The Gothic Family and The Outsider
by
Natalie Regensburg


"An Anxiety with no possibility of escape is the main theme of the Gothic tales."
Mario Praz



I have never lived in a city without a Poe House; some might except Charlottesville, but at least the University of Virginia maintains his room on the West Range, complete with the requisite stuffed raven. In fact, rumor has it that the Raven Society here at the University maintains flock of ravens which nests under the portico of the Rotunda. The Special Collections Department of the University Library is a perfect repository, then, for the famous Sadlier-Black collection of Gothic literature. This collection forms the heart of the exhibit, along with borrowings from the McGregor, Barrett, and Poe-Ingram collections, as well as from the marvelous general stacks.

Widely credited with beginning the Gothic genre is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. Shown here both in its first edition and in a limited edition illustrated by surrealist artist Salvador Dali, the novel features a family gone very, very bad: a tyrannical father, a perfect daughter, an excessively quiescent mother, a son dying by supernatural means, all of their destinies intertwined with that of another family, whose son laboriously unravels the truth behind his mysterious origins. Mix in a little threatened incest, and the Gothic novel emerges as one obsessed with the family. If we play a bit more with the notion of family, we see that this novel, written by the most English of Englishmen, describes itself as an Italian tale, sets itself in the middle ages, and features at its center a Catholic chapel and priest. Already a dichotomy in created between the army of English readers and the medieval, often Italian, and almost always Catholic monsters.

The Gothic novel became a vogue and an obsession with readers who could not seem to read enough of the genre. The Gothic obsession with Catholics, especially the clergy, as repositories of evil continued in such novels as The Midnight Bell, by Francis Lathom (shown here in its first edition) and in The Monk, shown here in several of its editions; the differences between them are mainly excisions of atheistic and sexual passages.

The eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw the rise of the Gothic hero in such tales as Charlotte Smith's The Wanderings of Warwick, Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and again in Lewis' The Monk. The Gothic hero, by virtue of his hunger for experience and his enormous appetites, exerts a strong and almost satanic power over those around him.

One dark weekend, a circle of artistic and philosophical outcasts, English expatriates in Geneva, set themselves to a contest. Who among them could write the best horror story? One of the party was a nineteen-year-old girl, Mary Shelley, who from a nightmare created the unforgettable Frankenstein and his Creature. Another of the party, John Polidori, from Eastern European folktales scribbled the first scraps of what was to become The Vampyre, a precursor to a host of vampire tales to follow.

Life intersected with art in Pisa; members of the party led lives to rival any described in the most audacious Gothic tales to date. Lord Byron had to leave England because of his affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and the child they had together; Percy Bysshe Shelley's first wife drowned herself after his elopement with both Mary Shelley and oddly enough, her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who was rumored to also be his lover and who later bore Byron an illegitimate child.

This group of outsiders, then, formed a sort of Gothic family, in which incest and cruelty were the ties that bound. From them came stories of family and the outsider. Frankenstein is a most unnatural father who oversteps his bounds; the Creature is both of and apart from the family of man. The Vampyre is both a man and essentially undead. This extreme example of the Gothic hero too is both a part of, and apart from, the family of man.

As the nineteenth century progressed, England expanded its empire over much of the globe; indeed it was said, "the sun never set" upon it. In spite of rebellions all over its empire, no subject nation seemed to make the English as uneasy as did the Irish. Perhaps it was because of the close proximity of Ireland to England, and because of Irish Catholicism, but in popular art of the period, Irish leader Charles Parnell was depicted variously as Frankenstein's creature and as a vampire bat. If the Irish were both family (albeit naughty members, as in one Punch cartoon in which the monstrous child Ireland cavorts in the lap of Britannia) and outsiders, it is perhaps no wonder that J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, both Irishmen, both penned vampire tales: Le Fanu Camilla, and Stoker Dracula.

Victorian Britain boasted an equivalent to the life meets art of the romantics: the Bronte family. A family related by blood, they lived on the spooky and beautiful moors of Yorkshire and now seem to exemplify dysfunction: Branwell, the only brother, was both an alcoholic and opium addict who was reprtedly abusive to the sisters who adored him. After his early death, it was Emily, Charlotte, and Anne who saved the family fortunes by writing updated versions of Gothic stories: Charlotte Jane Eyre, Emily Wuthering Heights, Anne The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. All three featured abusive, Gothic heroes who inspired adoration in their (usually female) family members. The women of these novels fight back, however, in ways that their eighteenth-century forbears did not dare to dream of. Jane Eyre marries her Gothic hero after he is effectively de-Gothicized by being mutilated in a fire set by his Gothically mad first wife; Heathcliff dies and is reunited with his Cathy, leaving their respective children free to form more conventional family bonds; Anne Bronte's heroine bans her husband from her bedroom and emerges a widow with considerable power over her own life. The Gothic hero, simultaneously outsider and leader of the family, undergoes considerable change at the hands of women, who are simultaneously outsiders by virtue of their gender and upholders of traditional family values.

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of the detective novel in which the lower classes are painted as the same sort of Gothic monstrous children as are the Irish. Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle merged the sensationalism High Victorians adored with the Gothic to perfect a new genre, the detective story. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is both a hero, in that he repeatedly saves London from evil lower-class citizens and foreign criminals, and Gothic hero. it is his strong power of perception that solves crimes, and his hunger for sensation drives his crime-solving and his cocaine use. To succeed as a detective Holmes frequently must descend into London's underworld. He is of the family of respectable English professionals in his ends, but his motivations and his means serve to place him outside of society into the family of naughty and monsterous children, who are simultaneously creations of society and completely outside of it.

The twentieth century brought film adaptations to these horror tales, and also brought ironic views of the genre. Parodies of the Gothic are certainly nothing new. Indeed, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, the very heart of the Sadleir-Black collection, is a splendidly witty send-up of Gothic conventions. Edward Gorey's drawings and tales illustrate best, perhaps, the ridiculousness of Gothic conventions when viewed without what is necessary to make them horrible: sentimentality and what is commonly called decency. The Gashlycrumb Tinies, for example, shows effete children meeting as many untimely ends as there are letters in the alphabet. In The Curious Sofa, the incest motif of much of the Gothic is either hilarious or extremely offensive, depending on the values of the observer.

The twentieth-century Gothic is not merely ironic, however; Anne Rice's fabulously popular Vampire Chronicles paint the vampire as pure Gothic hero. They are blessed and cursed with acute powers of sensation; they are both too much and not enough for this world. The vampires are former humans, and often experience human emotions and longings. They are also outside of the human family and form alternative families, sometimes with those who were family members when they were mortal. The success of these tales tells us that we both long for and demonize this sort of romantic freedom, even as we most desire and fear that most intense of bonds, the family, whether that family is biological, sociological, or national.

The gothic in general, and this exhibition in particular, explores the tension between what we most fear and what we most desire. Its extraordinary popularity today, 200 years after the publication of the first gothic novel, shows us that the concern with freedom and connection is as relevant as it has ever been.


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