Tropical Gothic I

Posted by Daniel Sá on April 05, 2012 in Daniel Serravalle de Sa, Guest Blog tagged with

About the circulation of Gothic novels in Brazil in the C19th

The presence of British Gothic novels in Rio de Janeiro can be substantiated by catalogue entries and book listings from institutions such as Gesellschaft Germânia (founded 1821), Rio de Janeiro British Subscription Library (1826), Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (1837), and Biblioteca Fluminense (1847), which served as sites for reading and borrowing books throughout the nineteenth century. Such records are quite remarkable, not so much in terms of numbers, given that the reading public was small, but rather in terms of the array of titles and novelists on offer: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, William Beckford, Regina Maria Roche, Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith, Mary Shelley, William Godwin, Sophia Lee, Matthew Lewis, among others – not to mention the potential existence of Gothic fiction in bluebooks, journals, magazines and abridgments of full-length novels that have since disappeared without a trace. These ‘Gothic’ catalogue entries are part of a larger body of British literature that was circulating in Brazil in the nineteenth century (see Vasconcelos).
During its colonial period, Brazil was virtually uncharted territory as far as print and reading culture were concerned. All literary material was subject to governmental censorship, there was a reduced number of booksellers in the country, and the lack of a local press and universities were structural predicaments that hindered the circulation of printed material. It was only in 1808, when Napoleon marched over Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro unexpectedly became the capital of the Portuguese Empire, that the circulation of books and other printed material intensified as a result of a treaty opening Brazilian ports to trade with foreign nations, which meant mostly Britain. At the time, about two centuries of fiction was made available in tandem for Brazilian readers and aspiring writers alike. Hence, Roberto Schwarz’s statement that “the novel had existed in Brazil before there were any Brazilian novelists” (41).
In spite of this state of affairs, France was still the intellectual and artistic model to be followed, leaving to Britain the role of the industrialised but culturally sterile partner, or so it was believed. Until the 1990s there was not much evidence as to the existence of British novels arriving in Brazil. Therefore, it was not unusual for Brazilian historians, critics, and cultural commentators to deem irrelevant their impact on local writers, let alone that of Gothic novels. However, more recent studies such as Caminhos do Romance demonstrate that a considerable number of novels that circulated in Rio de Janeiro in the nineteenth century were in fact British, and many of those were Gothic novels. Their true identity was concealed behind uncharacteristic Portuguese or French titles such as O Subterrâneo ou Matilda (Lisbon, 1806), in fact The Recess by Sophia Lee; Amanda e Oscar, ou história da família de Dunreath (Lisbon, 1823) actually The Children of the Abbey by Maria Regina Roche; Adelina e Theodoro, ou a Abadia de Saint Clair (Lisbon, 1838), in effect The Romance of the Forest, probably translated into Portuguese via French edition La Forêt, ou l’Abbaye de Saint-Clair – these novels were often translated first into French and then into Portuguese. Harold Streeter’s brief chapter on the Gothic novel in French translation is an informative read that can illuminate some particular aspects of this three-legged journey: London-Paris-Lisbon-Rio.

About the period of formation of the novel genre in Brazil (Gothic borrowings)

The arrival of the Portuguese royal court in 1808 brought significant structural and cultural developments. With the foundation of Imprensa Régia (Royal Press) that same year, newly formed typographers started printing Brazil’s first newspapers, and after the suspension of censorship in 1821, there was a greater influx of books and periodicals started arriving in the country. This helped to change the scenario of cultural isolation that had prevailed throughout colonial times. However, Brazil was by large lagging behind other South America countries such as Peru, whose first university was chartered in 1551, and Mexico and Argentina, who had royal permission to develop a local print culture since 1770s – a sign of two distinct approaches to colonization in Portuguese and Spanish America.
The novel genre emerged in Brazil from 1820s onwards, amidst political deliberations about republicanism and federalism, uprisings in the provinces and great social unrest in the cities. Then the flourishing Brazilian novel became an important vehicle for debates about national identity that expressed resistance towards the foreign, aggrandized Nature and, in Rousseauesque fashion, represented the Amerindian subject as symbolic of the nation – as general examples of historical romance paradigms that echo the novels of Chateaubriand and Walter Scott. The adoption of these paradigms served to overcome problems related to narrative form and procedures from previous writers. However, the Brazilian novel had still not fully responded to its social and historical processes i.e. adequately combined artistic representation and local context, a task which would eventually be accomplished by Machado de Assis later in the century. Robert Schwarz calls these early maladjustments ‘misplaced ideas’ or when abstractions fail to represent the processes to which they refer.
In the case of Gothic novels, it seems that early Brazilian novelists have absorbed, by means of the adaptation of literary forms and narrative strategies, a repertoire of images and conventions linked to the representation of villainy and discourses of demonization. The descriptions of cannibalism and necrophilia in Álvares de Azevedo’s A Night at the Tavern (1855) and the presence of a vicious Italian priest in José de Alencar’s novel The Guarany (1857) are arguably cultural-material examples of  late eighteenth-century British Gothic novels (this fiction based on mysteries, terror and melodrama) serving as models for aspiring writers and contributing to the process of formation and consolidation of the novel genre in Brazil.


Caminhos do Romance no Brasil – séculos XVIII e XIX. 4 April 2012. <>
Schwarz, Roberto.”The Importing of the Novel to Brazil and Its Contradictions in the Work of Alencar.” Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture. Edited by John Gledson. London: Verso, 1992. 41-77. Print.
Streeter, Harold Wade. The Eighteenth English Novel in French Translation. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972.
Vasconcelos, Sandra G.T. “Romances ingleses em circulação no Brasil durante o séc. XIX.” Universidade Estadual de Campinas. Web. 4 April 2012. <>

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