentary, ever so slightly changing and shaping the gothic archetypes for those that are to follow.

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References
Austen, J. (1903). Northanger abbey. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg.
Braddon, M. and Taylor, J. (2011). Lady Audley’s Secret: Edited with Notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor and with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor with Russell Crofts (Penguin Classics). Cambridge [England]: Proquest LLC.
Felber, L. (2007). THE LITERARY PORTRAIT AS CENTERFOLD: FETISHISM IN MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON’S LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET. Victorian Lit. Culture, 35(02).
Frye, N. (1951). The Archetypes of Literature on JSTOR. [online] Jstor.org. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4333216 [Accessed 10 Apr. 2016].
Glock, W. (1978). Catherine Morland’s Gothic Delusions: A Defense of Northanger Abbey. Rocky Mountain Review, 32(1), pp.33-46.
Hannoosh, M. (1989). The Reflexive Function of Parody. Comparative Literature, 41(2), p.113.
Lewis, M. (1796). The monk. London: Printed for J. Bell.
Morris, D. (1985). Gothic Sublimity. New Literary History, 16(2), p.299.
Radcliffe, A. (1795). The mysteries of Udolpho. Boston: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, for J. White, W. Spotswood, Thomas & Andrews, D. West, E. Larkin, W.P. Blake, J. West, and J.W. Folsom.
Schroeder, N. (1988). Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M. E. Braddon and Ouida. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 7(1), p.87.
Shaw, N. (1990). Free Indirect Speech and Jane Austen’s 1816 Revision of Northanger Abbey. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 30(4), p.591.
Walpole, H. (1793). The castle of Otranto. London: Printed for Wenman and Hodgson.

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