Queer Gothic

Posted by maxfincher on March 14, 2011 in Dr Max Fincher, Guest Blog tagged with

What do we mean by ‘queer gothic’? And queering the gothic? Consider the following scene in Charles Maturin’s novel Fatal Revenge, published in 1808, between the valet Cyprian and his master, Ippolito, both of whom are, for want of a better word, ‘heterosexual’:

‘Imagine me her for a moment,’ said Cyprian, sinking at Ippolito’s feet, and hiding his face –

‘Imagine me her; give me one kiss.’

‘Enthusiastic boy.’

‘Give me but one, and her spirit shall depart, pleased and absolved.’ ‘Visionary, you do what you will with me; I never kissed one of my own sex before, but do what you will with me’

Half-blushing, half-pouting, he offered his red lip. Cyprian touched it and fainted.

As the story turns out, Cyprian is in fact a woman. The kiss between two men in Fatal Revenge is safely defused. But in the above passage, we can find a handful of the issues that help us to define queering the gothic: the homosocial, imagination, suspicion, transgendering, and the question of ‘evidence’. As far as current biographers know, Charles Maturin, now remembered for his novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) was not attracted to his own sex. Yet this scene in Fatal Revenge might lead us to suspect that Maturin might have envisioned the possibility of feeling desire for another man. Similar to Melmoth the Wanderer when he is imprisoned in a Spanish monastery, we can risk suspecting friendship for desire:

Some time after, a young novice entered the convent. From the moment he did so, a change the most striking took place in the young monk. He and the novice became inseparable companions – there was something suspicious in that. My eyes were on the watch in a moment […] Friendship is often carried to excess in conventual life, but this friendship was too like love. (Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, Vol. II, ch. ix, p.205)

Many of the writers of the first phase of the Gothic (1764-1824) were probably what we might describe today as ‘queer’, mainly because their sexuality resists any stable definition. In almost all of their biographies, there is no conclusive ‘evidence’ for us to ‘find’ out. Not least because for their to be any proof that Walpole, Beckford, Lewis, Byron and Francis Lathom were what we call today queer would have meant almost certain death in the pillory or by hanging. Like Caleb Williams coming across Falkland’s locked trunk in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), early biographers seemed to risk biographical and literary criticism imitating gothic art, trying to discover the secret of the author’s sexuality and where and how this manifested itself in their writing:

Some definitions are needed here. ‘Queer’ has a much broader definitional scope than simply ‘homosexual’, or even ‘gay’. ‘Homosexual’ and its companion term ‘heterosexual’ are coinages by nineteenth-century psychiatry that were used to describe socially-identifiable types, defined solely through sexual practices. The two terms are pitted against one another as mutually exclusive. ‘Queer’, as a pejorative adjective, has been current since the sixteenth-century, and as a noun since the nineteenth. But with the rise of feminism, gay and lesbian political activism, and post-structuralist theory in the 1970-1990s, the term ‘queer’ was reclaimed. Queer could mean ‘the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, anyone’s sexuality aren’t (or can’t made to) signify monolithically (Sedgwick, Tendencies,1994). Or, in other words, writers (and literary texts) are not simply reducible to who they hop into bed with, and where we can find kisses between men or between women. Nor does male always mean masculine, and female, feminine. To be queer means to be (ex)centric; to destabilize any clear and neat distinctions about identity.

Cyprian asks Ippolito to ‘imagine’ him to be Ippolito’s female lover, in a moment of visionary transgendering. Cross-dressing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century (at private balls and masquerades for instance) was much more closely associated with expressing same-sex desire than it is perhaps today. One etymological root of ‘queer’ is from the German:quer, meaning ‘to cross’. Horace Walpole cross-dressed, as did Caroline Lamb, a woman of androgynous looks who perhaps thought to win Byron’s heart, knowing him to be bi-sexual, by visiting him dressed as a page boy.

Yet arguably, the Gothic novel reflects a deep anxiety in eighteenth-century culture about the changing status of masculinity and femininity in a period of political and social change. In The Monk for instance, despite Matilda ‘coming out’ to Ambrosio as a ‘woman’ we are never entirely sure if Matilda/Rosario is male or female, human or demon. When the character of Raymond is haunted by the phallic figure of the Bleeding Nun, The Monk shows how often in the gothic, men become the subject of a terrifying gaze, a metaphor for perhaps how men who desired other men in the eighteenth-century needed to constantly self-police themselves: ‘ My nerves were bound up in impotence, and I remained in the same attitude, inanimate as a Statue […] there was something petrifying in her regard.’ The ghost of the Nun, in all her ambiguous gender, is also visible only to Raymond, symbolizing the spectacle of the queer body in eighteenth-century and Romantic culture. Is he/she really a man or a woman? Visitors to the popular phantasmagoria shows (a kind of  early animated 3-D slide-show) in Paris and London could have experienced something of a similar effect to Raymond when presented with the image of a very masculine-looking Bleeding Nun:

In terms of how the Gothic envisions the possibilities of love and desire between men at least, one of Sedgwick’s gaps might be the fact that Cyprian is valet to Ippolito the aristocrat, and Rosario (Matilda) novice to the abbot Ambrosio. Relationships of power between men (economically and socially), especially in the absence of women, offer the potential for expressions of desire that go beyond intense friendship but can also descend into exploitation. As social historian Rictor Norton has faithfully documented, many of the so-called working-class ‘molly houses’ (gay pubs) in London could also be the secret resorts of wealthy West-end gentleman, evidenced by a raid at the Vere Street tavern, Clare Market, in 1810, which threatened to expose a number of aristocratic men. Sedgwick’s concept of the ‘homosocial’ is particularly important to understanding how the male-dominated spaces and communities in the Gothic and eighteenth-century (the monastery, the court, the armed services, the academy, the sporting field etc.) operate. For Sedgwick, the ‘homosocial’ is a structure for how male power-relations and friendships work. Homosociality depends upon the repudiation of same-sex desire. Misogyny and effeminophobia triangulates ‘unspeakable’ desire between men. In other words, misogyny and/or homophobia, may be the flip side of the coin of desire between two men. A detail from Johann Zoffany’s, The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1773) as shown below may help to visualize these possibilities between men :

The standing figure represents the flamboyant artist, Richard Cosway, ‘the Maccaroni miniaturist’, an artist who fashioned himself as a quintessential eighteenth-century gentleman and collector. The ‘Macaroni’s were foppish, fashionable gentleman, whose gender and sexuality are less than stable: There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately [1770] started up among us. It is called a macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, it wenches without passion. Cosway’s arm extends to the semi-nude unidentified male model who looks directly out at the viewer. Does he have a knowing secretive expression? From the top of the young man’s shoulder, Cosway’s cane descends almost directly into the private parts of a sculpture, probably a Venus de Milo, the top of which touches Cosway’s calf, forming the triangular composition of this part of the painting. The young model’s body is dramatically lit, while the Venus is in shadow, abject on the floor. Cosway was married to Maria Cosway, and renowned for his boasts about his sexual prowess, even if this was ‘wenching without passion’. But could Zoffany be pointing more generally towards another sexual dynamic here, between that of the rich artist or patron and the penniless model? Considering that the life drawing room of the Royal Academy was a homosocial space where only men were permitted to gaze upon and draw paid nude male models, many from the poorer parts of London, it is not an inconceivable to make the leap that there is an erotic economy at play.

To return to the Gothic, a darker kind of economic-erotic exchange takes place in William Beckford’s oriental-gothic novel Vathek (1786). In exchange for secret knowledge and limitless wealth, the caliph ruler, Vathek , agrees to sacrifice fifty boys to the ‘Giaour’, an Islamic version of the devil. The Giaour appears to Vathek in the form of a monstrous Indian traveller, a person who confounds masculinity/femininity, human/supernatural:

The Giaour asks that Vathek has to pick out ‘the most beautiful sons of thy vizirs and great men’ (p.42). The boys that Vathek literally pushes into a bottom(less) gulph have been gazed upon by Vathek, studied, admired, and chosen, not unlike the perfectly ‘Greek’ models found by the scouts at the Royal Academy. The narrator suggests that how looking is, by itself, akin to erotic and/or sexual pleasure: ‘The fifty competitors were soon stripped, and presented to the admiration of the spectators the suppleness and grace of their limbs’ (p.43). The pleasure reaches its climatic moment with Vathek positioned like a kind of pimp, serving the Giaour the spectacle and commodity of the boy’s bodies:

The Caliph, in the meanwhile, undressed himself by degrees; and, raising his arm as high as he was able, made each of the prizes glitter in the air; but, whilst he delivered it, with one hand, to the child, who sprung forward to receive it, he with the other, pushed the innocent into the gulph, where the Giaour, with a sullen muttering, incessantly repeated: ‘more! more!’ (p.44)

Finally, in Byron’s poem, The Giaour (1813) itself strongly influenced by Vathek, explores the nature of the gaze between men as both a means to convey desire and circumscribe it, in a story that is to all appearances about ‘heterosexual’ adultery. Like Caleb secretly watching Falkland, the narrator feels a thrill in secretly watching the mysterious monk Caloyer:

Dark and unearthly is the scowl,

That glares beneath his dusky cowl;

The flash of that dilating eye,

Reveals too much of times gone by;

Though varying, indistinct its hue,

Oft will his glance the gazer rue,

For in it lurke that nameless spell,

Which speaks, itself unspeakable,

A spirit yet unquell’d and high. (ll.831-40)

Caloyer’s gaze embodies a paradox for the narrator. The gaze both ‘reveals too much of times gone by’, yet also speaks ‘the ‘unspeakable’. One such connotation of ‘the unspeakable’ was ‘the sin not to be named among Christians’, and yet simultaneously to be so publicly and visibily watched out for and punished. The ‘nameless spell’ might be that of sexual attraction and recognition via the gaze, at once liberating but also dangerous. The gaze between men in gothic fiction becomes a metaphor for a cultural vigilance and paranoia in the late eighteenth century over both queer bodies and desires, and the parameters of relationships between men and between women. As the effeminized hero-narrator Caleb reflects when he finally discovers Falkland’s ‘secret’:

I was his prisoner: and what a prisoner! All my actions observed; all my gestures marked. I could move neither to the right nor the left, but the eye of my keeper was upon me. He watched me; and his vigilance was a sickness to my heart (p.143).


William Beckford, Vathek and Other Stories ed. by Malcolm Jack (London: Penguin, 1995)

James Fenton, School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2006)

Max Fincher, Queering Gothic in the Romantic Age: the penetrating eye (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

George Gordon, Lord Byron, Selected Poems ed. by Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning (London: Penguin, 1996)

William Godwin, Caleb Williams ed. by David McCracken (Oxford: OUP, 1982)

George Haggerty, Queer Gothic (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006)

William Hughes and Andrew Smith (eds.) Queering the Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009)

Anne-Marie Jagosé, Queer Theory: an introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1996)

Matthew Lewis, The Monk ed. by Howard Anderson (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

Charles Maturin, Fatal Revenge ed. by Julian Cowley (Washington: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994)

Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer ed. by Douglas Grant (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

McCormick, Ian, Secret Sexualities: a sourcebook of 17th and 18th century writing (London: Routledge, 1994)

Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: the gay subculture in England, 1700-1830 (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The Chalford Press, 2006)

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)

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