Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era
The traditional view of the Gothic romance was that it was a belated, eighteenth-century form that was quickly overtaken by the more progressive, "realist" novel, and by Romantic poetics. The Gothic romance sought to incite the experience of "ideal presence" in the passive reader, as if the reader's mind were a camera obscura onto which the writer's vision was projected. As such the Gothic romance was more 'mirror', than 'lamp'. Miles uses the work of Jerrold Hogle, Terry Castle and Jonathan Crary to overturn this picture. Hogle argued that the Gothic Romance dramatized the post-modern condition of simulation, of ghostly 'counterfeits' or hollowed-out signs; Castle pointed out how the experience of simulation was quickly troped as a phantasmagoria (originally a magic-lantern ghost show); while Crary argued that modern patterns of consumption and spectatorship begin with the early-nineteenth century privileging of the sovereign observer. Miles argues that the Gothic romance was resisted because of its perceived modernity as a form of technology that privileged the reader as a sovereign consumer of primarily visual matter.
Gothic fictions deploy an array of machines, generic engines and formulaic contrivances to arouse mechanical reactions in an era in which industrialisation begins to define the modern world. The mechanical effects noted by Walpole in his Gothic story define criticism of the genre and encompass various forms and media like photography, automata and cinema. For Benjamin modernity itself becomes phantasmagorical. The modern cultural history of the machine metaphor thus discloses not only the uncanny aspect of technological innovation but a strangeness at the core of formations of human subjectivity.
With considerable historical background in mind, I would like to examine a number of the stock gothic tropes, including the mysterious nun, the paintings of women, the theater scene, and the fête in Villette as examples of not simply one of last gasps of high Victorian gothicism, but also of the internalization and critique of gothic theatrical technology. As Castle observes, the "phantasmagoria should [have] become a kind of master trope in nineteenth-century romantic writing," and certainly she applies the representation in provocative ways to the symbols and imagery in Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution. In a similar fashion, I would like to read Brontë's novel as a transmutation of the phantasmagoria to the novel form, a translation of a theatrical topos into the novelistic universe. Doing so allows us to see both the cultural persistence and permeability of gothic conventions, at the same time it enables us to appreciate that Brontë must have been assuming a shared theatrical knowledge in her reading audience. Critics have persistently faulted the novel for its "unreliable narrator" (Knies) and its "odd structure" (Martin); however, an understanding of how Brontë uses and critiques the theatrical machinery of her era actually works to clarify both the purpose and the structure of the novel. It has become conventional to describe the central conflict in the novel as one between "Reason" and "Imagination" in the personality of Lucy Snowe, the narrator. But a materialist interpretation of the work finds a much larger issue at stake.
This essay begins with the advent of the London Diorama in the 1820s, and examines the nature—and the technological basis—of its visual appeal. The question of illusionism is explored, largely through an examination of the periodical reviews, such as Lady Morgan's, with their subtle emphasis on questions of memory, personal history and place—in short, on private subjectivity—in the face of fragmentation, dislocation, and distraction which were obvious features of the popular, mass viewing experience. Central to the discussion however is the prominence of scenes of ruin at the Diorama, in the popular subjects of gothic churches and picturesque landscapes. Death, doubling, and repetition—indeed a number of uncanny themes and effects—are found to be a function of the visual technology of the Diorama, as well as a central feature of those gothic subjects upon which that technology "appears" to depend.
This essay approaches the relationship between the Gothic and the rise of high Romantic aesthetics by means of a distinction between sight and sound, vision and hearing. Proceeding through a rereading of Wordsworth and Coleridge's respective condemnations of Gothic romance, the essay argues that early versions of the Romantic aesthetic sought to stake out its differences from the perceived cultural taint of the Gothic by effecting a crucial shift from the eye to the ear, substituting for the florid visuality of Gothic romance the cadences, metres and rhymes of the Romantic poetic acoustic. While the visuality of the Gothic rendered it hardly distinguishable from the camera obscura and other populist modes of entertainment of its day, the Romantic response sought to privilege the subject's perception of sound over vision by installing the figures of the nightingale and Aeolian harp at the centre of its poetic alternative. Illustrating this consistent privileging of sound over sight in a range of poetic contexts, the essay turns to consider the case of Ann Radcliffe's own acoustic revision in The Italian of the visual excesses of Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk, maintaining that if Radcliffe did indeed enjoy the approval of the Romantic literati, this was partly the result of her similar offering up of sound as a positive alternative to the perceived dangers of sight and heightened visibility.
This article argues that the rise in popularity of the Gothic romance in the 1790s led to an obsession with its pernicious effects in the periodical press. In particular, reviewers focused upon the imitative tropes that were used exhaustively in Gothic novels during the 1790s. Examining critical essays such as the 1797 "Terrorist Novel Writing" alongside specific reviews of individual novels, Wright examines how the critical concerns of the periodical press often centered around the Gothic's passive use of visual tropes. This concern with visuality and spectacle was rapidly linked to the Gothic romance's political and generic connections with France. British critics argued that British literature had been contaminated by a continental tendency towards luxury and artifice in fiction. Wright proceeds to argue that the vocabulary of criticism during the 1790s in its turn became contaminated with the Gothic's reliance on visual and imitative cues. After examining the fatigued state of Gothic criticism towards the end of the 1790s, Wright concludes by demonstrating how Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads offered an innovative and original critical departure.