Introduction to the Supernatural Victorian Gothic Literature

Camille Marie
Camille Marie

According to Janles Hogg’s ‘Romantic Reassessment of the Gothic Novel’ (1986), there are three essential components of the Gothic aesthetic: horror, suspense and shock (Hogg 4).

The term itself has come to be associated with dark nights, eerie winds, deserted castles, and romantic horrors, but once upon a time it signified membership in an Eastern Germanic tribe of medieval Europe, a large portion of which originated in Scandinavia.

The formerly pejorative term’s application to the post-medieval architecture characterised by the pointed arch and flying buttress was initially intended to comment on its stylistic barbarity rather than its creative source, but nonetheless, the British revival of its castles and cathedrals in the seventeenth-century served as a source of inspiration for authors such as Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, and Anne Radcliffe.

The resulting Gothic Literature, typified by the eerie and suggestive supernatural, experienced its heyday from 1764 to 1816. Its themes and preoccupations permeated every corner of literate England. However, the rise of the realist novel dispensed with its romance and promoted a carefully constructed realism, optimised for social instruction.

The excesses and sensation of the Gothic seemed to have been put to rest. But Gothicism never disappeared from the literary consciousness, which prompts the literary scholar to consider why a revival of the Gothic genre occurred in the latter decades of the nineteenth-century.

Although the mid-century works of authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Bronte sisters borrow isolated elements of its tradition, the full-blown revival of the Gothic novel did not occur until the 1870s. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 publication ‘The Coming Race’ was among the first of the Victorian Gothic novels, followed shortly after by Sheridan Le Fanu’s notorious ‘Carmilla’ in 1872.

The final two decades of the nineteenth-century featured a slew of novels containing elements of the Gothic which were perceived to be allied to the fin de siecle decadence, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886), Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891), and Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898).

The culmination of this literary trend occurred in 1897 with the creation of the most famous of all gothic villains in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. The degree to which the aforementioned authors employ Gothic techniques in these works varies, but the general trend is characterised by an increasing adherence to its tenets as the century progresses.

Although Gothic literature fell out of popular favour for several decades during the first half of the nineteenth-century, its dark passageways, perilous journeys to exotic locations, and dangerous encounters with elements of the supernatural remained just below the surface of high Victorian literature.

For example, many of the characters in popular novels of the pre-Victorian period, such as Jane Austen’s Catherine Moreland, the heroine of her 1818 publication ‘Northanger Abbey’, indulged in Gothic novels and were fascinated by their foreign, but alluring nature. However, in order to completely understand the genre’s fully developed revival, the historical gaps between its popularity must be accounted for.

Among the most significant social adjustments in England made between 1816 and 1897 were the redefinition of gender roles, the eventual development of the women’s movement, and the emergence of the New Woman at the fin de siecle.

This article will examine the relationship between the Women’s Movement of the late nineteenth-century and the concurrent revival of the Gothic novel by male authors as a cautionary retort to social change.

Predictably, not all-male authors responded favourably to the increased freedoms to which women were now entitled and many responded even less favourably to the perceived alteration in the attitude and character of many women.

With the exception of pro-feminist male authors like John Stuart Mill and Oscar Wilde, the gender prescriptions represented by John Ruskin’s view of female sexuality as a mildly repugnant annoyance bore a heavy influence over many conservatives who utilized literature as an outlet for their own social anxieties.

At the forefront of these anxieties was the fear that increased female independence would overturn the existing social order and result in a reassignment of the dominant and submissive gender roles.

Many male authors like Ruskin and some female anti-feminist authors relied on the contemporarily popular realist novel or direct prose to voice their objections to the changing sexual order of the day, but a select few, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Bram Stoker, chose the Gothic novel as their preferred mode of instruction.

Perhaps this choice was haphazard or coincidental, but the more likely scenario suggests that some aspect of the traditional Gothic form was an attractive vehicle for a work of anti-feminist fiction.

In the introduction to his ‘Gothic Reflections’ (2003), Peter K. Garrett writes: “Sometimes Gothic fiction is credited with deliberate subversion; sometimes it is read symptomatically for the ways its terror betray cultural anxieties about sexuality and gender, the menace of alien races or the criminal classes-about whatever threatens the dominant social order or challenges its ideologies.”

As a mode defined by “excess and transgression,” Gothic seems necessarily, essentially opposed to all norms and limits.” (Garrett 2)

This article will assert that the political and sexual liberation of women during the late Victorian era caused male authors like Lytton and Stoker to fear the Victorian woman would evolve into a New Woman, whose opposition to social norms recommended the use of Gothic technique.

Authors like Bulwer-Lytton and Stoker repainted the New Woman as one resembling the exotic and sometimes monstrous females of early Gothic literature as a caution to their reader.

Additionally, the difference in the degree of monstrosity, sexual aggression, and social perversion each author constructs is most readily explained by the chronological position of the two texts within the women’s movement and in relation to its defining moments.

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