Gothic Infections: Storytelling as Therapy in Dark Narratives

Paula Ryggvik Mikalsen
Paula Ryggvik Mikalsen

Much like the modern pathography (Frank: 2013; Hunsaker Hawkins: 1993), one goal of the Gothic is to provide a voice for those who have been silenced, by either societal, familial, physical or mental causes.

Female-centric narratives share a unique position in this regard. Many of the tropes that characterize the Gothic novel are metaphorically comparable to life in incarceration, be it in a whalebonecorset or behind the iron bars of a prison or a mental institution.

The haunted castles, mysterious apparitions, isolation, a threatening masculine presence might seem obvious allegories to the social constrictions that governed the gendered relations of Regency society.

One factor that remains steadfast throughout was health or rather “ill health”. It is interesting to note, that some of the most respected and well-read female authors of the nineteenth-, and twentieth-centuries produced such narratives as to shed light on the lack of understanding for female ailments, and the horror of the medicalization of women, body and mind (Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’ The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Sylvia Plath, ‘The Bell Jar’ (1966).

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s seminal work ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ demonstrated how patriarchal socialization negatively affected women’s mental and physical health. “To be trained in renunciation is… to be trained to ill health” (1979: 54), that is to say, to be born female was to be institutionalized from day one, simply moving from one patriarch to another.

Freud’s concept of the unheimlich is a key concept in the Gothic. The unheimlich, if literally understood as “not home”, or “unhomelike”, begets a, sometimes uncomfortable, understanding of the home as a permutable place; it can transform and defamiliarize a space that should exude safety and warmth. “Home” can be a house, but it is ultimately the people that truly make a “home”. That leads me to the notion of family in the Gothic, as well as the (lack of) rights of women in Gothic homes, and in England at large.

“In the unremittingly economic Female Gothic, the Gothic is shown to reside in the everyday in the form of women’s commodification… Notably, the traditional Gothic dynamic is subverted in this more modern of Gothic fictions [Northanger Abbey], as the sins of the materialistic father are not visited upon his son.” (Davison: 2010, 163-164)

“The sins of the father are revisited upon his son” is the credo of the Gothic. Catherine’s infamous misreading of the Gothic genre highlights the fragile domestic position of women like Henry’s mother. Her sudden death erased her from every public area of the house and her children rarely speak of her, except in hushed tones away from their borderline tyrannical father. It is with these conditions in mind that Henry was brought up; after the death of his mother, he could escape into a profession, the clergy and his brother to the military (and other extra-curricular activities). His sister Eleanor, however, had to remain at the Abbey, almost as if she were to return to its monastic roots. Unable to marry the man she loves, she remains under her father’s strict regime.

The focus of this article is not Eleanor’s story, but Henry’s, because I want to give an alternative reading to Gilbert and Gubar’s rather narrow understanding of his character, which my dual approach, medical humanities and the Gothic, enables me to do.

Austen has imbued Henry’s ancestral home, Northanger Abbey, with certain qualities reminiscent of a hospital/asylum or a prison, e.g. meals are served at specific times, Catherine’s and Eleanor’s days are regulated, as well as their activities and freedom of movement. The novel essentially makes the young women (and man) living in the Abbey either a patient or a prisoner, governed by General Tilney.

The Abbey is, therefore, a source of patriarchal contamination which entails that the general is “patient zero”. He is the main representative of the pathologizing patriarchy that seeks to “infect” Catherine. However, Catherine’s infatuation with Gothic novels proves to be her and Henry’s salvation.

Catherine’s introduction to the Abbey is through Henry. Having established that he is the more experienced reader, he thinks he is able to control the narrative and thus agitates her imagination with a tall tale of what will befall her when they enter his ancestral home:

“[Are] you prepared to encounter all the horrors what a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? […] Will not your mind misgive you, when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber […] How fearfully will you examine the furniture in your apartment!” (Austen: 1818, 161-162).

He goes on, describing an old malignant housekeeper, a locked cabinet, a broken tapestry and a torn manuscript relating the fate of “wretched Matilda” (Austen: 1818, 164), all trademark staples of a Gothic narrative.

Henry is stoking Catherine’s imagination to induce the necessary crisis to expel her unhealthy obsession with Gothic novels. However, Catherine suspects the General of having either killed or imprisoned his wife. Her suspicions result, not in a violent altercation but a rational (albeit heated) dissemination of facts by Henry (Austen: 1881, 202-203), a scene we shall return to in detail shortly.

As mentioned, the General runs his household with military precision. He is zealously renovating and modernizing the abbey, which separates him further from his son. The General’s profession is to order people; Henry’s is to guide them. He is like his father in many ways but more like his sister in others. Where his father taught him to control, his sister taught him to nurture and this is just as important a lesson, as we will see in the next section, the “mental asylum closely approximates the female rather than the male experience within the family.” (Chesler: 2005, 95)

Most scholars agree, that Henry serves as an educator, a mentor for Catherine. Within medical humanities, Martyn Evans emphasises the importance of education rather than training (2003: 383), which is interesting, as Catherine considers herself as a” ‘heroine in training” (Austen: 1881, 7). I read Henry as a “the healer” who sets out to cure Catherine of her unhealthy obsession with Gothic narratives. The meeting between patient and doctor is always an interpretive activity, a hermeneutical challenge (Bernhardsson: 2010, 50), which I think is as true of how Catherine and Henry interact.

Through conversation, their opinions, personalities and experiences (or lack thereof) highlight their characters and their epistemological differences. This leads to a perpetual renegotiation of each character’s equilibrium; in other words, in search of equality, or at least as much as an eighteenth-century couple could be equal.

Henry Tilney is an apt conversationalist, he talks with “fluency and spirit” (Austen: 1818, 17) on the night he is introduced to Catherine Morland in Bath. Having chatted amiably and freely for a while, he suddenly changes the subject and instructs Catherine in the “correct” manner of discussion, i.e. he is re-writing their previous conversation into a less genuine, but socially preferred manner of conversing:

“I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert, and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent — but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.” (Austen: 1881, 17-18)

More often than not, his arguments about style and proper aesthetic thought are derived from the masculine canon of conduct, through the discourse of eighteenth-century essayists such as Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson. He can balance his interaction with a predominantly female literary canon with “the discourse of the Johnsonian essay” (sic Irvine: 2005, 44). As an experienced reader, and as an experienced man in society, Henry puts Catherine at a strong disadvantage.

Robert P. Irvine argues, that the male essayists mentioned above have as much power over Henry’s world-view as Radcliffe has over Catherine’s (2005, 44) but I would argue; that being a well-read man does not have the same connotations as being a well-read woman.

The narrator frequently mentions, that Catherine is well-read, “provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from [books,] that they were all story and no reflection” (Austen: 1881, 7). I will, however, build upon Irvine’s next point, that Henry uses Johnsonian discourse, as a

“linguistic version of the patriarchal power of the General: a way of controlling women, not physically by locking them up or removing them from a house, but by controlling their language, telling them what they may and may not say” (Irvine: 2005, 44-45).

Irvine points to Henry’s speech patterns as “natural” (Irvine: 2005, 46), as in, he is using speech and narration to confirm both his and Catherine’s status as belonging to a privileged social group and this language is a result of the masculine canon of polite society.

In other words, Henry uses language and by extension to alter the narrative that his sister, and Catherine, originally use about their own condition. He displays his mastery of the language, and of the Gothic genre, to exert control, and to dominate the conversation, like in this scene:

“…I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’ I shall soon leave you [far] behind me…Consider how many years I have had the start of you.” (Austen: 1818, 108)

Catherine then turns to Eleanor and tells her of something horrid that is about to emerge in London. She refers to the publishing of a new novel “in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and a lantern” (Austen: 1818, 114), but Eleanor thinks she is talking about a riot.

Henry intervenes: “shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No — I will be noble. I will prove myself a man…” (my italics, ibid). He is raising himself as a benevolent arbiter and the most well-read of the three he must, therefore, be the most capable person to reinstate reason and logic where before there was chaos and confusion. What the Gothic symbolizes, is chaos, loss of control and subjugation of free will, as history is bound to repeat itself (sins of the father, etc).

“All illness and unhappiness generate their own very special types of tale. This is because telling a story is one of the most basic human ways of organizing experience – and of shaping suffering into a form, in order to give it meaning”4 (Cecil Helman qtd in Cavallaro: 2002, 125).

I argue, that this is what Henry is doing; he shapes his ideas and world views on the male, “rational” canon of literature that occludes female experience and fanciful tales.

When Catherine tries to bring the conversation back to a level she can engage on, Henry picks on her use of the word “nice” and reroutes the conversation once again. Eleanor reproaches her brother:

“…he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest’, as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair” (Austen: 1818, 109).

Note that Eleanor says “overpowered” by these male writers. The right sort of knowledge will then enable you to overpower and overthrow and one might argue that Eleanor is chastising her brother for employing the same domination techniques as their father:

“-Well, Eleanor, may I congratulate you on being successful in your application to your fair friend? -I was just beginning to make the request, sir, as you came in. -Well, proceed by all means. I know how much your heart is in it. My daughter, Miss Morland,” he continued without leaving his daughter time to speak…” (Austen: 1818, 110)

This passage echoes William’s opening statement (1995, xi), the fears of the 18th century concerning the effects of female novel-reading, results in a fear of female autonomy and authorship, not just in terms of literature, but in personal narration. Her father will not let her speak and now Henry is attempting to do the same. Interestingly, Henry does not speak further in the conclusion of the chapter as Eleanor (and the narrator) cuts him off, “We shall get nothing more serious from him now” (Austen: 1818, 115).

This need to control the conversation, at least, to stand at its helm, indicates a deeper need for control, which can stem from a trauma of some unresolved helplessness in the past. It is a natural response to the death of a loved one as one cannot prevent the inevitable, nor retake what Death has claimed.

I propose that Henry’s way of dealing with the conditions of his patriarchal society is to take the narrative control throughout the novel. However, as he mocks his sister for fearing for their brother’s safety he goes into excruciating detail.

I consider this attention to detail to be representative of Henry’s infatuation with the Gothic, and his ability to spin a tale to his advantage, namely to subconsciously deal with his present, but also his past.

Cavallaro in her book ‘The Gothic Vision’ (2002) reworks Freud’s understanding of storytelling as a therapeutic measure (Cavallaro: 2002, 123-125) and outlines some ways in which storytelling and narrating creates space and opportunity to articulate both “personal and communal apprehensions of darkness” (Cavallaro: 2002, 125).

Henry’s family may not be as dark and convoluted as most Gothic archetypes, but one can be certain of one thing; most children will copy their parents’ behaviour. Perhaps Henry’s heroic flaw is not realising how close he has come to do just that.

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