Aaron, Jane. Welsh Gothic.
In the years following the resurgence of interest in the Gothic that began in the 1970s and '80s, Gothic scholars have made a conscious effort to bring attention to lesser-known writers and works from the "Celtic fringe" of the British Isles--Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Jerrold Hogle's 2002 The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction includes a chapter on Scottish and Irish Gothic by David Punter, while more recently Jarlath Killeen and Monica Germana have brought a critical eye to Irish and Scottish Gothic works from the eighteenth century to the present. Though there have been some notable recent articles on Welsh Gothic literature by Andrew Davies and Elizabeth Edwards, comparatively less attention has been paid to the Gothic fictions of Wales. Jane Aaron's new study is the first book-length overview of Welsh Gothic literature as its own distinctive branch of the Gothic.
Aaron's purpose in writing this book is, as stated in the prologue, "to demonstrate the fact that Welsh Gothic writing exists in abundance and that it has much to tell us about the changing ways in which Welsh people have historically seen themselves and been perceived by others" (9). Aaron aims to give Welsh Gothic the recognition and cultural significance that until now it has not been accorded. Working with with both English- and Welsh-language texts, Aaron surveys works by Welsh, English, and even American authors. What these texts have in common is their depiction of Wales or the Welsh as Gothicized in some way, be it through depictions of haunted landscapes, family curses, or ancient terrors come back to roost.
Aaron takes a strongly historicist approach to this project, contextualizing the works studied within Welsh cultural history since the Enlightenment. Her methodology is also greatly colored by both postcolonial studies and psychoanalysis, as revealed in her argument that Welsh Gothic fictions frequently feature the uncanny revenge of repressed colonized Others. For example, Aaron shows how Victorian works like The Mountain Decameron by Joseph Downes, Elizabeth Gaskell's short story "The Doom of the Griffiths," and the verse drama "The Doom of the Prynnes" by Sarah Williams, depict Welsh families cursed by ancestral betrayal or abandonment of Wales in favor of the colonizing power, England. In these works, the sins of the fathers literally come crashing down on the heads of the sons and daughters, as exemplified by the transplanted Welsh tree that falls and kills the Anglicized Prynne children in Williams's poem. Aaron remarks that such texts portray the Welsh as "the living dead, doomed to extinction, and knowing it, while yet they live"(60). Moreover, they reflect the Welsh fears of "cultural death" (61) in the face of declining numbers of native Welsh speakers and suppression of Welsh cultural practices that had been going on for centuries, predating even the 1536 Act of Union between England and Wales (sanctioned by Henty VIII, the Act completed and codified the subjugation of Wales to England ).
Aaron's study is divided into two parts, bookended by a prologue and epilogue. "Part I: Haunted by History" is divided into four chapters, with each chapter chronologically devoted to several decades of Welsh Gothic works spanning the 1780s to 1997. The chapters are furthermore thematically organized around common approaches, concerns, and ideas taken up in the Gothic fictions of the respective historical periods.
The first two chapters, "Cambria Gothica (1780s-1820s)" and "An Underworld of One's Own (1830s--1900s)," focus on Romantic and Victorian-era Welsh Gothic texts. Many of the works discussed feature depictions of Wales or the Welsh as a Gothicized Other to England and the English. However, as Aaron reminds us, while English authors frequently Gothicized the Welsh, Welsh authors often did the same to the "invading English gentry" (5)--and indeed English nobles in works like William Earle's Welsh Legends are usually cast as Gothic villains. A significant portion of chapter 2 is also devoted to the most famous author of Welsh Gothic, Arthur Machen, whose works often feature ancient occult terrors unearthed in Wales. Though unlike many of the other authors studied in Welsh Gothic, Machen has not been neglected by literary scholars, Aaron's narrow focus on his Gothic fictions featuring Wales or Welsh narrators, and written before 1900, makes this section a welcome addition to Machen scholarship.
Chapters 3 and 4 cover the twentieth century up to 1997, the date of the second (successful) referendum on Welsh devolution (134). Chapter 3, "Haunted Communities (1900s-1940s)," explores texts that reveal a Gothicized heart of darkness within Welsh Nonconformist chapel culture. Chapter 3 also examines what Aaron intriguingly refers to as "Coalfield Gothic." This subgenre includes texts like the short story "The Pit" by Gwyn Jones, which deals with the terrifying Gothic trope of burial alive--only here rather than in a tomb, the burial occurs within a Welsh coal mine. Such works also underscore the exploitation of Wales as a colonized space, providing the colonizer with cheap labor and natural resources. Chapter 4, "The Land of the Living Dead (1940s-1997)," looks at Welsh "zombie culture" (118) in the second half of the twentieth century. In this subgenre, which includes a number of Welsh language novels by authors such as David Griffith Jones, ancient Welsh dead rise from their graves to haunt the living of both Wales and England. In these works, "it is not the English per se but the centralized state that is the enemy of both the zombies and the modern-day Welsh, whose religion and Celticity the zombies represent" (123).
This focus on specifically Welsh forms of monstrous Celticity continues in the two chapters of "Part II: 'Things that go bump in the Celtic Twilight.'" The titles of chapter 5 ("Witches, Druids, and the Hounds of Annwn") and 6 ("The Sin-eater") are self-descriptive--here Aaron surveys representations of four traditional Welsh figures in an array of Gothic works since the 1780s. Aaron traces the genealogy and development of these magical, mythical, monstrous, and abject beings in Welsh Gothic, and the end result is both informative and entertaining. Most interesting is the section on the (hell-)Hounds of Annwn, which have reappeared in contemporary culture in both Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying and as a guild in the online computer game World of Warcraft.
The book's epilogue is unfortunately marred by a concluding point that feels contrived. Aaron claims that "the violent 'return of the colonized repressed' fictionalized in ... border--crossing Welsh Gothic novels can ... be read as reflecting at base a British historical trauma, experienced by the isle as a whole, south of Hadrian's Wall" that has been projected onto the Welsh and Wales itself (209). According to Aaron, this projection causes the Welsh in Gothic fictions to embody and reenact this historical trauma in various ways. Thus far, this is a valid point supported by Aaron's readings; however, the author does not leave it at that. On the last page of the book, Aaron builds on this argument with a broad generalization that is not supported or sufficiently elaborated upon. She asserts that "the trauma of its own experience of being colonized" (that is, by the Romans) has led the British people as a whole towards a "history of compulsively repeated aggressive colonizing acts, following the pattern of the abused child who without therapeutic help can become the abusing adult" (210). This is a difficult claim to prove. While the historical traumas of conquered peoples on the "Celtic fringe" of the British Isles (and within the British Empire as a whole) is not in question, I do question Aaron's locating the source of British colonialism in the trauma of the colonization of ancient Britons. Genealogically and culturally, the pre-Roman inhabitants of the British Isles have shaped modern Britain to a far lesser extent than the Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and Viking invaders who subsequently conquered Britain (and in all but parts of Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland, replaced or assimilated the indigenous peoples). How the English descendants of these later invaders were supposedly traumatized by the colonial experience of the native Britons (most of whom had themselves been thoroughly Romanized over four centuries) is not explained or proven.
This, however, is a minor complaint in a work that is otherwise commendable. Welsh Gothic fills a notable gap in Gothic studies, and should serve as a touchstone for future work in the field. Scholars and students of the Gothic, Celtic or Welsh studies, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature and cultural history will find much of interest in Aaron's volume.
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|Author:||De Cicco, Mark|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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