Gap in the Literature – Economic Precarity and the Gothic Novel part 1: Walpole

It’s possible this scholarship is out there and I just haven’t found it. But I don’t see a lot about economic precarity and the Gothic novel.

Let me start with Walpole.

While Walpole lived a life of privilege and doesn’t seem to have faced any real financial crisis in his life, he lived in a world of economic precarity. He had acquaintances who went to debtor’s prison. He was often mocked for using cheap materials to fulfill his vision of Strawberry Hill House (some elements were constructed with papiermâché, or illusions were added with trompe-l’œil methods). His aspirations were bigger than his budget. So, while economic hardship never seriously disrupted his life, he was surrounded by it.

Perhaps it’s this environment that led him to be fascinated by old castles and the ghosts that haunt them.

Walpole’s dream of a romantic past is saturated with wealth. It takes a lot of money and human resources to build and maintain a castle. One (or many) must be able to marshal daily meals for the work force and for the working animals. You have to pay the crafts people. You have to be able to protect everyone and everything. Walpole’s Castle of Otranto contains a yearning for power, and the wealth that allows one to achieve that power.

This yearning for wealth and power became one of the principle tropes of the Gothic novel. Perhaps the most significant trope. We see it thread its way through almost every Gothic work and adapted by romance works targeted to female audiences.

Some women facing personal economic precarity were able to find success through writing gothic. And other women, also confronted with economic precarity, turned to the fantasies of glorious wealth to escape the reality of their own financial limits.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I’m going to turn to the following in the next few posts.

Next: Women consume a lot of works addressing economic precarity and fantasies of escaping into economic security.

Next: Ann Radcliffe Makes Bank

Next: Banditti Are Everywhere

Next: Gothic Writers Doing It For The Money

Next: Mid-20th Century Gothic Obsession with Stuff and Things Rich People Have

The Burkean Sublime

I think of sublime as something that invokes a sense of awe.

In the 18th century Edmund Burke wrote about the philosophy about taste and gave sublimity a unique spin that became quite popular with writers of Gothic and Romantic literature.

The sublime, for Burke, was inextricably interwoven with fear.

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

So, the sublime is the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling, and what sparks that emotion is anything that:

  • excites ideas of pain,
  • excites ideas of danger,
  • is in any way terrible,
  • is conversant with terrible subjects,
  • operates in a manner analagous to terror.

For Burke the sublime equals pain, danger, and terror, and these feelings are the strongest human emotions. The emotion of pain is stronger than the emotion of pleasure.

Burke also argues that once one gains some distance from terror there is an ineluctable delight to be had.

“When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delighful, as we every day experience.”

And this is the seed of Gothic/Horror/Terror fiction according to Burke. As long as we can have some distance from the experience, pain, danger, fear, and terror can be delightful. And the success of these types of stories is rooted in their ability to engage the most deeply felt human emotions.

Burke, for those unfamiliar with the name, has long stood as one of the intellectual founders of modern conversative political theory. You may remember from some US history class that Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, defending the French Revolution, was written as a response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, condemning the revolution.

Originally, this post contained a long meditation about the connection between conservative political ideology and horror. It quickly became unwieldy and riddled with qualifiers and confusion. I decided I needed more background info before I could write cogently about the connection between horror and conservativism.

To that end I’m starting with The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart by Noel Carroll (review). Carroll addresses this concept specifically. More later!

The Themes, Gothic and Otherwise

This post is to help me organize some of the broad themes percolating around my Gothic project.

One of the early sparks was reading Gail Carriger’s Heroine’s Journey. I realized I’d never really read many books/stories, or watched many movies/shows that were marketed for women. Despite my white, male, cishet, middle-class liberal proclamations about how I’m interested in all things human, and the human experience, I seemed to have meticulously avoided much that wasn’t directly marketed to white, cishet, male, middle-class me. heh. *embarrassed blush*

It turns out my claim to Terence’s motto — “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me” — is, despite my naive good intentions, a load of horseshit. Most of human experience is alien to me, and often because of specific choices I have made, intentionally or not.

So, rolling around in the back of my brain was this idea that I wanted to find an entry into reading romance. Easy enough to do in practice but I wanted some kind of framework so that maybe I could write about it.

So, one theme is reading/watching works created for a female audience.

One example of this are movies of the 1940s. While men in Britain and the US were displaced because of the war, movie studios made some movies targeted to women. The Wikipedia entry for Woman’s Films discusses this.

“The woman’s film genre was particularly popular in 1930s and 1940s, reaching its zenith during World War II. The film industry of that time had an economic interest in producing such films as women were believed to comprise a majority of movie-goers. In line with this perception, many woman’s films were prestigious productions which attracted some of the best stars and directors.”

The second theme I expect to write about/mull over, is my body as an object. I clearly objectify my own body in ways I barely recognize and I’m sure in ways I don’t recognize at all. I also live in a world and in a time where the human body is often considered a collection of objects. My recent experience living with an external bladder attached to my internal kidney highlighted this. (I was a wetware cyborg!)

The third is to think more about the tropes surrounding Gothic literature: hauntings, the supernatural, ruins, etc. And to learn more about the cultural trappings surrounding peaks of Gothic production.

So the three threads I want to braid together in this project are:

  • reading works created for women and to-this-point ignored by me;
  • meditating and writing about my conceptions of my body and bodies in general;
  • the tropes of Gothic literature and cinema, a set of lenses I can use to study whatever I’m thinking of at the moment.

Initially this all added up to exploring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, especially the creature and its manifestations since its inception. But as the project ferments I see I’ll want to broaden it somewhat. Shelley’s work will still play an important role but perhaps not quite so central as I once thought.

Bibliography/Filmography so far

Project started August 2023.

Books and articles

Asma, Stephen T. On monsters: An unnatural history of our worst fears. Oxford University Press, 2011. – Not very useful for this project.

Brown, Sherri L., Carol A. Senf, and Ellen Justine Stockstill. A Research Guide to Gothic Literature in English : Print and Electronic Sources. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. – Terrific resource. Helped me identify lots of resources for research. 

Byron, Glennis, and Dale Townshend, eds. The Gothic World. London ; Routledge, 2014. – I need to check this out again. Rich resource.

Carriger, Gail. The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture. USA: Gail Carriger LLC, 2020. – This is the book that really got me thinking about work produced specifically for female audiences. (This will turn out to be one of the major threads of this project – I am haunted by misogyny in ways I still don’t/barely recognize.)

Clery E. J. 1999. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762-1800 1St pbk. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. – Roughly covers gothic literature but through the lens of the supernatural instead of Gothic.

Chandrasekera, Vajra. “Walpolitics.” January 25, 2024. https://vajra.me/2024/01/25/walpolitics/ – interesting take on the term “serendipity” coined by Horace Walpole.

Copley, Stephen, and John Whale, eds. Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts 1780-1832. Routledge, 2016. – collection of essays. Mostly interested in “The wanton muse : politics and gender in Gothic theory after 1760” by Harriet Guest, which I read but don’t remember. 

Fothergill, Brian. The Strawberry Hill Set: Horace Walpole and His Circle. Faber & Faber, 2013. – Looks at Walpole’s circle of friends. Divides Walpole’s circle of friendships – strawberry, politics, literature, schoolhood friends, antiquaries, last years. Mostly off-topic for this project. Somewhat useful description of Walpole’s friendship with Thomas Gray.

Gaunt, Peter. Oliver Cromwell. Vol. 5. NYU Press, 2004. – Brief sketch of Cromwell’s life. Read for background.

Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws : The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. First U.S. edition. New York: Random House, 2015. – Excellent book. Interesting parallel structure. Well written. The structure might be problematic on a scholarly/academic level, but definitely an enjoyable read. 

Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic feminism: the professionalization of gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Penn State Press, 1998. – Great book. Hoeveler is key scholar. Need to reread this after a few months of research.

Modleski Tania. 19841982. Loving with a Vengeance : Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Methuen. – Early critical analysis of Harlequin Romance. Also a section on Gothic Romance and a chapter on soap operas. Notable for being a serious look at mass pop culture created for female consumption. Overly Freudian analysis. Draws some good points from Joanna Russ. Explains the formula of Harlequin (the scoundrel is not a scoundrel).

Mowl, Timothy. Horace Walpole: the great outsider. Faber & Faber, 2014. – Deserves credit for bluntly addressing Walpole’s gender/sexual identity instead of ignoring it or referring to it only obliquely. However, Mowl is not a particularly sophisticated gender historian.

Paige, Lori A. The Gothic Romance Wave: A Critical History of the Mass Market Novels, 1960-1993. McFarland, 2018. – Weak. A few good references. More a defense of mass market gothic romance than a critical analysis. Often contradictory.

Reeve, Matthew M. Gothic architecture and sexuality in the circle of Horace Walpole. Penn State Press, 2020. – Focuses on architecture instead of literature. Wonderful work. Just a really great book. Terrific bibliography. Great collection of images. Pretty nuanced and comprehensive. This book bears returning to toward the end of this research project. Read in January of 2024.  

Russ, Joanna. “On Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” To write like a woman: essays in feminism and science fiction. Indiana University Press, 1995. – Not good. Russ doesn’t have a good grasp of Shelley’s work, history, and context.

Russ, Joanna. “Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic.” Journal of Popular Culture 6, no. 4 (1973): 666. – Good analysis by professional writer (rather than academic/scholar). Points out the obsession attention clothes and the heroine’s passivity. Great list of tropes at the end.

Uden, James. Spectres of Antiquity: Classical Literature and the Gothic, 1740-1830. Oxford University Press, USA, 2020. – excellent. Worth re-reading.

Urstad Tone Sundt. 1999. Sir Robert Walpole’s Poets : The Use of Literature As Pro-Government Propaganda 1721-1742. Newark Del: University of Delaware Press. – read for background about Walpole-era politics and publishing.

Watt, James. Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764–1832. Vol. 33. Cambridge University Press, 1999. – Excellent book. Introduces concept of Loyalist Gothic, makes argument that gothic is and has always been contested, and that some works (Walpole, Monk, Waverly) are kind of not-gothic.

Watt William Whyte. (1967)(1932). Shilling Shockers of the Gothic School; a Study of Chapbook Gothic Romances by William W. Watt. New York: Russell & Russell. – slim volume explains a little what shilling shockers are and provides an amused description of several. Shilling Shockers are cheaply published, usually anonymous, often plagiarized popular works. The era’s penny dreadful, or pulp magazine. Readily identified by cheap, pale blue covers.

Fiction

DeMatteis, J. M. and Robert Kanigher, et alCreature Commandos. Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2023.

Lewis, Matthew G. The Monk. New York. Grove Press, 1952. – so scandalous!

McGill, C.E. Our Hideous Progeny: A Novel. HarperCollins, 2023. – Novel. About the great-niece of Viktor Frankenstein.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. London: Dent, 1962. – I think this may be the wrong citation. Two volumes. Really enjoyed this. 

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: the 1818 text. Penguin, 2018.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Annotated Frankenstein. Harvard University Press, 2012. – Good. Could be better. 

Walpole, Horace, William Beckford, John William Polidori, George Gordon Byron Byron, and E. F. (Everett Franklin) Bleiler. The Castle of Otranto. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. – So far have only read Otranto. This volume also contains Vathek by Beckford, and Vampyre by Polidori, and some Byron fragments.

Movies with Frankenstein, the Creature, or Mary Shelley

  • Mary Shelley (2017)
  • Gothic (1986)
  • Frankenstein (2004) miniseries
  • The Munsters (Rob Zombie version)(2022)
  • Hotel Transylvania (2012)
  • Depraved (2019) – ptsd
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) – branaugh, hb carter, deniro – the worst
  • The Bride (1985)
  • The Strange Life of Frankenstein (2018) – documentary of novel and creature
  • Frankenstein (2015) – Carrie Ann Moss & Danny Huston
  • Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) – written by Christopher Isherwood. Very queer. 
  • Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)
  • The Lazarus Effect (2015) – solid blumhouse entry, good script, realistic performances
  • Frankenstein (2004) – originally both Dean Koontz and Martin Scorsese were involved but both withdrew as production veered off course. Meant to be a pilot for a series. Staring Parker Posey.
  • Frankenstein (miniseries) (2004) – most faithful to the book. Hallmark miniseries of 2 episodes for a total of ~3hrs. 
  • Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)
  • House of Frankenstein (1944)
  • Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (2023)
  • House of Dracula (1945)
  • Blackenstein (1973)
  • Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
  • Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
  • Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
  • Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
  • Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
  • Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
  • Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)
  • Poor Things (2024) – More of a Re-animator than a Frankenstein.

Gothic Movies, TV Shows, & Series – casting a wide net here since I’m still refining my definition of Gothic and online recommendations are all over the map. I’d probably characterize only about 8 or 9 of the following as Gothic.

  • The Black Sleep (1956)
  • Vampyr (1932)
  • Northanger Abbey (2007)
  • House of Usher (1960)
  • Cat People (1942)
  • My Cousin Rachel (2017)
  • The Batman (2022)
  • Rebecca (1940)
  • Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) (not gothic but Romance)
  • Suspicion (1941)
  • Fall of the House of Usher (Flanagan mini-series) (2023)
  • Midnight Mass (Flanagan miniseries (2021)
  • Gaslight (1940) – original British version
  • House of Dark Shadows (1970)
  • The Hound of Baskervilles (1959)
  • The Old Dark House (1963)
  • Christmas Carol (many adaptations)
  • Dickensian (miniseries) (2015)
  • The Essex Serpent (2022) – recommended as Gothic. Maybe? But just barely.
  • A Hazard of Hearts (1987)

Serendipity

In addition to helping spawn the Gothic revival Horace Walpole captured one of my favorite experiences when he coined the word ‘serendipity’. It looks like it’s a word that didn’t really catch on until the latter half of the 20th century.

In a letter to his cousin he notes he has an unusual and particular kind of good luck finding just what he’s looking for.

“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip”: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

The OED defines serendipity: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”

Walpole’s attitude about serendipity reminds me of the Wilson/Dick coinage of metanoia as the irrational belief that the universe is out to help you, similar to Rob Brezsny’s use of pronoia as a fundamentally friendly universe giving you what you need when you need it. Wilson, Dick, and Brezsny are all looking for an opposite to paranoia.

I think this Walpolian mindset, the kind that can coin a word like serendipity and can start a novel with a giant helmet falling from the sky, was an important part of Otranto but was lost as the Gothic genre developed.

And I must say, I wasn’t expecting to broaden my understanding of the abderitic when I started this Gothic research, but I think I found an abderitic patron saint.

On a few occasions Walpole signed himself as Democritus in his letters, donning the cloak of the laughing philosopher. Democritus is another, perhaps the first, patron saint of the aberitic, actually being from Abdera. And, while the humorless Kant may have tut-tutted those who see the human experience as a comedy, Democritus saw the human experience as something to laugh about.

Why Gothic?

In the summer of 2023 I was fishing around for some substantive research project to sink myself into. I knew I wanted to write about myself but not wholly about myself. I wanted to intermingle some sort of research I could use as a lens for contemplating my own aging, mortality, existence, etc. 

I eventually arrived at Frankenstein.

Frankenstein is, among other things, all about life and death and the meaning of existence and the body as an object. I would, I decided, do a deep dive into Frankenstein (the book, the creature, the movies and other spin-offs and variations) and use that as a springboard for some more personal reflections. 

On July 31st my back collapsed (I ultimately discovered I have a bulging L1 disc) and that sealed my commitment to writing about Frankenstein.* I read the book, read bios of Mary Shelley, her mother, and watched many, many Frankenstein movies.

As I got deeper into the project I realized I wanted more context (which is my predictable response to most things in life). What works would Mary Shelley be familiar with when she wrote Frankenstein? How unique was her work? Was Frankenstein sui generis or just another drop in a sea of genre work? And so, my research expanded into the Gothic.

Ultimately this is still a research project about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the creature (and reflections about my own existence). The final result (if, indeed, there is ever a final result) will most likely be a self-published ebook. The blog will be notes and sketches taken along the way as I sort through the literary, artistic, philosophical, and biographical underpinnings of Mary Shelley’s world, and then follow the development of the creature over the next two centuries.

If you want to follow along you can subscribe (in the right-hand column there is a “subscribe to blog via email” box) or follow on your favorite RSS. I’ll also be re-posting on Tumblr (which is the extent of my social media presence these days).

*I’m better now, though very minor issues continue to linger. For example, I am meeting with a physical therapist on Monday to discuss ways of strengthening my back and my core, and improving my standing and sitting posture. I started yoga last spring and loved it, but I think some of the positions may have been exacerbating the issue.