Review of Matthew Gibson’s The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution

Posted by Dale Townshend on August 23, 2014 in Reviews tagged with

The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution.
By Matthew Gibson.
Cardiff: University of Wales Press, drugs 2013.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2572-8

Reviewed by Scott Brewster

Matthew Gibson’s study, part of the University of Wales Press Gothic Literary Studies series, examines the development of the fantastic in post-Napoleonic France, an area hitherto paid relatively scant attention by Anglophone critics. Gibson draws on critical work in German and French to restore the reputation of neglected figures such as Charles Nodier and Paul Féval, who deploy the fantastic and the Gothic to reject the Revolution, materialism and scepticism. These writers contend that ‘the terror and horror of the Gothic can result from embracing, rather than reneging upon, Enlightenment principles’ (188). For Gibson, this innovation ‘is perhaps the greatest achievement of the French frénétique or Gothic, since it completely subverts the values and generic expectations represented in the British Gothic novel or earlier “roman noir”’ (6).

After 1815, a distinctive French fantastic, stimulated by a new appetite for imaginative and exotic literature (sometimes coined the frénétique), blended the German Sturm und Drang with the picaresque and ‘merveilleux’ pioneered by Lewis, Byron, Scott and Maturin in order to break the conventions of classicism. Gibson identifies significant formal differences between this fantastique and Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of the term. Todorov’s division between natural and supernatural modes also has little to do with the initial French reception of E. T. A. Hoffmann, a writer who moves, without hesitation, between naturalist and supernatural modes. For French critics, the bizarreness and absurdity that Scott had noted in Hoffmann’s work was its great advantage; the use of the marvellous and the uncanny could evade the laws of nature and the strictures of realism, and was often an ‘attempt to present political, aesthetic and ethical ideas metaphorically’ (3).

Gibson first turns to Nodier, a theorist and writer who played a major role in the rise of the fantastic in France. Nodier rejected the ideas of Voltaire and Diderot, arguing that an interest in materialism and the exclusion of the supernatural ‘only occurs because man has ceased to observe the external world properly, and has assumed that it is governed by abstract laws’ (30). Nodier began his career as an entomologist but, from the outset, the scientist and the fantasist collide in his thought. In his Bibliographie entomologique (1801), confronted by competing taxonomical classifications and, by implication, different models of evolution, Nodier seeks a guide ‘in this maze of confused ideas and contradictory judgements’. In the ‘labyrinth of the sciences’ truth can be found in the imaginary, a conviction that shapes Nodier’s fiction in its questioning of scientific rationalism and the destructive failure of Enlightenment philosophy in the early Revolution and in Napoleonic France. Nodier’s challenge to science, refined through his stories, thus paves the way for ‘a later Gothic and frénétique literature that is counter-revolutionary in spirit, and which lays the blame for terror and horror upon the Enlightenment’ (35).

The translation into French of Scott’s essay on Hoffmann in 1827 helped to define the fantastic genre; Scott’s derisive comments on Hoffmann proved counterproductive, provoking a vigorous defence of the Prussian writer by the French audience. J. J. Ampère’s appreciation of Hoffmann noted the vivid and unexpected collision of the ‘touching and the frightening, the monstrous and burlesque’ (53), and Hoffmann’s appeal to readers in France – the blend of real-life settings and the absurd, the combination of the mystical and the familiar – was precisely what Scott condemned. In light of this positive reception, Gibson uses Hoffmann’s historical novella Das Fraulein von Scuderi, much less well-known than ‘The Sandman’, to exemplify the French fantastic. The story is set in reign of the Sun King, but is full of foreboding in its slaughter of aristocrats. Through its palimpsestic reference to the future revolutionary times, the story locates the incipient decline of the French monarchy in Louis XIV’s reign, becoming ‘an allegory for what will happen when the court’s values have degraded and when the bourgeois attitude to capital no longer accepts the pomp and luxury of a monarchy that wishes to reinforce its power through luxuriant displays of wealth, when it is really the labour-time of the skilled artisans and the bourgeoisie which facilitates this’ (72). Gibson then explores the influence of Hoffmann on Théophile Gautier’s work, especially the role of the double in Onuphrius and La Morte amoureuse, a vampire tale that, for all Gautier’s professed apoliticism, critiques the ‘drab, hypocritical and acquisitive culture’ of Louis-Philippe’s constitutional monarchy (92).

Two chapters are devoted to Féval’s novels La Vampire and Le Chevalier Ténèbre, which offer dangerous commentaries on the Revolution and on Napoleon III’s reign. Vampirism is closely associated with criminality and insatiable capitalist greed, and is the result of growing scepticism and materialism, the real ‘superstitions’ (135). In sharp contrast to established critical accounts of the literary vampire, which treat it as symptomatic of a bourgeois fear of the return of the ancien régime after Napoleon’s fall, Féval sees ‘the true gothic terror as the callousness unleashed by rationalism and then positivism, and its cure as a return to the age of Faith and a more spiritual understanding of the universe’ (109). It is the sickness of modernity, not the irrationalism and superstition of a Catholic past, which spawns the vampire. Gibson argues that Féval, a strong Bourbon supporter, has two reasons for deploying the figure of the vampire in the service of Legitimist interests. Firstly, it enables Féval to modify historical reality for moral realization and to reveal the unresolved conflicts in French history, in contrast to Scott’s conservative inclination for resolution. Crucially, the vampire can be reborn at a later time (as happens in La Vampire), meaning that history remains an active, unfinished (but also cyclical) process. Secondly, the vampire allegory also allows Féval to evade censorship; the use of stories within stories can at once present Napoleon III as the ‘vampire sublime’ and yet can also distance such an identification by treating it as merely part of a fantastic tale (127).

The dire consequences of the waning of Faith are more pronounced in Le Chevalier Ténèbre, which didactically proclaims the failure of aristocratic culture. The novel, set more closely to Féval’s own present, sees terror and horror as ‘resulting from losing rather than maintaining credulity towards the supernatural’, and not as an indulgent diversion from Enlightenment principles (137). The growth of scepticism has made people paradoxically less realist, with horror and terror treated as pure spectacle or theatricality. The novel’s vampire is located in Hungary, but this is used to symbolize the ‘degradation of Eastern Europe by the West’ (144), reversing the imperialist perspective that would be seen in Stoker’s Dracula. Féval situates the origin of contemporary malaise in Great Britain, with whom Napoleon III had recently signed a commercial treaty. Gibson reads this novel alongside Le Fanu’s ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’, another text concerned with the Restoration in France. For both writers, the implication is that the moral decline of aristocratic families makes the successful restoration of the Bourbon monarchy impossible. The nobility is as discredited as its bourgeois usurpers, ‘a grim codicil to Napoleon’s legacy’ (161).

The final chapter traces the ‘late, British articulation’ of this alternative Gothic tradition in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Olalla’ and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, insofar as these stories reject secular forms of liberal morality (such as Utilitarianism) that are too weak to counter contemporary evils. Only terror and horror, not enlightenment or social improvement, follow the abandonment of Christian and Calvinist morality. In ‘Olalla’, vampirism and degeneracy are intertwined, a degeneration that is theological, moral and biological. The story proposes a theory of hereditary decline ‘in which the immoral actions of former generations facilitates the later generation’s loss of reason and slavery to passions’ (175-6). Jekyll and Hyde suggests that there is nothing in secular morality or philanthropy to curb our ‘worse nature’ (184), and scientific curiosity only discloses new ills that it cannot redress. The narrative rehearses the late-nineteenth-century concern with the exploitation of the lower classes for pleasure, but here the villain is ‘the bourgeois man of professions rather than the aristocrat’, unlike W. T. Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ (187). As with Nodier and Féval, for the Francophile Stevenson ‘[t]here is, ultimately, no substitute for a society which sees man’s place in the universe through sacerdotal eyes’ (188).

Gibson demonstrates that dominant assumptions about the Gothic do not necessarily apply to the fantastic in France, which locates the source of terror in modern rationalism: only the return to an earlier spiritual order ‘would dissolve the demons’ (6). The relation of this tradition to Anglo-American Gothic, however, is not merely one of mutual incomprehension or antagonism, and Gibson’s book also serves to emphasise the strong continental influence on the development of the historical novel, and on the course of British and American Gothic more widely.

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