20 August 2019

GOTHIC REVIVAL

Sam Wiseman. Locating the Gothic in British Modernity. Clemson University Press, 2019.

Until reading Sam Wiseman’s brilliant book I hadn’t comfortably connected elements of the gothic with what constituted modernity. It’s not that there aren’t thematic overlaps in the sense that they can both seriously attack rationality or create a new rationale. That a ‘natural’ (Modern Life) under stress and the stress of the supernatural (Gothic Rupture) affected each another. In fact a pivot between romanticism and modernism is still very much part of our culture and is particularly so in Wiseman’s chosen period of study – from 1890’s fin de siècle up to the Second World War. Yet perhaps my definition of a gothic style being a brooding, but essentially melodramatic, romanticism and early modernism as solely radical experiments with the text was perhaps too limited, too neatly compartmentalised. If so then my assumptions have been very effectively challenged by Locating the Gothic in British Modernity.

“I share with those critics a belief that the modernist era witnesses an ongoing evolution and proliferation of Gothicized literary representations, but my analytical focus is upon experimental and formally conventional texts alike…it is one of the aims of this study to explore the gothic of the geographical edge lands, sites where country and city bleed into one another, which form a recurring presence throughout the book.”

But before consider Wiseman’s aims and intentions we should maybe have a definition of the gothic. I’m happy to go along with Wiseman quoting gothic specialist Judith Wilts who is principally concerned with its material setting.

“No single aspect of plot, image or word says ‘Gothic’ to us so clearly as the aspect of place. The castle, the tower, the graveyard, the prison, the rocky crag hung between wind and sea…”

Yet does such iconic imagery more comfortably belong in the 18th century context of The Castle of Otranto than late Victorian gothic? That the harsh, wild psychology of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Grey and Dracula are leaving that setting behind as they enter the 20th century? Wiseman argues that the older gothic locations (Jayne Eyre et al) are moving from the country to the city and sometimes retreating back to it in very fluid, sinister and unexpected ways.

I also wondered if the mechanisation of the world, technological innovation and a growing belief in science didn’t undermine the gothic sensibility. Yet Wiseman takes a most unlikely novel, D.H.Lawrence’s Son’s and Lovers (with its heightened naturalism) and convinced me that the gothic power that protagonist Paul Morel senses in rural life is also infecting a London metropolitan modernity.

One of the delights of this book is to include not just canonical writers such a Joyce, Lawrence, Wilde, T.S.Eliot and Virginia Woolf but draw in neglected figures such as Mary Butts and Nancy Cunard along side of narrowly defined horror fiction writers such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.

At chapter 3 “In the Black Ruins of the Frenzied Night” Wiseman tackles the effects of the First World War on the combatants and the after effects on civilians in an urban setting. Arthur Machen’s story 'The Bowmen' (about the Battle of Mons in Belgium) and Eliot’s The Waste Land appear to be infiltrated by ghosts. A foreign battlefield and the consciousness of Londoners are seen as related. Modern communications meant that letters and newspapers were quickly received by soldiers at the front. The dreadful presence of the trenches contrasted with urban normality. This paradoxically created a sense of disconnect with reality and an odd fusion: a spectral, gothic sensibility of dread hanging over spaces in different lands. Between these locations came the Zeppelin raids, these flying apparatus assuming a gothic menace as powerful as any castle, tower and rocky crag.

In his discussion of The Waste Land (1922) Wiseman astutely draws out how haunted the poem is by the memory of those who died in the battlefields: that their death has affected the lives of Londoners now moving across the city in a zombie-like manner.

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

The suggestion also being that the dead are reinforcements of soldiers going from England daily to the line, who live on inside and through the living.

“Eliot’s poem thus connects with Machen and Lawrence’s wartime writings in its articulation of a metropolitan environment that feels fragile, hallucinatory, and protean, liable to shift form or dissolve altogether.”

The whole of Sam Wiseman’s book is concerned to discuss sites that “bleed into one another.” where a fragmented sense of the complexity of the modern world is still attached to gothic strains both paganistic and supernatural that would threaten to destabilise a rational world order. The past and the present are seen to accompany each other and prove to have a troubling ambivalence. Ancient powers damn the new, for modernism is always threatened and may not last. And the new can dangerously tamper with and suppress much of a Gothic inheritance that we still need to deal with.

“…but as modernity enters different phases the Gothic becomes increasingly ironic, reflexive, and allusive, layered with cultural histories, commingled with literary spectres…”

To all that I would say yes. I was completely convinced by Wiseman’s subtly written and nuanced argument. Locating the Gothic in British Modernity is a scholarly achievement of great distinction, wide ranging, generously attentive to detail and genuinely manages to break new ground exploring this fascinating literary territory. -- Alan Price


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