Introduction: De-Limiting the Irish Gothic Tradition and Horrors

Christina Morin

Christina Morin

The articles collected in this volume present a variety of new perspectives on an area of Irish literary production that has received much scholarly attention in recent years — “the Irish Gothic”. The inverted commas that so naturally seem to envelop this term suggests its contested nature.

Variously described as a “canon”, “tradition”, “genre”, “form”, “mode”, and “register”, Irish gothic literature suffers from a fundamental terminological confusion, and the debate over exactly which term best applies has been both heated and, ultimately, inconclusive in the past 30 years.

Richard Haslam has ably traced the history of the term “Irish Gothic”, pointing out the ways in which, from the term’s introduction in the 1980s, literary scholars have struggled to find “an adequate critical language” with which to discuss a body of literature that seems so resolutely to resist definition and categorization.

The dominant theorization of Irish gothic literature to emerge in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholarship has been driven by psychoanalytic readings of the literary gothic in Ireland as the fictional representation of the repressed fears and anxieties of the minority Anglo-Irish population.

In other words, what underwrites Irish gothic literature of the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-centuries is a mixed “fear and desire” expressive of what Julian Moynahan calls the “ineluctably haunted” nature of the “Anglo-Irish literary imagination”.

Such readings have been offered by Margot Gayle Backus, William Patrick Day, Roy Foster, and Vera Kreilkamp, amongst many others. And, while not all of these scholars have engaged directly with the thorny issue of terminology, their assessments of “the Irish Gothic” mutually, if implicitly, support the idea of a literary tradition, passed from generation to generation of Anglo-Irish writers and traceable from Regina Maria Roche’s ‘The Children of the Abbey’ (1796) and Charles Maturin’s ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ (1820) through to Sheridan ‘Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas’ (1864) and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897).

If, in this roll call of names and titles, “tradition” seems to shade into “canon”, it is because attempts to define “the Irish Gothic” as peculiarly Protestant in nature all too easily fall prey to accusations of canonization, as was the case with The Field Day Anthology’s section on ‘Irish Gothic and After’.

W. J. Mc Cormack’s ‘Irish Gothic and After’ represents a seminal piece of scholarship on the literary gothic in Ireland, but, as another of our contributors has pointed out, its “list of writers looked to some to be a ready-made Irish canon”.

Mc Cormack was, in fact, and continues to be, driven by a scepticism about the very idea of an Irish gothic “tradition”, and his recovery, in ‘Irish Gothic and After’, of little-known works such as Mrs F. C. Patrick’s ‘The Irish Heiress’ (1797) and ‘More Ghosts!’ (1798) gestured towards the wonderful richness and expansiveness of the literary gothic in Ireland, as highlighted in later years by the work of Rolf and Magda Loeber. Nevertheless, his selection of titles and authors seemed, to critics of the Field Day project at large, the result of a process of canonization.

In answer to the problematics of both “tradition” and “canon”, Haslam and Siobhán Kilfeather, amongst others, have explored the possibilities afforded by terms such as “mode” and “register”.

Employing Aristotelian categories as he does in the essay included in this volume, for instance, Haslam plainly states that “Irish Gothic is more conceptually plausible when envisioned as a mode rather than tradition”. Kilfeather, in turn, powerfully suggests that the literature produced in post-1798 Ireland was a literature of terror that mobilized the tropes made familiar in popular contemporary fictions such as Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ (1796) in order to “describ[e], enumerat[e], and commemorat[e] [the] acts of atrocity” recently witnessed by the Irish people.

Repeatedly and insistently merging “the irreducible realities of facts and figures with the powerful unreality of poetic language”, post-1798 Irish literature attests to the ways in which all forms and genres of writing became gothicized precisely because the language of the literary gothic allowed writers to register atrocity, in a sense both of enumerating or recording actual acts of atrocity and of “record[ing]” or “becom[ing] aware of” the effects of those atrocities on Irish reality.

For Kilfeather, then, Irish literature across the genres in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries is fundamentally gothic in nature. Jarlath Killeen makes a similar point about the universality of a gothic “mode” or “register” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish literature, arguing that, since characteristic gothic themes and tropes seem to manifest themselves in most modern Irish literature, “the Irish Gothic is a canon, a tradition and a mode all at once”.

Lest this troublesome terminology starts to take on a peculiarly Irish emphasis, it is worth noting that the dispute over the genealogy, authorship, and makeup of Irish gothic literature finds its parallel in larger discussions about the literary gothic as a whole.

Indeed, the brackets surrounding “the Irish Gothic” are equally germane to “the Gothic” and “the Gothic novel”.

As David Punter notes, “what constitutes Gothic writing is a contested site”, even if, as Punter elsewhere writes, gothic literature seems, at first glance at least, to be immediately recognizable.

What makes gothic so familiar and therefore so easily identified? For Robert Miles, it is the “plots, motifs and figures [that are] endlessly recycled’ in text after text. The literary gothic, Miles suggests, relies on tried and tested thematic and narratological stratagems, never daring to move outside the parameters established by early practitioners such as Horace Walpole (1717–97), Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), and Matthew Lewis (1775–1818): “A strain of the novel”, Miles contends, “the Gothic emerged in the mid-eighteenth-century and since then has hardly changed”.

Our expectations for gothic literature are, therefore, relatively simply stated. A “gothic” text combines, among other things, supernatural figures and events with medieval Catholic Continental settings, an interest in the Burkean sublime, and a beleaguered heroine seeking release from the imprisonment — physical and otherwise — of a depraved and tyrannical male family member.

If, however, as Punter maintains (and Miles suggests with his wry tone), the literary gothic initially seems “to be a relatively homogenous body of writing, linked stylistically, thematically and ideologically […] closer inspection [shows] the illusion fall[ing] away, revealing a very disparate collection of works”. This is so not just because of variations introduced by what are sometimes understood as different “schools” of gothic writing — male/female, terror/horror, explained/unexplained supernatural — but also by the gothic’s tendency to infiltrate all genres of literary production.

It has generally been accepted that the literary gothic that began to develop in the latter half of the eighteenth-century drew inspiration from a wide variety of genres, texts, and traditions. Devendra Varma, for instance, early noted the omnivorous origins of the literary gothic in “the supernatural realm of the ballad, and all that was mysterious and eerie in epic and the drama”, as well as “[t]he traditional lore of old, heathen Europe, the richness and splendor of its mythology and superstitions, its usages, rites, and songs”. Yet, for Varma and other pioneering scholars of gothic literature, the wide-ranging beginnings of the gothic combined to create a single entity: “the Gothic novel”.

The underlining assumption that the literary gothic is primarily fictional in nature, “a strain of the novel” as Miles puts it, is suggested by scholarly works such as Montague Summers’ ‘The Gothic Quest: a History of the Gothic Novel’ (1938), Punter’s ‘The Literature of Terror: a History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day’ (1980; repr. 1996), Frederick Frank’s ‘The First Gothics: a Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel’ (1987), Maggie Kilgour’s ‘The Rise of the Gothic Novel’ (1995), and Emma Clery’s ‘The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800’ (1999), among many others.

Against this privileging of the novel, Anne Williams persuasively contends that early gothicists routinely worked across literary genres, producing poetry, drama, and short stories in addition to the novels for which they are now principally known.

Matthew Lewis, for instance, wrote several dramas that rely on the same themes and tropes popularized in his more familiar novel, ‘The Monk’, including ‘The Castle Spectre’ (1797) and ‘Adelmorn the Outlaw’ (1801). The same is true of Horace Walpole and Charles Robert Maturin, both of whom wrote gothic dramas that have tended to fall by the wayside in consideration of Otranto and ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’, and both of whom routinely translated the spectacle of drama into their fiction.

Emma McEvoy contends, for instance, that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is “notable for its use of a very theatrical mode of display and soliloquy rather than internal cogitation”. Maturin’s fictional oeuvre similarly displays a keen awareness of theatre, performance, and spectacle, featuring several actress-heroines as well as a tendency to vivid — his critics might say histrionic — language and effect that effectively shrinks the distance between drama and prose.

Tellingly, Walter Scott’s review of Maturin’s fourth novel, ‘Women; or Pour et Contre’ (1818), praised the novel largely by reference to and publication of several occluded scenes from Maturin’s earlier tragedy, ‘Bertram; or, the Castle of St. Aldobrand’ (1816), the name of which was also used to identify the author on the novel’s title page.

Scott’s intent may have been to applaud the “moral” nature of Women, produced by Maturin’s toning down of the ‘supernatural horrors’ on which he was wont to rely, but his inclusion of the scenes omitted from Bertram on his own advice both undermines Scott’s disregard for these “horrors” and collapses the distance between drama and prose.

More than that, Scott’s repeated praise of Maturin’s writing style — both prosaic and dramatic — as “poetical” forcefully underlines the fundamental hybridity of genres in the Romantic period.

Indeed, Maturin’s fiction, like that of his contemporaries, was very often described as “poetical”, not least because it reflected its author’s parallel poetic output but also because it was itself fundamentally imbued with poetry, featuring poetic epigraphs and excerpts of poetry, original and otherwise, scattered throughout its pages.

Such insertions may represent nuanced attempts on the part of Maturin and other gothicists such as Radcliffe, Lewis, Charlotte Smith (1749–1806), and Mary Robinson (1756/8?– 1800) to masculinize and/or legitimize the novel in an atmosphere of continued critical contempt for it and its practitioners, but they also validate Williams’s contention that “Gothic prose of the 1790s is […] disturbingly ‘poetic’”.

What is so disturbing about these works and their fusion of prose and poetry is, as Williams maintains, their problematization of any neat conceptualization of gothic fiction as a debased form of Romantic literary production that bears no real resemblance to contemporary poetry. Instead, as is the case with drama and fiction, poetry and fiction frequently merge in the production of the literary gothic in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries.

Sepultura’s Farewell Tour to Take Place in the Heart of Colombia

Sepultura’s Farewell Tour to Take Place in the Heart of Colombia

Death Angel Celebrates 40 Years of Thrash in Colombia this April

Death Angel Celebrates 40 Years of Thrash in Colombia this April

Amorphis’s April Metal Journey Promises Special Night in Colombia

Amorphis’s April Metal Journey Promises Special Night in Colombia

Necrophobic’s Landmark April Debut in Colombia’s Metal Scene

Necrophobic’s Landmark April Debut in Colombia’s Metal Scene

Notify of
Inline Discussions
View all discussions



& Updated

Share to...