Monica Germana, Scottish Women’s Gothic and Fantastic Writing

Posted by Neil Syme on January 13, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Monica Germana. Scottish Women’s Gothic and Fantastic Writing.

Edinburgh University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7486-3764-5

Reviewed by Neil Syme, University of Stirling

Scottish Women's and Fantastic WritingFocusing on Gothic and fantastic elements within the literature of Scottish women authors from the late 1970’s onwards, Monica Germana’s new book provides an innovative interpretation of ‘the state of the nation’ in literary terms. In the last three decades, and particularly following the 1999 establishment of the devolved Scottish Parliament, Germana detects a refocusing or questioning of the issue of Scottish identity, particularly in the nation’s literature. While recent Scottish literature may at times seem typified by a white, male, working-class ethos in the likes of Kelman, Warner, and Welsh, Germana traces an ‘other’ literature which questions the authenticity of such a singular vision. Fantasy and the Gothic loom large in the works she discusses, albeit often in new and remarkable forms.

Initially identifying the associations between Scottish writing and the fantastic or uncanny, as reflected in the influential work of earlier authors such as Hogg and Stevenson, and present more recently in, for example, Gray’s Lanark, Germana goes on to demonstrate how modern women writers have utilised such tropes to new and unfamiliar ends. Germana locates and explores a correlation between the marginalisation of nationality, gender and genre – thus, the marginalised genres of Gothic and fantasy writing are ideal modes of expression for female authors who often seem to hold a ‘secondary’ position to their male counterparts, within a nation already in some senses confounded by its colonially ‘subordinate’ status. Her investigation is heavily theory-based, and Germana introduces colonial, feminist and post-structural theory with a deftness of touch, informing her arguments smoothly and effectively.  Initially identifying theories of ‘peripheral’ nationhood through the work of Homi Bhabha and, closer to home, Cairns Craig, one of the purposes of the book is to recognise and embrace multiplicity – of nation, of culture, and of literature. “[I]f it is accepted that tradition is not a static corpus but an organic body”, Germana states, “then the fluctuating borders of national identity will be open to heterogeneous contributions of gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity” (p.7). To this end, she identifies an ‘alternative’ canon of authors with widely differing links to Scottish ‘national’ culture. Along with those born and remaining in Scotland (Ellen Galford, A.L. Kennedy, Alice Thomson, Elspeth Barker), Germana welcomes English-born authors (Kate Atkinson, Margaret Elphinstone and Sian Hayton) , and Scottish authors who spent much of their lives outwith the country, (Alison Fell, Muriel Spark, Ali Smith and Emma Tennant). The author accepts that each has a differing but genuine claim to ‘nationhood’ and, as she puts it, to “exposing the unauthentic foundations of national identity” (p.7).

Working within, or using elements of the fantasy genre, Germana argues, offers women writers the ability to expose the falsities and contradictions inherent in any singular ‘unified’ reading of the world, or of personal experience, and to express ideas of confliction and ambiguity in the female mind. Given the Scottish propensity for fantasy and the Gothic, the authors she discusses have a rich history to adapt, reimagine or subvert to their own narrative strategies. The Gothic, with its recurrent themes of alienation, disposession and disintegration, and accompanying feelings of dread, revulsion and threat, seems a natural mode of expression for the marginalised author, while the fantastic effectively serves to disrupt and call into question accepted forms of reality. Germana centres her investigation on four key areas: the quest, dangerous women and witches, doubles, and ghosts.

The typical fantasy notion of the quest becomes representative of the inner journey towards self-realisation and fulfilment in Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and Hayton’s trilogy (Cells of Knowledge, Hidden Daughters, and The Last Flight). The notion of an ‘otherworld’ and the liminal boundaries between places persists from the Scottish ballad and folk tradition, as well as, in Elphinstone’s case, the Scandinavian sagas; here the concept further reflects the thematic undercurrents of marginalised feminine subjectivity.

In the chapter on the ‘female monster’, Germana notes, the witch figure symbolises the “simultaneous embodiment of female marginalisation and feminist subversion” (p.17). While not a uniquely Scottish theme, Scottish women authors have formed alternative approaches to the ‘traditional’ male dread of woman and of female sexuality. We encounter, for example, the complex interaction between sexuality, gender, religion and ethnicity in Galford’s satiric The Fires of Bride and Queendom Come. In the former, central character Mhairi’s stance against patriarchal conventions is galvanised by the discovery of a codex revealing the existence of a female goddess and twin sister of Christ, while Galford also probes the legitimacy or otherwise of long-standing so-called incomers to the fictional island of Cailleach, questioning notions of belonging. In this sense, her work carries resonances both for modern Scotland and for the place of women authors in the Scottish tradition.

The double being perhaps the most recognisably Scottish of ‘Gothic’ tropes, often associated with G.G. Smith’s ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ and the notion of Scotland as the colonised ‘other’, Germana nevertheless takes her investigation into hitherto underexplored areas. While the influence of Hogg and Stevenson is rightfully acknowledged, the mirror-image or divided self is a potent symbol used by several authors covered here. The Scottish landscape itself is divided in Fell’s The Bad Box, which juxtaposes a magical ‘highland’ with a more ‘realist’ lowland border, while Hayton’s The Governors deals with a more literal fracturing of the self through a narrative which may be read on psychological and supernatural levels. The double, Germana persuasively argues, demonstrates “complex notions of national and cultural affiliation”, while it simultaneously “articulates preoccupations with a schizoid feminine subjectivity and binary gender definitions” (102).

Germana’s chapter on ghosts or the revenant is equally strong; in linking Scottish folklore and hauntings with postmodernist and post-structuralist theory, the author finds a twentieth century motif which “crucially signifies the overcoming of structuralist dualism” (p.17-18). The phantoms employed in the works of Barker, Kennedy, Smith and Thomson are very different ‘hauntings’ in terms of what they might signify, be it the constraints of patriarchal structures, hidden or repressed sexuality or a dichotomy between female body and mind. However, they are ultimately shown to reflect the liminal status of the ‘other’ which Germana has articulately evinced throughout the work.

The book is written lucidly and coherently, Germana grounding her findings in a wide-reaching theoretical framework which gives her work broad and appreciable cultural resonance. While each individual text is generally only afforded a few pages of succinct discussion, Germana achieves an impressive depth and scope of analysis.  Appraising the first decade of the 21st century, the author regards a Scottish literature which is both utilising localised hybrid Gothic forms, and pushing out to explore alienation and psychological ambiguity in a wider global context, but at all times raising questions of identity. The book has much to offer in its interwoven discussion of the place of fantasy and the Gothic in modern Scottish writing, and Germana’s interpretation of a multiform female tradition, disrupting unitary notions of Scottish literary and cultural nationality, is both enlightening and significant.

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