Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London

Posted by Honora Wilson on May 17, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-230-57753-4

Reviewed by Honora Wilson, University of Edinburgh

The word Gothic evokes horrifying images of ruined castles, vengeful ghosts, murderous maniacs and helplessly imprisoned heroines. But in Sara Wasson’s fine study, Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London, there is no crumbling house of Usher, no supernatural forces and no madmen kidnapping damsels. Instead, the Gothic space of incarceration is the blitzed city of London and its war-torn factories, psychiatric hospitals and homes. In the works Wasson examines, everyday objects become uncanny and humanity’s staggering capacity for violence is revealed to be far more haunting than ghosts. Most significantly, in this study it is patriarchal home-front narratives of nationhood that inscribe individuals and exclude the Other as effectively as any crumbling mansion but which are no less destructive for their intangibility.

Wasson’s project is to carve out a niche in Gothic criticism, previously overlooked, for an examination of literature and art of World War II London. She examines several artists, the best known of which is novelist Graham Greene, but also among them English novelist Henry Green, artist and author Anna Kavan who due to heroin addiction and depression spent time in a sanatorium, Irish author Elizabeth Bowen and English poet and artist Mervyn Peake. Although Wasson does not explicitly provide context for why these artists were chosen over others, from these diverse works about World War II London she extracts a commonality: their use of Gothic tropes of horror, imprisonment and paranoia. In critically examining these works as Gothic, Wasson continues a trend in Gothic criticism, traceable to the early 19th century, to expand the traditional definition of the genre to include not only ghosts and castles but also work in which the relationship between the self and time and space, the self and sanity and the self and the Other (whether supernatural or no) are viewed through and interrogated by moments of “terror, anguish, paranoia or a perverse emotional deadness” (Wasson 2). Wasson’s carefully researched and compelling critical examination of these works not only unites them in their use of Gothic tropes to crack or dissolve the boundaries between self and not-self but also in their profound discomfort with dominant World War II home-front narratives of nationhood, gender roles and “normal” or “healthy” psychological relationship with trauma and the tendency of these narratives to damage, exclude and destroy any non-conforming experience or individual.

Although a meticulously researched work of literary criticism, Wasson’s book is also highly readable and intellectually engaging without being overly technical or weighed down with critical jargon. Her engagement with other critics, from Freud to Lacan to Sedgwick, is always pertinent, clearly explained and insightfully applied. The book’s introduction is particularly strong, arguing that World War II London is a rich environment for Gothic narrative and thoroughly explicating the “dominant national mythology of British survival and emotional resilience” (Wasson 1) which her chosen texts interrogate. For Wasson, the blitzed and blacked-out city of London has existed as a site of unified defiance in the popular mind; a more accurate reading of the city under siege is a site of Gothic threats made literal. With its crumbling buildings always threatening to bury residents alive, its dark, labyrinthine streets and the constant threat of human carnage, London of the Second World War is a site of trauma. But this experience of trauma has been written out of the government’s home-front discourse. Wasson examines texts that insist upon an experience of London, as well as the particular locales of mental institutions, factories and homes, as sites of trauma, alienation, imprisonment and abjection.

Her discussion of the texts of Henry Green, Anna Kavan, Inez Holden and Elizabeth Bowen demonstrate particularly convincingly how the authors see such imprisoning locales, far from bringing people together, as alienating individuals from each other and themselves. In doing so, these texts, among them Green’s Caught and Kavan’s collection of short stories I Am Lazarus, fracture the myth of collective heroic defiance that subsumes such traumatic experiences into a narrative of national unity and healing. Wasson convincingly argues that these texts, along with Holden’s Night Shift and the Peake’s war poetry in Shapes and Sounds, not only insist upon our critical examination of the home-front camaraderie narratives of World War II but also demand the examination of all such grand narratives as potentially damaging and exclusionary.

In some instances Wasson’s critical examination feels less cohesive to her central thematic argument. Her discussion of Mervyn Peake, for example, is much more concerned with how his insistence on how death silences the voices of its victims opposes writing and art which gave voice to World War II casualties to support patriotic narratives than it is with situating Peake within a Gothic context. But the tangential focus of this particular discussion, far from undermining Wasson’s project, instead points to the greatest strength of her work: far from being a definitive critical examination, Wasson effectively opens the field of Gothic studies of World War II London for further critical discussion. Wasson generally maintains her focus on the Gothic but her references, often necessarily brief, to post-colonial criticism, feminist criticism and gender studies, psychoanalytic criticism, psychology of capitalism and media and communication studies provide an opening for more specific and thorough critical examinations.

Overall, Wasson has achieved what a sound critical study aims to: an original, informed and challenging analysis of many artists of World War II London and an opening for further excavation and insight. Finally, the success of Wasson’s examination of how deceptive and destructive the Second World War home-front narratives were suggests the need for an equally compelling discussion beyond the parameters of London and World War II. Her book is disturbingly pertinent to the cultural discussion of the many national and global disasters that have occurred in the past decade and which are consistently written into patriotic national narratives of heroism and healing. The national narratives we are in the process of writing may be—like the Gothic castles of old—destructive, dangerous and, ultimately, dehumanizing.

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