“Hideous Progeny”: The Gothic in the Nineteenth Century

Posted on: November 2nd, 2018 by Lydia Craig

Just in time for Halloween, the third LUCVS day conference occurred on 27 October on the 4th floor of the Information Commons – replete with heaping piles of candy ornamenting the round tables and Frankenstein fridge magnets and Gothic postcards available in the registration area. “‘Hideous Progeny’: The Gothic in the Nineteenth Century” was inspired by the bicentennials of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and the birth of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights (1848). Additionally, LUCVS wished to uncover the cultural and literary impacts of new iterations of the Gothic in the Victorian era, as subsequent generations made sense of the Romanticist movement, European scientific and industrial developments, and engaged with the themes and prophecies of Gothic novels from previous decades. After the attendees had enjoyed coffee and a light breakfast, Dr. Frederick Staidum (LUC) introduced the plenary speaker, Dr. Alison Booth (University of Virginia), citing her contributions to digital humanities and prestigious record of acquiring grant funding and publishing on the topic of female biography, notably her book How to Make It as a Woman (2004), which reveals the history of all-female biographical collections in nineteenth century Britain and America. Booth then delivered the plenary lecture entitled “Gothic Anachronism, Heterotopia, and Gender: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (with some forays in The Castle of Otranto).” By showing several passages from these novels depicting chase scenes through edifices, Booth demonstrated how Gothic heroines, or the pursued, sought safety in neutral, often abandoned parts of the building, Stevenson adopting and gender-swapping the 18th century convention evident in Otranto in his 1886 novel. In this Gothic tradition, geographies of houses mirror that of cities, and even of the human mind and body.

Next, came Panel 1: “Gothic Vision” moderated by Lydia Craig (LUC), which focused on Gothic interpretations of seeing, seeing others, and being seen. In her paper “Gender Under Surveillance in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette,” Amy Bower (independent scholar) claimed that cross-dressing in a theatrical male role enables Lucy Snowe to explore and define her own identity in resistance to the identities others like Dr. John, Ginevra Fanshawe, and M. Paul attribute to her; conversely, cross-dressing for others, such as Ginevra’s male lover in the nun’ habit, achieves no such self-transformative function. Making the case in “Gothic Mutations of Pity in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Star-Child’” that Wilde’s 1891 story replicates stereotypically pejorative assumptions about disability and contains more progressive aspects, Dr. Chris Foss (University of Mary Washington) interpreted Wilde’s text as utilizing a neo/retro Gothic space within which subversively to mutate both the standard sentimental fare of fairy tales and the classic horror effects of Gothic stories as they relate to abject bodies.

After a quick coffee break, attendees heard Panel 2: “American Gothic” moderated by Wren Romero (LUC), which explored appearances of the European Gothic in Amerian literature of the nineteenth century. “Salem Belles and Seductresses: Transatlantic Witch Lore and American Gothic Anxiety” by Sylvia Cutler (Brigham Young University) insisted that as the lore or use of the history of American witchcraft literature shifted to fit the mold of a burgeoning American Gothic literature, the Puritan witch took on a curious and even unrealistic identity. Ultimately, American Gothic writers were left with a choice: embrace the actualities insisted upon by American history, or drawn from the more seductively mysterious and exotically appealing European witch lore not readily found in the New World’s own canon. In the next paper, “Death by Romance: The Tortured Textuality of Alcott’s A Modern Mephistopheles,” M. Fontenot (Michigan State University) portrayed Louisa May Alcott’s 1877 novel as appealing to its own circular textuality to form a foundation and capitalize on and manipulate the Gothic’s reliance on dark secrets and a monstrous villain. Once both are revealed, the novel collapses into divergent conclusions, transforming itself backwards instead of forwards, as the reader is forced to re-view the novel in light of the revelation of its climax. The final paper by Dr. Josh Richards (Williams Baptist University) entitled “The Impossible Union of Spheres: Class Contact and the Feminine Gothic in Henry James’ ‘In the Case’ and ‘The Jolly Corner’” examined the way that these two late-nineteenth-century works by James embody the feminine Gothic construction and utilize Gothic imagery when discussing the interaction between characters of highly divergent social strata; the Gothic, as a liminal genre, appears at the otherwise impossible union of social classes. After this panel, a short lunch followed in Crown Center, guests enjoying conversation with each other and the view afforded on the second floor of Lake Michigan in the sunshine.

In the afternoon, Panel 3: “Neo-Gothic” moderated by Dr. Brandiann Molby (LUC) took as its focus Victorian amendments, evolutions, and utilizations of the eighteenth century Gothic legacy. The first paper, “Gothic Intrastructures: Smoke, Ventilation, and Sewage in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke,” insisted that where ordinary infrastructures (or lack thereof) surface in the Victorian novel, so does the Gothic. Jeremy Goheen (the University of Texas at Austin) argued that Victorian writers often mobilized a Gothic mode in realist fiction to defamiliarize smoke, ventilating structures, sewage systems, and other infrastructural networks to achieve an “infrastructural consciousness” evidenced in novels like Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850) and Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848). Noting in “Reinventing the Gothic: The Uncanny Portrait in Lady Audley’s Secret,” that when characters pause to look at portraits in nineteenth-century English novels, they often learn key information about the depicted subjects, Olivia Xu Lingyi (Northwestern University) claimed that Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel recycles the gothic narrative strategy of the uncanny portrait while reinventing the picture in a notoriously Pre-Raphaelite style. While the portrait, suggestive of hidden knowledge, perpetuates the novel’s detective plot, the painting draws upon a practice of historical anachronism by propelling the narrative forward. Thus, the novel explores the tension between its efforts to assimilate the visual form into its careful narrative timeline, and the fact that the painting’s entailed temporalities stand out of sync with the novel’s chronology. Dr. Jo Devereux (Western University) contended in “Arches, Cloisters, and Tracery: Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale and the Gothic Revival” that the paintings of this artist (1872-1944), known as the last Pre-Raphaelite, would seem to lack Gothic gloom and overwrought affect, instead evoking an idealized medieval world of ladies in peaceful walled gardens and forests. Yet a closer examination of her work reveals a pervasive influence of the Gothic Revival of several decades earlier, Devereux concluding that many of Brickdale’s paintings and illustrations recuperate the passionate moralism of Pugin and Ruskin, while subtly questioning the role of women in their doctrines.

After a brief coffee break and discussion came Panel 4: “Textual Studies” moderated by Dr. Michael Paradiso-Michau (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago), which discussed the appearance of Gothic elements, advertisements, and images in Victorian print culture. “Orgiastic Authorship and Misattribution in Wilde’s ‘Teleny’ and Des Grieux” by Dr. Sandra M. Leonard (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) discussed the question of the latter’s “round-robin” style of collaborative authorship. Though the paperback covers of the fin de siècle erotic gothic novel Des Grieux (1899), sequel to Teleny (1893), falsely attribute authorship to Oscar Wilde, Leonard theorized that the perception of Wilde’s involvement is as an act of orgiastic authorship, a queer, erotic, and Saturnalian creative process that is consistent with Wilde’s reception at the end of his life, a time when his name was both unmentionable in public and a byword in decadent circles. The focus of the second paper, “Frankenstein’s Amputated Paratexts: On the Occult Advertisements in Lackington & Co.’s First Edition,” was on the 1818 ads for occult books by the likes of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, philosophers all mentioned in the novel itself as having influenced Victor Frankenstein’s early education. Michael Van Hoose (University of Virginia) demonstrated the relevance of the quotations selected from the advertised books and their reviews to Frankenstein’s narrative, showing Lackington’s firm grappling to fit the novel’s treatment of overturned science and the perils of unsystematic reading within their own commercial focus on antiquarian supernaturalism. Finally, in “Parliamentary Alchemists and Electric Colossi: Scientific Imagery in Sir John Tenniel’s Punch Cartoons,” Grayson Van Beuren (independent scholar) presented a series of images by Punch head illustrator John Tenniel, who produced work for the magazine from 1850-1901. Interpreting Tenniel’s illustrations through the lens of nostalgia theory, Van Beuren advanced the theory that the cartoonist’s combination of the historical with the scientific stemmed from his deep-set affinity to medievalism, tying his political cartoon work to the gothic tradition. A short wine and cheese reception followed, allowing guests time to prepare for the long-awaited keynote lecture.

As the grand finale, Dr. Suzy Anger (University of British Columbia) gave the keynote lecture “Victorian Fiction and Mind: A ‘turbid, muddled, gothic sort of affair’ or ‘strictly measuring science’?” While giving the introduction, Dr. Micael Clarke (LUC) expressed her long-held interest in Anger’s research, having heard her speak at a conference prior to the publication of Victorian Interpretation (2005), which investigates Victorian preoccupations with interpretation in various areas of thought and social practice that still infuse modern interpretive theory and ethics today. Anger began her lecture by explaining her recent interest in psychological interpretations in Victorian novels, such as the manifestation of weather patterns as being related to a character’s internal feelings. However, as seen in several passages from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and traceable in the novelist’s own correspondence with Ellen Nussey regarding a weather front and her headache, it is apparent that Victorians also believed that the weather could influence their state of mind and physical experience. Interest in this and similar phenomenon was supported by the gatherings and publications of certain investigative societies, representing a blending of Gothic literary tropes with pseudoscience.

According to annual custom, the conference speakers and attendees, along with several LUC professors enjoyed a comfortable dinner and excellent conversation at the long communal board at Uncommon Ground after the main event concluded. Besides extending thanks to both Dr. Booth and Dr. Anger for their unflagging interest and contributions to the conference discussion throughout the day, LUCVS would like to acknowledge Dr. Micael Clarke, Dr. Melissa Bradshaw, Dr. Frederick Staidum, and Dr. Priyanka Jacob for their invaluable advice and frequent, enthusiastic support of the conference. Also, we must express overwhelming gratitude to our sponsors, Dr. Paul Eggert, Martin J. Svaglic Chair of Textual Studies, the English Department, the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities, and the Writing Program. Additional photos of the event, along with the archived 2018 CFP, conference program, and poster can be viewed here.

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