Transformation of the Gothic in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Transformation of the Gothic in Nineteenth-Century Britain
© Photograph by Natalia Drepina

During the nineteenth-century, Britain was the witness of two major historical periods. One was the end of the Georgian era, along with the interim of the Regency period, and the other was the Victorian era.

From the perspective of literary history, we encounter the works by the Romantics, the rise of the historical novel, realism, naturalism, and of course the progenies of the Gothic novel.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain experienced a rather long period of peace and prosperity, interrupted perhaps most distinctly only by the Crimean War or maybe even the American Civil War, sending its troops as aid, and managed to regain its national self-confidence.

Therefore historically speaking, it would appear that the century was not one of the darkest parts of the past, and yet Gothic literature and its primary aspects was revived throughout the period, despite being perceived as a genre which generally marks the presence of anxieties, different horrors, or the frightening unknown amidst the society, and is therefore often seen as a sign of something being wrong. It is undeniable that the period saw many changes.

The beginning of the century was certainly marked by the Napoleonic wars and the uncertainties the Industrial Revolution brought about, not only through new inventions or the progress of science, but also due to the transformation of the economic and social structure of the country.

It is not therefore surprising that the Gothic, seemingly thriving on the horrors of humanity, produced its own monsters at the time. The rest of the century, that which brought forth what can be called the Victorian Gothic, appears to be suffering the same fate of evoking certain instabilities in the works.

These models of instability can certainly be related to historically specific concerns, such as the idea of economic uncertainty that characterizes the period of for example “the hungry forties”, which are alluded to in the writing of Charles Dickens. By that time, the population almost doubled, technology, science and medicine progressed further, however at the same time, the divide between the social classes, the rich and the poor, became gradually more pronounced.

Culturally, the Victorians were highly moralistic; nevertheless they also furthered their investment in mysticism and Romanticism, at its peak from 1800 to around 1850, similarly to the Georgians, who, as was said, reacted in this way to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the Gothic writing and the use of its elements was a reaction to the monstrosities of the whole Europe, the numerous revolutions igniting across the countries (Italy, France, Hungary, Germany, Poland), as well as to the overall changes and development, which could produce the feelings of unease.

More monstrosities to be apprehensive about could have been the fear of the poor, of poverty and ending up in a poorhouse, or for example, even the anxieties caused by the Great Famine in Ireland. The approaching end of the century could have been marked by the fears of the collapse of the Empire, or the changes in thought, such as the theories on evolution made by Charles Darwin, or the rise of the concept of New Woman.

As was said before, this period of time, which produced some of the most notorious texts of the Gothic genre, was not perhaps the darkest of age. However, there is an undeniable dark, dangerous and rather gruesome undertone to many things that we today connect with the Victorian era.

There seems to be a popular cliché which supports the view of the Victorians as inherently Gothic, even though “Victorian men and women were more likely to think of themselves as living in an age of civilised progress rather than Gothic barbarism.” Nevertheless, the idea of the Gothic has always been connected with a certain audience in mind and there was a definite demand for such products during the century.

Even if we were to completely disregard the major Gothic literary works created during the period, there are many other aspects of the Victorian culture that can be seen as dark, strange, even morbid, so perhaps it does not come as a surprise that from today’s perspective we have created this cliché of the Victorians being inherently Gothic themselves.

The dark undertones and the affinity to the weird can be observed on many levels and aspects of the culture, albeit seemingly normal at the time. Looking at several key cultural aspects of the time more closely would well illustrate what is meant by these undertones, which saturated the Victorian life on both a public and private spheres.

The public sphere mostly comprises of overall demand for an absolute spectacle, a demonstration of the weird, the monstrous, the different. The primary example of this are what we now call Victorian freak shows, a rather traditional entertainment of a bodily spectacle, which due to its popularity demonstrated the pull such unusual bodies held for the Victorian, and even earlier, audience. It has been pointed out that “the Victorian relationship to images of physical difference was complex, marked by conflicting impulses to reject, exploit, and celebrate the odd body.”

This trend is precisely what can be observed in the primary Gothic writing of the century, even if we are dealing with vampires or Hydes, different kinds of freaks of nature. This form of entertainment in the United Kingdom was, as opposed to France for example, uncontrolled, unsanctioned, and quite frankly unstoppable, and became firmly embedded within the industry of Victorian entertainment.

Another such similar spectacle that generated a wide audience were public executions. Similarly to the ancient games at the Colosseum, it is almost impossible to imagine that there was a time when such brutal displays of violence performed on the body actually had an audience that could withstand witnessing such horrors first hand, moreover sought them out.

Despite the fact that Queen Victoria put an end to public executions in 1868, the desire to witness some form of bloody punishment remained high, and it, therefore, moved to the narrative form, and so as a result, the masses “had to resort to private consumption of violent literature to get their bloody fill.”

Even before, publications such as Terrific Register and Newgate Calendar offered a window into the gruesome deeds and lives of famous criminals, and Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls were cheap one-penny serials of darker chilling writing, which more people could afford. This fascination with the criminal world perhaps stems from the aforementioned growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the fears and anxieties connected to it. After all, iconic and almost mythical personas such as Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper, originating in the Victorian age, aided by being a mystery shrouded in the infamous pea-soupers, are not done haunting their audience even today, and are therefore characters, along with Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula, that are, and will be, revisited continuously and called upon in the future, a somewhat morbid source of continual entertainment.

As for the more private sphere of Victorian life with darker undertones, several examples of personal items, such that were undoubtedly a norm at the time, serve as rather good examples. Possibly the most prominent one, with relation to the fascination with the concept of a different body, is memento mori, a photograph of, or with, a dead family member.

During the second half of the nineteenth-century, the phenomena of photography spread, yet remaining a rather expensive practice, most families could afford only a few photographs made, which is perhaps the reason why post-mortem photography, specific memorial objects of their beloved relatives, became so popular.

Normal at the time, the practice may seem almost morbidly fascinating from our perspective. The dead bodies were often presented in a manner so that they appeared to be merely asleep, nonetheless, pictures were also taken with them propped up, standing, with their eyes open.

What is even more haunting however, are group photographs, with the dead person actually being the only body completely in focus, as the technology of photography at the time required utmost stillness for a certain amount of time, and therefore, the bodies that were alive and breathing at that particular moment, are blurred, sometimes even with barely recognizable facial features.

The main focus then, so to speak, is entirely on the person who is dead, yet appears the one most alive, with the living surrounding him as ghosts or spectres, blurred, out of focus, perhaps inhuman, almost transparent in a way.

In this haunting twist of events, the roles and images of the bodies in the photographs are therefore reversed. In the pictures, the dead appears more alive than if they were living. O’Gorman confirms this by saying that “Victorians have seemed to have had a peculiarly intimate relationship with, even a readiness to celebrate, mourning.”

The period was marked by a particular loss when Queen Victoria lost her husband in 1861. She became a queen in mourning, symptomatically presiding over a culture that knew death perhaps more familiarly than any modern period, with its new burial sites, elaborate rituals of the grave, industrial accidents, and high infant mortality rates.

What may seem as almost a kind of fascination with death can be found in other items just as well, perhaps where one would expect it the least, such as a child’s toy. A typical toy of the Victorian era was a “Frozen Charlotte” doll.

Already with the appearance of something a child could be afraid of, the doll’s name also has a grotesque quality. The name is derived from the fact that it was moulded without movable arms or legs, frozen in place, however, it was also named after a poem and a folk song, in which a girl named Charlotte freezes to death. To take things even further, some of these dolls were even sold in their very own small coffins.

Other such unexpectedly morbid images could be found on Christmas cards. The cards were usually secular, however some were definitely grimly non-festive. If we were to look at such cards, we would find the images of death and monstrosity on them just as well. Scenes such as dead animals, monstrous snowmen, or even a child boiled in a teapot, were often depicted on them.

As this passage shows, the nineteenth century was certainly a witness to images of death, disfiguration, monstrosity, and a certain overall fascination with death, suffering, and the weird. Yet again Jarlath Killeen claims that it is indeed a cliché to see the people of the century as “monsters of perversity who lived public lives of staid conformity but who came out of the closet nightly to perpetuate the most horrific versions of abuse.”

Nevertheless, all the examples that were shown clearly point to the fact that the people of this period had an affinity towards the monstrous, the “creepy”, the strange and mysterious, and many of these peculiarities were connected to the image of the body. Exactly this prevailing mood and thought is apparent in the Gothic literature the century produced.

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