Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Varieties of Gothic

I’m not sure why it took me so many years to realise that I shared a birthday with Emily Brontë – July 30th.  Even in years when I have taught Wuthering Heights on our Victorian Literature course I never made the connection, presumably because I was trained in modes of literary interpretation – at first New Critical and Leavisite, subsequently literary-theoretical – which never had much time for authorial biography in the first place.  In later life, biography has come to seem a more important and moving genre to me, so I have finally made that Pinkney-Brontë linkage, presumably the only one there is.

 However, the issue of Emily Brontë and her novel – or, more generally, of the Brontës and their novels – does pose some theoretically interesting questions.  For if we take the Brontës’ fiction as being representative of that wider literary trend we now often term ‘female Gothic’, running say from Anne Radcliffe to Angela Carter and beyond, then I have never felt sure that I could convincingly articulate the relationship of this cultural tendency to that architectural and ultimately political Gothic which characterises the thinking of John Ruskin and William Morris.  Paranoid entrapment in a confined masculinist space, coupled with an unleashing of female desire, sits uneasily with admiration for the sensuous creativity of the carvers of the medieval cathedral and the adoption of that model of labour as a utopian alternative to the degraded and oppressive work practices of the capitalist present.

Are these two traditions imbricated in ways which we haven’t yet managed to define or theorise?  Will it always be the case that the powerful invocation of one kind of Gothic will also, at the level of the textual unconscious, emit unsettling traces of the other?  And might that be the reason why Morris’s embodiment of Gothic utopianism in News from Nowhere, which has plenty of ebullient socialist carvers of its own, also unleashes, in the latter third of the text, the energetic and enigmatic figure of Ellen, who has by her own admission ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’, and whom in the end the book hardly seems to know what to do with?

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