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History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914.

History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914, by Jarlath Killeen (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009) 192pp, 19.99 pb [pounds sterling]; ISBN 978-0708320693, 65 hb [pounds sterling]; ISBN 978-070832079.

Located in the University of Wales Press's timely four-part 'The Histories of the Gothic' series, this is a well-conceived, well-structured and reasonably-priced work that will provide a useful resource for a number of readerships--including a general Victorianist readership that is not focused specifically on the Gothic. Its lucid introduction, four 'literary' chapters, well-argued conclusion, even-handed survey of criticism and concluding chronology make its topic very accessible.

Killeen's introduction includes a good summary of existing critical definitions of the Gothic; but he does more than merely situate his work amongst this general corpus. For, at the same time, he strongly contests the contentions of critics such as Maurice Levy, that the term 'Gothic' has been applied to literary work so indiscriminately that the word no longer has any meaning at all. At the end of this introductory discussion, the reader is left in no doubt about the propriety of using the term 'Gothic' to describe a number of texts making their debut long after the first-phase Gothic works of Shelley and Maturin. Killeen also takes issue with the notion that the Gothic is consistently and virulently against everything that evades or invades modernity (as would seem to be posited by critics such as Robert Mighall). Thus Killeen's overarching thesis is securely located within existing scholarship even though he departs from it. His thesis is both convincing and elegantly simple. It is this; to quote Killeen's own words from his introductory chapter:
   ... while Gothic certainly expresses antagonism to pre-modern forms
   of living, it also harbours a desire for them, so that as a mode it
   walks a tightrope between being a force for modernisation and
   performing a bitter critique of such social transformations,
   especially as it relates to the migration from a rural to an urban
   environment. [26]


Unfortunately, his thesis is not carried forward consistently in the four chapters that follow. This is not to say that any of the chapters is uninteresting or lacks utility in its own right--merely that the book gives the slight impression of being made up from a group of separate essays rather than each part contributing to an organic whole. Chapters 1 and 3 provide the most coherent expression of the thesis as outlined above and are excellent. However, chapters 2 and 4 suggest that the gravitational pull of the author's interests outside the Gothic are stronger than the ostensible remit of the book. For, in large parts of these latter chapters, his own thesis about the Gothic seems to be rendered subordinate to other issues.

Most useful to general Victorianists is chapter 1, entitled 'The Ghosts of Time'. This first chapter explores texts from Ainsworth and Gaskell (as illustrations of fiction that depicts a Gothicized past) and George Eliot and H. G. Wells (these texts indicating the tendency of popular nineteenth-century literature to speculate on a Gothicized future). Killeen also provides useful (though never superfluous) summaries of plots that are likely to be less well known. Throughout this chapter, the overarching thesis of Gothic as therapy for the modern via controlled access to the pre-modern is usefully--even enthrallingly--sustained. In critical terms, Killeen engages with Carver, Mighall and Baldick, amongst others, thus rendering this so much more than an annotated survey of Victorian Gothic fiction.

However, in chapter 2, 'The Horror of Childhood', this thesis is far less visible. The chapter begins with some excellently-observed material on fictional Victorian children and once again the close textual analysis--in this case passages from Dickens and from Bronte's Wuthering Heights--is very welcome. However, the other characters analysed in this chapter are not 'children' per se. The eponymous Dorian Grey does not comfortably fit the description of 'the sexually desirable adolescent boy' (Germaine Greer, 2003) with which Killeen attempts to frame him (Killeen, 77). According to the ancient Greek ideal which Killeen seems anxious to invoke, the beautiful youth in the liminal state between childhood and adulthood is typically younger than Dorian Gray by several years and is both defined by and ruled over by others. Dorian Gray is a man, with a man's freedom of movement and a man's income. He is no boy, albeit that his fictionally constructed character is youthful in the sense of being culpably irresponsible. The discussions that follow, about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (with its attendant psychoanalysis of the author) and about Dracula (with its associated discussion about a perceived decline in masculinity in Victorian England) are even less directly related to analysis of 'the child' per se.

Given the limited presence of children in the chapter as a whole, the occasional genuflection towards the child as generator of nostalgia for lost youth (an oblique reference to the past) is insufficient to resurrect Killeen's buried thesis regarding the relationship between the Gothic, the past and modernity. The problem is not that any of the material in this chapter is inconsistent with a discussion about the representation of children, childhood and the child-like in Gothic literature. Rather, it is that the chapter has such a strong internal dynamic relating to the establishment of such matters as relevant to childhood that the overall Gothic thesis is lost--or at best transmuted and only visible intermittently. Maybe--just maybe--the reader can make the connection between children, the primitive as pre-modern (though surely, more accurately, children are "a-modern") and the disruption of the modern. But maybe not. No doubt this chapter would have made the nucleus of an excellent book in its own right. Here, it is a kind of pleasant, if unexpected and only loosely related, bonus to the main event--much in the same way as Foucault's tacking of his 'Discourse on Language' onto the first edition of the Archaeology of Knowledge as an appendix was an unexpected treat for the reader!

In chapter 3, 'Regional Gothic', the central thesis re-emerges more clearly. Here, Killeen very ably demonstrates that, for nineteenth-century writers of both fiction and non-fiction, the urban centre was regarded as the site of modernity whilst the outlying regions, whether the remoter parts of an only-just-United Kingdom, farther-flung colonies in the rest of the world or nearer to home in Hardy's Wessex, were seen as the site of the primitive, the atavistic and the pre-modern. However, he also brings to the fore once more how Gothic fiction both evinces an 'antagonism to pre-modern forms of living' and 'harbours a desire for them'. Thus he looks at both the anxieties generated by the fear of regression to the primitive and the healthy assimilation of the supposedly-pre-modern regional experience into a dominant, if soulless modernity. The literature discussed here is a stimulating mixture of everything from Bronte's Jane Eyre to Wells' War of the Worlds and from Charlotte Riddell's 'The Banshee's Warning' to Le Fanu's 'Green Tea'. Arguably this is the most thought-provoking and exciting chapter in the book.

Chapter 4, 'Ghosting the Gothic and the New Occult', begins well with a convincing section on the reasons for the emergence of an interest in occult fiction in the late nineteenth century. Killeen argues that, with the ever-growing perception that conventional Christianity could not explain the world, many people sought alternative spiritualities (we might say they looked elsewhere in the pre-modern world) or sought to understand the world in purely scientific terms (thereby placing all their faith in modernity). He then proceeds to talk about the ghost story as an entity that 'represents a breach in historical progression' (129). However, the most important conclusion that Killeen comes to in this chapter is that there were numerous literary and non-literary texts that 'attempted rehabilitation of the occult for science' (141). To support these arguments there is also some fascinating close-reading work on Dickens' A Christmas Carol as well as stories by Mrs Riddell, Amelia Edwards, Marie Corelli and H. Rider Haggard.

However, the long section on Yeats that follows is more problematic. This part of the chapter is notably different from the earlier discussion. The Yeats material is effective in terms of its basic argument and there is much that is valuable here for the scholar attempting to contextualize Yeats' 'supernatural' writings. Yet here, Killeen argues not so much for the rehabilitation of the occult for science as the pragmatic rehabilitation of traditional folktales (admittedly the pre-modern) for modern politics. We might wonder if this can be called true Gothic according to Killeen's own thesis. It is nearer to propaganda than therapy. Moreover, this section reads as a political/historical, as opposed to a literary/ textual, argument, due to the lack of any direct quotation from Yeats' tales that are named. (Killeen quotes Yeats' own words from other sources but not his fiction/folk tales or poetry.) This is a real pity because Killeen clearly has a gift for textual exposition and the texts mentioned in passing are unlikely to be familiar to the average reader.

In his conclusion, Killeen champions the notion, put forward by Terry Phillips and others, that the Gothic ends with the outbreak of the First World War; that the fictional-Gothic nightmare becomes a waking Gothic reality. Once again making use of copious quotation--interestingly, much of it from poetry--Killeen suggests that Burke's Sublime, the 'dreadful pleasure' experienced from a position of known safety, is no longer tenable. To quote Killeen, 'Excitement and suspense were replaced by absolute, unremitting terror' (161). This conclusion is nicely done. It is a fitting 'Last Post' played out as the sun begins to set on the British Empire. But it is as well that we have the next volume in the 'History of the Gothic' series to counter, or at least to explain, this premature burial. Having said this, I am content with his conclusion in this context--it completes and makes intelligible a long and important phase in the history of the literary Gothic.

Is there anything more to complain about in this remarkably interesting little volume? Well, it is perhaps a little unfashionable to mention it but there are numerous infelicities of expression throughout. These are most in evidence in chapters 2 and 4., which seem slightly less well edited than their counterparts. For example, chapter 4 opens with the phrases 'This chapter will detail how' and 'I need to first account for'--the latter also containing a split infinitive and being an example of the frequently-obtrusive use of the first person (124). Moreover, the many 'jokes', colloquial expressions and puns scattered throughout the book are not always effective. For example, in this same chapter we are given the startling information that, 'In the light of Victorian moralism, Yahweh looked like a sociopath' (125-6). Such features make the chapters sound more like lectures than written argument in places. However, these same characteristics are also the hallmarks of an unpretentious style and the book is undoubtedly clearly written and informative.

Killeen's book is difficult to summarize - and this is nothing other than a good thing. For it means that he does justice to the complexity of his subject as well as making it accessible. He informs without patronizing and provides more than a survey of nineteenth-century Gothic fiction. This is a genuinely helpful tool for lecturers and their students as well as contributing more widely to Gothic scholarship. The volume stands alone but also makes a useful contribution to an invaluable series.

Elaine Hartnell-Mottram

Liverpool Hope University
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Author:Hartnell-Mottram, Elaine
Publication:Gothic Studies
Date:May 1, 2011
Words:1906
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