Transformation of the Grotesque into the Gothic Novels

Brittany Taylor
Brittany Taylor

When 1778 dawned, twenty-five-year-old Frances Burney was not the egotist this pronouncement in her diary might suggest. She was nervous. Burney was a timid, prudish young woman who was concerned with her reputation and propriety. Though not even the publisher of Evelina knew her identity, she trembled, overcome by anxiety: Would the public know it was she who dared such an undertaking? Would they laugh? Scold? Would it be savoured and applauded, or would it fall into ignominy, become three volumes of discarded ephemera? And what would the father she idolizes says of his daughter’s secret venture?

Given the gendered barriers she stormed with Evelina, Burney had reason to fear. “An eighteenth-century woman writer, in order to be published at all and certainly to be read, was supposed to profess sensibility and womanliness, to avoid satire…and never to indite crude or low scenes,” Betty Rizzo writes. “Evelina broke all these strictures” (Rizzo 195). From Burney’s diaries, we know some early readers did not for a moment doubt the work was a man’s. Christopher Anstey, the writer of the New Bath Guide, was bandied about as a strong possibility (Ellis 215-7). That supposition, so far from the truth, bolstered Burney’s confidence, and she began to giddily record the praise her novel received. Her chronicles were exhaustive. Evelina garnered “almost universal admiration,” and Burney’s anonymity held fast for six months, after which time she became something of a celebrity (Doody 39). Contemporaries found her work prodigiously entertaining and bewitching (Ellis 215, 220). The Critical Review called it “amusing and instructive” (202-3) and The Monthly Review said it was “one of the most sprightly, entertaining, and agreeable productions” of its kind (316). They applauded the diversity of the characters (particularly the Branghtons) and “the great variety of natural incidents, some of the comic stamp” (The Monthly Review 316).

Such praise would not be the standard for Burney’s thirty-six-year career as a novelist. Contemporaries and critics, present and future alike, became more and more displeased with her work. The characters seemed to be caricatures of individuals she had already crafted. The plots became more chaotic and the novels themselves, at five volumes and upwards of one thousand pages, were too long. As George Saintsbury noted in 1895, Evelina was delectable; Cecilia admirable; Camilla estimable; The Wanderer impossible (212). While Evelina remained popular, if not a favourite, Burney’s last three novels fell out of print through the nineteenth century and clean copies of the trio proved difficult to find. It wasn’t until scholars professing an interest in women’s studies in the mid-twentieth century knocked the dust from the jackets of Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer that Burney’s works were plumbed for more than what met the eye of her peers.

The superficiality with which the quartet has been viewed is deceptive. Alternatively labelled sentimental novels, social comedies, conduct books, and “picture of manners” (McK. 360), Burney’s canon had, for a century and a half, been taken at face value. The satire was obvious, the comedy was inspired—but that was all. As meaning was slowly teased from the pages, critiques reflected the analytical trends of the time: domesticity, psychoanalysis, marginality. And then, in 1976, Modern Philology published an essay by Susan Staves titled “‘Evelina;’ or, Female Difficulties.” During a time when domestic violence was at the forefront of second-wave feminist concern, Staves observed a painfully obvious trend, one that she found peculiarly absent from the critical consensus on Evelina: Descriptions of the novel make it appear to be a combination of the usual romance with cheerful, albeit occasionally malicious, satire. The primary criticism of the book is that it is hopelessly trivial. Yet Evelina’s predominant emotion seems to me to be an acute anxiety which is painful, real, and powerful. (368)

Staves argues that Evelina’s anxiety is “partly provoked by physical violence and threats of violence,” which “we may notice immediately” (369). Julia Epstein’s 1989 book, The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing, also discusses the pervasive violence, as does Barbara Zonitch’s 1997 Familiar Violence: Gender and Social Upheaval in the Novels of Frances Burney. These analyses probe deeply into a glaring characteristic of Burney’s novels that contemporaries and reviewers have historically evaded, but they still fail to grasp the full picture. While her peers saw largely a comedy, these critics see largely violence. It has only been passingly suggested that there exists in all four novels a union between the two.

This is a pure understatement. In this paper, I shall argue that the coexistence of comedy and violence is an essential characteristic of Burney’s novels. One cannot be ignored in favour of the other for Burney does not merely alternate humour and harm. The two mingle in her works, merging rather than dissociating to create the effect of the grotesque, a delightful form of horror that has readers gasping with laughter even as their minds reel from the terrific situations she crafts. Burney diverges from the early formula of the gothic novel, with its atmosphere of mystery and horror and the inevitable medieval castle setting (“Gothic”), choosing instead for her first three novels selectively to embrace a genre that is meant to repulse readers. For the last, she builds upon the gothic aesthetic established in the horror novels of the late-eighteenth century, with doses of melodrama and social satire lightening the realistic if not grotesquely abhorrent terror of her early novels. Her variety of the grotesque is that of the macabre, or black humour, and she makes use of the “gliding scale” Dieter Petzold describes, “from the almost purely humorous to the deeply shocking.” The result is disturbing, prompting readers to question why such a “delicate” girl would write such “boisterous” books, as Elizabeth Montagu, an art patroness and bluestocking society leader, commented (Lynch).

Why indeed? Let us first consider these events as repeating instances within a pattern rather than as anomalies. The majority of the events occur in public places intended for polite socialization, such as the pleasure garden Ranelagh, the opera house, or the carriage. When this does not hold true, they serve as the climax of a long-building emotional dilemma caused by society; the expectation of moneyed splendour despite the realities of debt is a favoured motif. Nearly without fail, all of the grotesque events Burney pens show the subjugation of women at the hands of men and a society that overwhelming favours their gender, legally, theoretically, and culturally. I read these events, then, as part of Burney’s social commentary. Given the revulsion she inspires through her use of the grotesque rather than through pure comedy or violence, the extreme inferiority of women to men and the violence that is a product of such a relationship seems to be her greatest complaint. Her heroines and the supporting female characters are second-class citizens—perhaps even third or fourth, depending upon their age and socioeconomic status. Without restitution, they are abused, both domestically and otherwise, often under the guise of safety—in the presence of a protector or guardian or in a so-called social haven for innocents. Burney seeks not to cajole, not to educate, not to suggest such things might be objectionable. By employing the grotesque, she strategically seeks to appal her readers.

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