Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Riffs: Secularizing the Uncanny in the European Imaginary, 1780-1820

Posted by Steven Craig on February 16, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Diane Long Hoeveler (2010).  Gothic Riffs: Secularizing the Uncanny in the European Imaginary, 1780-1820. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

ISBN13 978-0-8142-1131-1

Reviewed by Steven Craig, University of Stirling

Diane Long Hoeveler’s new monograph, Gothic Riffs, comes during a fruitful period for scholars of the so-called ‘first wave’ of Gothic writing.  While the Gothic’s investment in Foucauldian new historicism continues to yield new readings of canonical writers such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe – for instance, Dale Townshend’s The Orders of Gothic (2007) – and while specialist publishing presses (Udolpho, Zittaw and Valancourt) uncover new romance texts by hitherto unknown authors, Hoeveler offers an extended analysis of what she terms the Gothic’s ‘riffs’ (opera, gothic drama, melodrama, ballads and chapbooks) in an effort to argue that the Gothic repeatedly manifested an ongoing tension between the transcendent world of spirits and the immanent rational bourgeois world of ‘human flourishing’ (a tension described by Hoeveler, following Charles Taylor, as ‘ambivalent secularization’).  But while she gives due critical attention to writers ranging from Wordsworth to the chapbook author Sarah Wilkinson, the achievement of Gothic Riffs lies in its author’s ability to synthesise new research with a highly nuanced, yet accessible, theoretical knowledge.

In other words, Hoeveler’s monograph embodies the dual focus that has become the prerequisite to the publication of monographs today.  But Gothic Riffs is particularly noteworthy in its refusal to rest on the mere lifting of critical theoretical concepts.  As the subtitle suggests, the book is partly concerned with modifying key critical (and decidedly Gothic) concepts from Freudian psychoanalysis and Althusserean Marxism.  For instance, if the Freudian uncanny is vested with its own agency which marks itself by the eruption of strangeness in the familiar, the secular uncanny embraces and appropriates the transcendent and the immanent in the same performed space in a manner that gives a degree of priority to the heterogeneous values of authors and consumers of the Gothic.  In her appraisal of the term ‘imaginary’, Hoeveler champions Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) as an alternative to Louis Althusser’s conception of ideology as the ‘imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (10); while Althusser envisages the subject’s passivity in light of his/her inability to escape from ideology, Taylor’s contention that individuals actively participate in the production and sustaining of ideology chimes with Hoeveler’s conviction that the Gothic intentionally dramatises the ‘painful’ cultural shift from the world of spirits, and the attendant Catholic belief in being rewarded in the afterlife, to the Protestant-inflected drive for perfection in the mortal realm (15).

At the same time, Taylor is not immune from the author’s scrutiny. Taylor argues that two competing subjectivities existed during the late eighteenth century: the ‘porous’ self, which lay unprotected from the world of spirits and emotional excess, and the ‘buffered’ self whose incredulity effectively banished the need for supernatural agents.  Hoeveler, by contrast, rejects the binary logic of Taylor’s argument, and argues that the Gothic’s presentation of both subjectivities at the same time invests its audiences with the ability to choose between the two.  Her argument is especially persuasive when she foregrounds the issue of social class in the chapbooks of Sarah Wilkinson, whose redactions of earlier Gothic romances appealed to literate lower class audiences whose inclusion in the new bourgeois economy was by no means assured.  We are informed that Wilkinson’s chapbooks display distinctly Catholic spectral-paternal calls for vengeance against tyrant uncles at the same time as they inculcate morality in the visited; as Hoeveler concludes, ‘uncanny, animistic beliefs are not eliminated in the lower-class imaginary, but in fact are placed before the reading public as but one choice among many in the pursuit of “human flourishing”’ (222).

The ambitious scope of the book is exemplified not only by the delicate balancing of research and theoretical insight, but by its commitment to reading early Gothic texts as part of a wider European phenomenon; as such, it can be grouped with recent and ongoing scholarly projects such as Horner and Zlosnik’s Le Gothic (2008) and Angela Wright’s forthcoming work on the ‘import of terror’ from France to Britain during the Romantic period.  In the case of Gothic Riffs, the ‘painful’ transition to rationality can be read across a number of literary, theatrical and operatic modes across the European imaginary.

In chapter one, ‘Gothic Mediations: Shakespeare, the Sentimental, and the Secularization of Virtue’, Hoeveler offers an innovative reading of the eighteenth-century cult of ‘Sensibility’ as torn between the opposing impulses of porous and buffered subjectivities.  While sensibility is (rightly) understood as a middle-class ideology that detects essential virtue through the tears of sentimental heroes and heroines, contemporary appropriations of Shakespeare’s King Lear continue to throw up the ‘spectre’ of the porous self via scenes of emotional excess that belie secular virtue.  Texts such as Amelia Opie’s The Father and Daughter (1801) confront the prospect that modern constructions of virtue necessarily contain within themselves the possibility of failure by dramatising a father’s Lear-like descent into madness via his daughter’s illicit sexuality.  But the European dimension, represented by Fernando Pear’s 1809 opera Agnes de Fitzhenry, provides the case for a kind of international dialogue that negotiates modern subjectivity via Handel’s oratorio Deborah; while Opie’s text uses Deborah to foreground the reality of excessively passionate daughters and unforgiving fathers, Pear’s recourse to Handel provides a bourgeois corrective which reconfigures ‘the Old Testament patriarch’ as a ‘forgiving Christ-figure, a shepherd seeking his lost lambs…’ (69).  The foregrounding of such dialogue suggests that Hoeveler is alert to the burgeoning interest in literary appropriation as a textual practice worthy of critical attention but which has been obscured by poststructuralist accounts of ‘the text’ (Roland Barthe’s idea of ‘intertextuality’ as a set of unconscious textual collisions comes to mind).  Indeed, the bibliography cites two recent works on the subject of the Gothic’s appropriation of Shakespeare’s plays: Drakakis and Townshend’s Gothic Shakespeares (2008) and Desmet and Williams’s Shakespearean Gothic (2009).

Subsequent chapters, then, accommodate the vast range of topics outlined above – aspects of the European, the uncanny, the imaginary, the inscription of virtue, appropriation, the recovery of marginalized authors and texts… – , and yet, the organization of Hoeveler’s material into chapters devoted to each of the Gothic’s ‘riffs’ means that the vastness of the book adds, rather than detracts, to its overall clarity.  While the first two chapters explore opera, chapter three examines the Gothic drama and its indebtedness to mainland European innovations in technologies that lent themselves especially well to the stage.  As Hoeveler argues, Matthew Lewis’s The Castle Spectre (1797) can be brought to bear the legacy of the camera obscura and the magic lantern, which culminated in the onstage spectre whose absence/presence pulled its audiences back to an earlier transcendent realm at the same time as it exorcized Gothic villainy as part of its agenda to usher the victim-heroine into the realm of human flourishing (128).  Chapter four considers the European inflection in light of the plays of Thomas Holcroft, whose plays Deaf and Dumb (1801) and A Tale of Mystery (1802) imported the then-new mode of melodrama into Britain.  The book’s central concern with the oscillation between porous and buffered subjectivities recurs in the figure of the mute, whose skills in literacy secured him against papal superstition, a point that would have chimed with the literate lower and middle classes who were increasingly attuned to the importance of reading scriptures free from the force of Catholic dogma (148).

Although Hoeveler is concerned with the recuperation of underexamined texts, chapter five applies the European lens to recent scholarship of canonical Romantic writers as themselves profoundly indebted to the Gothic (for example, Robert Miles’s chapter on ‘Gothic Wordsworth’ in Romantic Misfits).  It carries the book’s argument into the importation of Germanic gothic ballads dealing with the subject of sacrifice into England, and audaciously (yet also successfully) considers Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ as an adaptation of Gottfried August Burger’s ‘Lenora’; following Miles, Hoeveler acknowledges that the poem obscures the story of the real Martha Ray, the mistress of John Montagu and mother of five children who was murdered by the obsessive James Hackman in 1779.  But the European influence reveals more than Miles’s account of the Gothic Wordsworth, for it displays the cultural work of appropriation in practice; for Hoeveler, Wordsworth’s depiction of Martha Ray as an infanticide akin to Burger’s eponymous character shows an excess that even the buffered self cannot manage, that testifies to the force of the transcendent world despite Wordsworth’s use of a sceptical narrator in order to undermine the significance Ray’s ghostly echoes.

It is in the final chapter, ‘The Gothic Chapbook: The Class-based Circulation of the Unexplained Supernatural’, that Gothic Riffs proves to be at its most innovative, not least because of the dearth of scholarship in the genre.  As in the preceding chapters, Hoeveler argues the ‘ambivalent secularization’ remains at the core of the production and reception of the bluebook, a genre borne out for the demand for fairytales across Europe.  Although she surveys a selection of texts by Sarah Wilkinson, her account of Wilkinson’s redaction of Lewis’s The Castle Spectre is of greater pertinence to the monograph as a whole: in the first instance, Wilkinson’s chapbook is likely to be of interest to those interested in the adaptation and appropriation of canonical Gothic texts; second, the chapbook’s repetition of Lewis’s spectre appeals to a lower class readership, whose experience of the spectre defers their entrance into modernity.  Although Hoeveler’s point is implicit, the text’s protagonists appear as the ideal form of Wilkinson’s readership, for they prefer the pastoral landscape and willingly refuse the spectral invitation to join the bourgeois economy (227).

If some readers view Gothic Riffs as relentlessly repetitive in its argument, it is only because it addresses a subject that relied heavily on repetition as a strategy that sought to achieve the goal of ‘human flourishing’.  In fact, the author’s study of such repetition proves compelling, especially as it buttresses her commitment to including literary modes that had previously been denounced as derivative and therefore unworthy of critical attention.  Moreover, it is encouraging to read Hoeveler articulate her personal drive to continue questioning previous critical assumptions about the early Gothic’s ‘collateral’ genres; in her preface, she reveals that her next project will culminate in a monograph on the chapbook (I understand that the working title of the book is The British Gothic Chapbook and the Anti-Catholic Campaign, 1780-1830), thus continuing the work featured in the final chapter of her current monograph.  Gothic Riffs is essential reading for scholars in the first wave of Gothic writing and in Romanticism, but it deserves the attention of all Gothic scholars, who might be surprised by the fact that the Gothic infiltrated many modes and genres long before the ubiquity of the Gothic today.

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