Sunday, June 10, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XV: Masculin/Féminin

Apart from his odd taste in subject matter, Horace Walpole was the 18th Century ideal of an author -- a gentleman of leisure who wrote sheerly for his own amusement, and published only in the hope that his work would provide the same for others, or perhaps offer some moral edification. If he got a little money out of it, it would only be a pittance compared to his existing fortune. The idea of somebody writing primarily as a way of earning income was seen as a prostitution of art.

But even at the time Otranto came out, British publishing was changing. Literacy was on the uptick throughout Britain -- and not just for men. Women lagged behind, but by the 1760s middle class women at least needed to be able to read if they wanted to attract decent husbands. With the expansion of the reader base came an increased demand for books, and novels in particular. Many early novelists were still respectable, and their works stressed virtue and morals, but like any booming industry, publishing soon attracted those who wanted to make money.

In the mid 18th Century, "Newgate Calendars" came onto the market. These started as broadsheets containing true crime accounts about malefactors at London's Newgate Prison, but they were popular enough they were eventually printed as chapbooks and compiled into multi-volume anthologies. The Calendars were ostensibly moral works that showed the public that crime doesn't pay, but of course that's not why anyone ever bought them, any more than people today watch Cops to learn about police procedures. Calendar readers wanted sensational crimes, and the publishers weren't above throwing in a fictional story like Sawney Bean, the legendary Scottish cannibal, or exaggerating real ones, like highwayman Dick Turpin, who became a sort of English Jesse James by the time the popular presses got done with him.

The Gothics were the next major step in the commercialization of writing. Around 1790, William Lane established Minerva Press to cash in on the burgeoning demand for Gothic fiction, and quickly became the largest publisher of fiction in Britain. Numerous other publishers jumped on the money train as well, and soon the country was glutted with Gothic novels, many of them nothing more than cheap knockoffs of the most popular works.

As with any genre, the titles fell into easily recognizable patterns -- The Castle of _______, The Mysteries of ________, The Cavern of _______, with the blanks being filled by words like "death" or "darkness", or by some exotic sounding name -- Italian preferred, but French or German were also acceptable, and something Scottish or Irish would do in a pinch. A truly adventurous author might make up a foreigny sounding name beginning with Z or V, like Vathek, Zofloya, or Zastrozzi.

While some authors of the upper classes did try their hand at the Gothic -- M.G. Lewis was a Member of Parliament, and Percy Shelley was the son of a Baronet, for instance -- most of the writers were middle class or lower. Valancourt Books has been reprinting many of the Gothics of this period (some so obscure that their last edition was in the 18th Century), and if you read the introductions you'll find many of the authors were members of the middle class who had fallen on hard times and figured a Gothic novel would be an easy way to earn money. This is especially true for the female Gothic authors, of whom there are more than a few -- indeed, the Gothic may be the first field of Western lit where women approached parity with men. During this period, there were few fallback options for widows and otherwise unmarried women who didn't have relatives to support them. The few acceptable careers for middle class women -- governesses, school teachers, and attendants for wealthy ladies --  were hard to come by without connections or references, and paid little in any case. But now that women were literate, taking a hand at writing was a viable option.

Of course, people writing as a way to pay the bills -- especially women -- offended the literati of the day, and the Gothic was sneered at as low literature. Even today, the best regarded of the Gothic authors (Walpole, Lewis, Beckford, Godwin, Maturin) tend to be from more respectable backgrounds, and apart from Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, they're all men.

To some extent this is understandable -- men from well-to-do backgrounds would be better educated and able to turn out more polished works. But the fact is, apart from Frankenstein and Beckford's Vathek, none of the Gothic novels of the classic era are particularly great. The ones written by lower class authors are about the level of 1930s science fiction, but they do have the merit of being a reasonable length, whereas the upper class authors were excessively prolix, with two hundred pages of good story supporting five hundred or more pages of prose. Nobody reads Godwin's Caleb Williams or Marturin's Melmoth the Wanderer without skimming.

Of all the Gothic authors between Walpole and Mary Shelley, the two commonly regarded as the most important are Radcliffe and Lewis.

Ann Radcliffe published her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne back in 1789, but she didn't hit the big time until her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). For the most part, Udolpho was a straightforward Gothic tale about Emily St. Aubert, an orphaned teenage girl who goes to live in the titular Castle of Udolpho with her aunt and her aunt's new husband, the Count Montoni. Lots of mysterious and spooky things happen in the castle, and eventually Emily's aunt dies under suspicious circumstances. At the end of the story, Emily discovers that Count Montoni has been gaslighting her in the hope of driving her mad and getting a hold of her inheritance, and none of the supernatural events in the story were real.

Yes, Ann Radcliffe invented the Scooby Doo ending. Many readers, both at the time and since, have felt that this was a cop-out -- that she was trying to have her cake and eat it too by telling a story that has all the trappings of the supernatural but can't be criticized for being irrational. But since most people who come to the Gothic want the supernatural and don't give a damn about rationality and realism, the twist ultimately deflates the suspense and leaves a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

Matthew Gregory Lewis was having none of that.

Lewis's father was a senior official in the War Office, and Lewis received a first-class education, entering Oxford at the age of 15. While at university, Lewis made several trips to the Continent, the most notable being an extended stay in Germany in which he befriended Goethe and got to read an early draft of Faust. During the stay, Lewis also became acquainted with the Schauerroman (shudder novels), that were the German equivalent of the Gothic, though with the key difference that they were much more closely based upon folklore and balladry than their British cousins. The supernatural in these stories tended towards the outright demonic rather than the merely ghostly Gothics, and the tenor of the stories was more tragic than romantic.

After graduating from Oxford, Lewis's father arranged for him to take a position in the British legation at the Hague. Despite the French Revolution roiling Europe, Lewis found the environs boring, and to fill his time he decided to try his hand at a Gothic novel. He had read Udolpho and enjoyed it, but he'd been disappointed at the ending, so he decided to incorporate elements of the Schauerroman into his story.

The novel he produced, The Monk (1796), is a Faustian tale about Ambrosio, a Catholic priest who lusts after one of his parishioners, a young woman named Antonia. Ambrosio discovers that a novice serving under him is in fact a woman in disguise. The woman, Matilda, seduces him to keep the secret, and then promises she'll help him get Antonia. In fact, Matilda is a succubus, and she helps Ambrosio by providing him with a magical roofie that allows him to rape Antonia in her sleep. On his first attempt, he's caught by her mother and kills her, but he later kidnaps Antonia and rapes her in a crypt. When Antonia awakens and tries to escape, Ambrosio panics and kills her too. He's eventually arrested by the Inquisition and subject to torture, but Matilda reveals to him that he can escape by selling himself to Satan. He does so, at which point the devil shows up and reveals that Antonia was actually Ambrosio's long lost sister. The devil rescues Ambrosio from the Inquisition, but then throws him over a cliff where he suffers a painful and lingering death.

The Monk was far more violent, satanic and sexually charged than anything Gothic writers had yet produced, to the point that there was an effort to suppress the first edition, and Lewis revised subsequent printings in the hope of making the book more acceptable to the public. It didn't, and despite serving six years in parliament, he was always tainted as "Monk" Lewis.

Nonetheless, The Monk had a major impact on Gothic literature, as did Udolpho. Prior to Radcliffe and Lewis, Otranto had been the model that all Gothic novels were based upon, but now writers had two new ones to copy.

And did they ever. From 1791-95, there were forty-seven Gothic novels published -- a huge amount given the size of the British publishing industry at the time -- but from 1796-1800 that number more than doubled.

Scholars have traditionally divided the later Gothics into the Masculine (Lewisian) and Feminine (Radcliffian) schools, though modern scholarship tends to discount this. Besides the obvious gender stereotyping, there's the additional problem that many "Masculine" Gothics were written by women or have female protagonists, and vice-versa. Indeed, The Italian, Radcliffe's followup to Udolpho, features a sequence with the Inquisition that's clearly inspired by The Monk. Still, while there may not have been a clean schism, there's no doubt that after Udolopho and The Monk the spectrum of the Gothic broadened, with works on the outer edges being purely Radcliffian or Lewisian, and those in between mixing and matching to various degrees. This is the pattern that would continue into the first decade of the 19th Century, after which the genre would genuinely begin fragmenting.

Next Time: The Psychogothic, or Maybe Frankenstein's Monster Was from the Id

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