Realizing the Victorian Gothic in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Brian Psiropoulos
Brian Psiropoulos

In an early scene from Mary Barton, Gaskell’s 1848 high-realist novel of class and crime, Mary’s father and a former coworker go to visit a sick worker from Carsons’ mill. Wending their way through the poverty and hopelessness of industrial Manchester, they finally reach his family home, located in a cellar “about one foot below the level of the street” (60).

As they descend, they find that “thick darkness” conceals “three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet brick floor; through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fire-place was empty and black; the wife sat on her husband’s lair, and cried in the dark loneliness” (ibid).

It is significant that Gaskell’s narrator both lists and yet cannot even count all of the beings that live and die in this subterranean cell. She is soliciting our empathy and our outrage, and this is difficult to do if we do not see these strange basement dwellers as beings somewhat like ourselves.

It is also possible that the status of these creatures must be made explicit so that readers do not suspect that they are something less than human, something as unpleasant as the squalor in which they live: perhaps even the kinds of things that one, having read enough gothic novels, may expect to find “rolling” or roiling about in a dark, fetid dungeon. This use of “lair,” archaic even in Gaskell’s time, carries with it the possibility of misinterpretation: is this the final resting place of a human? Or the home of a monster? Both, it seems.

This journey into the underground is mirrored a few pages later, when Gaskell describes the departed’s funeral procession: “When they arrived in the churchyard, they halted before a raised and handsome tombstone; in reality a wooden mockery of stone respectabilities which adorned the burial-ground. […] below was the grave in which pauper bodies were piled until within a foot or two of the surface; when the soil was shovelled over, and stamped down.” (73)

As before, the heads of bodies are to be found perilously close to the surface: in both locales only “afoot” below ground. Both rooms are overcrowded, and both are resting places for the dead and the soon to be dead.

This second example also provides the key to understanding the first: monstrousness is not an ontological category, but the result of a process of dehumanization, the kind that allows or requires people to sicken and die before consigning them to the eternal anonymity of the mass grave.

We are also presented with the cause: another kind of division, one which reinforces — likely produces — the barrier between those who dwell above ground (the living and the solvent) and those who dwell below (the poorest and the dead). Gaskell’s insistence upon these two Manchesters is seen in the “pauper” Davenport’s ‘gravestone: no stone at all, but a cheap imitation’.

A few pages earlier, her narrator brought us from the “happy family enjoyments” of the mill-owner Carson to the other “side of the picture,” nearby homes over which “Carsons’ fire threw a deep, terrible gloom: the homes of those who would fain work, and no man gave unto them — the homes of those to whom leisure was a curse” (58).

This section is suffused with its own gothic motif — poverty is a curse which is ancestral, hereditary, inescapable. The curse is thrown into blazing contrast with its opposite, the boon enjoyed by the Carsons and withheld from others. That it is the Carsons’ happy fire that casts its “gloom” upon those either out of work or worked to death is quite explicit for a novel that generally attempts to express sympathy with the problems of both “sides” of this surface and class divide.

The highly Gothicised language that Gaskell uses in these three scenes — shadowy glooms that blot out joy, or crawling oozes that reach out from the earth to entrap — is required to express miseries beyond the capacity of more straightforward, mimetic language: horrors brought about by the very real problems of social history and its uneasy, uneven development.

These are concerns that typically belong to realism, the figural strategy developed to represent and comment upon the relationship between the individual and society. The realist novel functions as a model rather than as a mirror of social reality, a translation or mediation or transcoding of it, depending on which critics we consult.

What has received less attention, however, is the fact that the realist novel also develops a model of history. It must do this — despite its empiricist resistance to grander narratives or “systems of order” — if the events within its own narrative are to be understood in relation, and indeed have any meaning at all (Levine Realistic 18). Gaskell’s narrator proceeds from roaring fire to dingy resting place to communal tomb, and then provides a helpful gesture back to the homely “respectabilities” of that fire in case we missed the significance of any of the steps.

History modeled by the realist novel tends to be processional, as in the pauper’s progress. Gothic historiography, by contrast, is anachronistic or disruptive: hence, the present that Gaskell produces is still a world of lairs and dungeons.

The implication is that mass starvation and graves should be left behind, too, equally medieval relics. Despite their differences in approach, both realist and gothic modes present history as causal, shaping if not determining the makeup of social institutions and personal psychologies.

Since this is the case, the gothic aspects never detract from Mary Barton’s legibility, or from its power as a realistic document of the conditions that it aims to reproduce and help address. Its realism is, in fact, all the more “real” for its gothicisation.

Mary Barton may have been conceived as a social progress novel, but it does its best work to that end when it reads as a horror story.

The novel revolves around a central mystery, and so requires its characters to act as amateur detectives to locate satisfactory meaning(s). It also, in scenes and moments including those above, presents a kind of a mystery to its readers, a series of questions we must answer to uncover its operation and meanings.

Why do elements — settings and characters, rhetoric and thematics — of the eighteenth-century gothic romance so frequently appear in realist fiction of the following century? How do they operate, and what do they signify or portend? Why are they so often associated with material matters — means of subsistence, public institutions, and systems of exchange? And why are many of these works so obsessed with time and its passing?

This project is an attempt to clarify some of these questions, and to develop a theoretical basis for answering them by reading popular novels in conversation with the body of scholarship on Victorian gothic literature.

It considers the novel alongside 250 years of socio-economic theory, especially that of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Thorstein Veblen, and their inheritors, as well as historical theorists and modellers including George W. F. Hegel and H. Butterfield.

The result of this investigation will, I hope, deepen our understanding of the gothic’s frequent eruptions into realist fiction of the nineteenth-century, and the meanings of this literature’s strongly social-historical character.

Its analysis of a number of these “gothic materialist” fictions — by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Oscar Wilde — will offer a vigorous case for the gothic’s capacity to figure socio-economic trauma, as well as for the flexibility of a Victorian realism which frequently augments its own figurative powers by taking on aspects of traditionally non-realist forms.

Methodologically, Victorian Gothic Materialism is primarily informed by historical materialist criticism, which reads literature largely as social hieroglyphic. This criticism has traditionally been pro-realist, but apathetic towards the gothic. In Georg Lukács’s still influential work, the subgenre itself and the work of early practitioners such as Radcliffe were flawed, unable to rise above the hopeless anachronism and petty moralizing indicative of “bad” historical novels (30).

Lukács saw their conception of history as not properly dialectical and progressive, and its characters anachronistically “modern” in their psychologies. However, Lukács, does not recognize the gothic as a formal category past its late-eighteenth-century origins, and therefore ignores the heavily gothic elements which sometimes appear in realist texts, such as Gaskell’s and Dickens’s social problem fiction.

Joe Cleary’s recent book ‘Outrageous Fortune’ is in many ways more representative of contemporary work: it questions the narrowness of Lukács’s and others’ definition of the novel and the high realism that for many are still effectively synonyms for each other.

In it, he argues that the exclusion of subgenres including the gothic has led to a weaker understanding of the novel form itself and its own dialectical evolution (53). Other critics have begun to consider a “Marxist gothic.”

Gail Turley Houston’s ‘From Dickens to Dracula’ traces anxieties surrounding Victorian banking collapses, figured as the “panic” in novels such as Dickens’s ‘Little Dorrit’.

Read alongside Marx, she hypothesizes that “the Gothic was invented, in part, as a prism through which to represent capitalism’s ceaseless haunting of its subjects” (34). Franco Moretti sees class conflict at the heart of the gothic, positing a ‘Dialectic of Fear’ that reads the monsters of the nineteenth-century’s most recognizable gothic novels, Frankenstein and Dracula, as “the two horrible faces of a single society, its extremes: the disfigured wretch and the ruthless proprietor […] worker and capital” (83).

Conversely, Margaret Cohen’s conception of “gothic Marxism” describes not gothic literature read through Marxist analysis, but rather recognizes certain strains of Marxist thought, notably that of Benjamin and Breton, as being heavily gothicised; “a Marxist genealogy fascinated with the irrational aspects of social processes, a genealogy that both investigates how the irrational pervades existing society and dreams of using it to effect social change” (1-2).

Similarly, Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist analysis in Specters of Marx traces the rhetoric of ghosts, specters, and mystical transformation used by Marx himself. In so doing, he argues for the necessity of reading Marx despite (or perhaps because of) the fall of organized twentieth-century communism and the decline of Marxist criticism.

Conceptions of “haunting,” to Derrida, “organize the dominant influence on discourse today” (37, emphasis in original).

While Cohen’s reading of Benjamin and Breton, and Derrida’s reading of Marx both resist grand narratives as they are popularly understood, both argue for the foundational importance of a conception of gothic haunting — repressed trauma and its return — as a social-historical phenomenon.

If, for the writers of the eighteenth-century gothic romance, the past was a playground — an exotic, alternatingly charming and horrid oddity — it was also a straw figure to be knocked over by the present’s values and ideologies. Victorian realist novelists were more concerned with “social, economic, and political conditions and their effects,” a stance which required a believable because causal view of history (Kearns 66).

For them, the past was increasingly seen as the necessary precursor to the events depicted in their own work. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that for them, all of the relevant events of British history could be thought of as earlier scenes from their own novels, cut for space, but a misconception they would happily encourage.

Their novels, of course, were frequently polemical, and developed within the conscious and unconscious ideologies of their authors.

The fiction of Gaskell and Dickens had very definite social aims. The difference between them and their forebears, however, was that the very realism needed to accurately represent societal conditions to be changed also dictated that authors could no longer stack the deck in the way that a Radcliffe or Lewis could.

They were writing in a recognizable Britain of their own day (or occasionally, of the very recent past), and so would have to write their ideas out of history, rather than into it. Wilde evoked this stance when he chided those who “still” wrote the history of the previous centuries, who “think it necessary to apply moral judgements,” handing down “praise or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster” (“Pen, Pencil, and Poison” 121).

His admonition is also representative of the shifting stance towards history between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists: for the former it was a setting, for the latter a context.

Narrative is, literally, procession: a chain of events, one following necessarily from the one before. Narrative realism, then, is the approach towards fiction in which all effects have causes, and every cause could — theoretically, if not in practice — be traced back to an earlier one.

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