The Marquis de Sade in his “Idees sur le romans” (“Reflections on the Novel) – quoted above – was one of the first literary commentators to align the Gothic with recent political occurrences. Marilyn Butler agrees with Sage and Sade that “The Gothic Romance…. may speak not for emotions private to the author but for collective anxieties. ” I think that the superior, enduring Gothic texts definitely reflect political ideal and contemporaneous social features which touched the vast majority of people. This is especially apparent if one traces the maturation of the form from Walpole (1764) to Mary Shelley (1818) and Maturin (1820).
(For example William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794)had an overt political message intended to expose the inadequacy of “Things as they are”). During the development of the Gothic the motifs become less cliched and the themes more pertinent. Romantic Gothic provided the vocabulary to express social anxieties of the time. In The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner Hogg used the conventions of historical Gothic to discuss the political and religious divisions which continued to rack Scotland. Godwin used it to convey his radical leanings; his daughter Shelley used Frankenstein’s monster as a symbol of radicalism unchecked.
The monster becomes a self-confessed “fiend” when he is released into society with no guidance. Botting feels he represents the revolutionary fervour in both France and England. Finally the creature promises his suicide in “torturing flames”. Matthew Lewis in The Monk (1796) recreates a scene common in revolutionary France in which an angry mob burn down a convent but themselves perish in the flames. Similarly the Monk himself, Ambrosio, breaks free of his unjustly constrictive religious shackles only to become a homicidal depraved fiend who gives himself to Hell..
There is a sense that if one breaks out uncontrolled from ones social or religious constraints (even with the noble intentions of liberty, equality and fraternity) only corruption and fiery destruction – physical or spiritual -can follow. Also, as Sade wrote, the violence and passion of the age demanded strong entertainment. This is partly why novels such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and C. R. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer are so viscerally powerful: they both reflect a hypercharged society and inflame a jaded populace. Their horror is necessary to satisfy aesthetic need. Society directly influenced Gothic in other ways too.
Early nineteenth century scientific advances were well documented and held in awe and even fear. It is significant that as a result fictional scientists – like Victor Frankenstein – were then added to the stock genre figures. This suggests an intimate dialogue with the environment. One distinct narrative strand of Frankenstein is a warning about the pursuit of science without any spiritual or moral interest. Shelley warns about the dangers of man trying to “learn the secrets of Heaven and earth” unrestrained. If Victor had cultivated more connection with reality rather than existing in a “dreamlike state…
“deprived of rest or health” (Shelley, 32,54) maybe he would have had a better conception of the ultimate consequence of his actions and a better strategy to handle it. Frankenstein warns of science without heart. A science which gave rise to the Luddite machine breakers and those groups that attacked the factories where new technology had left them wageless. The Gothic is often though of as a radical genre. In my opinion this is not strictly true. The prominent authors occupied a variety of different political stances but it is true that that were all, at some level, political.
Walpole, Beckford and Lewis were all Whig members of parliament; in fact the former’s father was a Primeminister. Maturin, as an Irish clergyman, “knew well the cruel of religious bigotry and political intolerance. ” (Grant, xii). Mary Shelley had a strong lineage of political radicalism: her mother and father were prime movers in the movement and her husband was and still is adopted by the political left. Victor Sage suggests that rather than Gothic being a voice of subversion it “.. was more a struggle to possess and appropriate the viable language of cultural division” (16).
As a result “radical, democratic and conservative strains of gothic shared the same motifs. ” The best Gothic texts are not necessarily subversive but do all address some form of socio-political division. There is a cogent body of criticism claiming Frankenstein as a radical text and an equally cogent analysis that posits it in a conservative pigeonhole, especially plausible considering Mrs Shelley’s eventual distaste for nineteenth century radicalism. Davenport-Hines quotes her as writing, “I have no wish to ally myself to the radical – they are full of repulsion to me.
” (189). To be fair though, this was written some time after Frankenstein’s first publication. Frankenstein’s monster could easily be a symbol of misguided radicalism them, a kind which Mary had no wish to ally herself to, a kind which produced Robespierre and resurrected the guillotine, which smashes machines and scoffs at monarchy. Whether this is true or not the monster is certainly a victim of injustice. He was born innocent in accordance with the principle of the tabula rasa (blank slate) – a concept probably inherited by Mary from her father.
The monster faces such unqualified rejections and ill-treatment from society the he embraces evil and negativity as his Weltanschauung: “I was once benevolent and good,” he says, “misery made me a fiend. “(Shelley, 101). Just like the genre cannot be branded left or right but “a language of.. division” (my italics) Shelley uses the form to mobilise a variety of interconnected but shifting discourses which prevent Frankenstein from being reducible to a series of simplistic binary oppositions like ‘conservative’ and radical; ‘rational’ or ’emotional’; ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’.
The central characters are similarly neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ but symbolic facets of Shelley’s themes such as class (see below). A lot of new eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature was a site of ideological resistance to the dominant hegemony. For example the historically-based partisanship of characters in Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner suggest a dissatisfaction with the similar religious and political divides at the time of writing.
A parallel theme is the distance between the rational (popular science) and the imaginative, the rural (traditional agrarianism) and the urban (industrial capitalism), the lowly (Ettrick) shepherd and the wealthy professional. These conflicts remain unresolved both in Hogg’s own life and in the book but it is ambiguously suggested that spiritual profundity of the rural is championed whilst the shallow empty rationality of the urban is condemned. This is clearly a class-related discourse that becomes concrete if one looks at the similar class conflict in Hogg’s own life.
Similar class discourses are also present in Frankenstein and Melmoth whose antiheroes operate outside of class so are able to observe its injustices from without. The monster empathises with the cultured but poor DeLacey family but finds the rich William Frankenstein an obnoxious oaf. In Frankenstein narrative Elizabeth is described as a different species “to the hardy little vagrants” in whose hut she lies, purely because she is the daughter of nobility. The monster does not see such distinctions because he is a product of nurture, not nature: a creature made into a fiend, as Elizabeth would have been a peasant had she remained in that hut.
Stallybrass and White claim the eighteenth/nineteenth century British bourgeoisie “defined and redefined itself through the exclusions of what it marked out as ‘low’ – dirty, repulsive, noisy and contaminating” (191). I think the male dominated intellectual elite differentiated “high art” from the Gothic through a similar process of “negation and disgust” (evidenced in contemporary reviews) in order to distance themselves from what they saw as populist, appealing to the baser elements in human nature and society and…
dangerous. They may have felt their position threatened by the massive (though covert) popularity of Gothic literature, much as the middle classes felt threatened by the working class culture of Robert Lowe’s “venal masses”. (Wordsworth encapsulated this fear in his carnival scene in the Prelude Book 7 calling what he saw “A Parliament of Monsters”). In many ways the highbrow critics, who rubbished what they feared and did not understand, were right to feel uncomfortable.
Due to technological advances the growth of mass consumption of literature Gothic novels were over printed by mass producing commercial presses. The distribution, via retail and circulating libraries, was also cheap. This led to a rise in independent publishers (like William Lane’s Minerva Press) and what the critics saw as a “rapidly expanding but dangerously undisciplined reading public. ” (Watt, 8).