Atavism: A Late-Victorian Gothic Darwinian Nightmare

Robert Mighall
Robert Mighall

The present chapter resumes the physiological theme of the previous chapter, and explores in more detail how and why the body became the locus of Gothic horror in the last decades of the century, and how the fields of psychiatry, criminology, and sexology helped determine the focus of Gothic representation.

The distinctly “somatic” aspect of late-Victorian Gothic fiction has recently attracted a lot of attention. This is one area of criticism which is prepared to consider how a specific historical or discursive context shaped horror fiction.

As Judith Halberstam observes: “Monstrosity (and the fear it gives rise to) is historically conditioned rather than a psychological universal.” Her ‘Skin Shows’ (1995) supports this claim by demonstrating how “from the late-eighteenth-century to the nineteenth-century, the terrain of Gothic horror shifted from the fear of corrupted aristocracy or clergy, represented by the haunted castle or abbey, to the fear embodied by monstrous bodies. Reading Gothic with nineteenth-century ideologies of the race suggests why this shift occurs” (16).

“Race” is used here in a broad sense and refers to the way biomedical sciences concerned with the construction of class and national bodies conjured up spectres of degeneration, deviance, and racial diversity, and how these emerged in symbolic form in the horror fiction of the period. Kelly Hurley’s ‘The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration’ at the ‘Fin de Siecle’ (1 996) describes a similar situation, locating late-Victorian fiction’s obsession with what she terms the “abhuman” within a context of ‘general anxiety about the nature of human identity permeating late-Victorian and Edwardian culture, an anxiety generated by scientific discourses, biological and sociomedical, which served to dismantle conventional notions of “the human” as radically as did the Gothic which arose in response to them in such “contextual” readings of Gothic fiction provide a much-needed antidote to the general universalist tendency of much criticism, and are right to identify the somatic emphasis of late-Victorian Gothic.

However, by stressing these departures, continuities have been lost sight of. For as Kelly Hurley remarks, “While certain broad narrative and thematic continuities link this form to the late eighteenth-century and Romantic Gothic novel, the fin-de-siecle Gothic rematerialises as a genre in many ways unrecognisable, transfigured . . . [it manifests] a new set of generic strategies . . . which function maximally to enact the defamiliarisation and violent reconstitution of the human subject” (Hurley, 4; my emphasis).

As these “continuities” are not detailed, it can only be assumed that they neither contribute to the somatic emphases of the later mode, nor have any relationship with the contexts and sources which explain its obsessions. This perspective is a consequence of an imprecision in defining the term “Gothic” (which is often little more than a synonym for “fearful”) which characterises Hurley’s study. For example, Hurley suggests that the theories of criminal “atavism” and “degeneration” are “‘gothic’ versions of evolutionism — discourses that emphasized the potential indifferentiation and changeability of the human species” (m); and refers to the “criminal anthropological theory of the atavist, whose body was a compendium of human and nothuman morphic traits” as an example of how “the topics pursued by nineteenth-century science were often as ‘gothic’ as those found within any novel” (2o).

The latter claim is partly true, as the present chapter will demonstrate. However, as neither indifferentiation and changeability nor morphic traits were conspicuous features of the earlier Gothic fiction (which her study almost entirely ignores), the usefulness of the term here is somewhat limited.

Its use is in fact primarily restricted to those novels which do appear to be concerned with bodily metamorphosis and are discussed in her study. As Hurley does not offer a more precise definition of the Gothic, and certainly not one which could cover many of the novels which are not obsessed with the “abhuman”, this argument is ultimately circular.

The present chapter offers an alternative account of the relationship between late-Victorian somatic horror fiction and the scientific developments which encouraged this focus. It will also discuss the “gothicity” of scientific discourses on criminality, but will do this by identifying those factors of scientific criminology and its central tenet of “atavism” which can be compared with properties belonging to a pre-existing. Gothic fictional tradition.

It will attempt to demonstrate precisely why criminal anthropology may be considered a “gothic” science by establishing its rhetorical and thematic affinities with aspects of the Gothic fictional mode. To do this I will focus on historical representation, exploring how the scope of history, the relationship between the past and the present, and where the historical past itself came to be located, were radically modified after the mid-century, and how this affected and enabled a new Gothic fiction.

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