Joan Passey, Cornish Gothic, 1830-1912

Joan Passey, Cornish Gothic, 1830-1912 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2023), 256 pp. £75.00 Hb. £75.00 eBook. ISBN: 9781786839916

Joan Passey’s Cornish Gothic, 1830-1913 explores Cornwall and the Cornish as integral elements of the Victorian and Edwardian Gothic. It positions itself as a missing link in Victorian scholarship, as the research surrounding the topic has largely ignored the Cornish element, treating representations of Cornwall as isolated and irrelevant to the Gothic tradition. The monograph argues that such representations of Cornwall as a haunted, forgotten, and largely Gothic space, are indicative of a county that was very much relevant to the popular imagination of the nineteenth century. By analysing a body of work from the era, comprised of fiction and non-fiction alike, the book looks at patterns in the treatment of Cornwall in the mainstream Gothic.

Organized into two main parts, divided into three chapters each, the monograph delves into Cornwall’s landscapes and legends, travel, and tourism, and how they relate to the long-nineteenth-century Gothic. The first part focuses on Cornwall’s particularity of space: minescape, seascape, and the general landscape. Mining was an indispensable part of Cornwall’s history, and at one point, of its economy. The book posits that the mines are inextricably Gothic, arguing that they belong to the tradition of tombs, catacombs, graveyards, and other subterranean spaces. By exploring how the mines are associated with perpetual nighttime and violent death, it explains its link to the Gothic sense of disorientation and fear of revenants.

The seascape, its frequent shipwrecks, and the practice of wrecking are also explored. Throughout the nineteenth century, the image of the shipwreck featured prominently in the collective imagination, a natural result of an increase in maritime traffic and the subsequent increase in maritime disasters. Here, again, a prominent Gothic element proves to be interwoven with Cornwall: shipwrecks evoke liminality, below and above the water, on the threshold between life and death. It is an ‘isolated, claustrophobic, inhospitable and liminal place’ (61). As the shipwreck betrays anxieties over the impossibility of controlling nature, wrecking shows anxieties over the impossibility of controlling human nature, the fear of regression that is an inherent part of the Gothic tradition.

The third chapter concerns itself with folklore, antiquarianism, and Gothic rewritings. Antiquarian activity became predominant in Cornwall, due to a strong sense of a past both preserved and threatened by modernity and the loss of its language. A sense of nostalgia, evidenced by the eventual re-emergence of Arthurian legend, was brought about by the loss of mining. As a result, the literature from this period was greatly influenced by nineteenth-century folklore. Supernatural folklore is interwoven with the theme of invasion, a theme of particular relevance to a society worried about the preservation of their ancient traditions.

The second part of the monograph deals with travel and tourism, and how both phenomena affected Cornish identity. It explores how Cornwall’s connection to the rail network, as well as its prevalence in the Gothic literature of the era, made it a hotspot for tourists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, Sabine Baring-Gould and Arthur Quiller Couch, both writers, participated in discussions about Cornish tourism in such a way that they influenced the developing tourist industry, and as a result, the shifting Cornish identity. Travel and tourism were instrumental in encounters with the ‘Other’ (this figure was embodied by the Cornish and the tourist both), which led to a culture shock on both sides.

In the fourth chapter, the book explores how much access to travel changed the traveller’s imagination, with an extension of the Cornish railway, and that reading was an integral element of railway culture.  This is because serialisation made reading more accessible, and reading in the railway became commonplace. It also posits how the rhetoric of travel was inextricable from the rhetoric of the Gothic, insomuch as it provides images of fear, anxiety, worries about the foreign, and a delineation of borders and boundaries. Furthermore, by examining books like A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and The Jewels of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker, the monograph shows that it’s not Cornwall itself that travellers look for, but what Cornwall represents: a larger mythos of an ancient society. These books betray that Cornwall was seen as a place in which the threshold between life and death can be crossed, and experimentation that would be inconceivable in other English places seems possible in Cornwall lands. This supports the theory of the Othering of Cornwall, as advanced by the book.

The dual rising of travel and tourism led to literary tourism becoming a growing phenomenon. It soon took on a very specific form: Arthurian tourism in Tintagel, one of the places known as the birthplace of King Arthur. Cornish particularity drew in no small part on this idea that Cornwall was Arthur’s homeland. Stephen Hawker and other Cornish folklorists and antiquarians began an attempt to reclaim Arthur as a Cornish figure of resistance instead of a unifying hero. The Victorians concerned themselves primarily with his temporal distance and his lengthy absence from the national narrative. This led to a sense of instability, which in turn manifested itself in Gothic terms: ‘ghosts, spectres and wasteland’ (138). Little has been said about the prevalent image of Cornwall as a haunted place in Gothic literature, but as this chapter’s case studies (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and travel writing, among others) show, they contributed to travellers’ expectations of a land of ghosts. Not just Arthurian ghosts: Cornwall was expected to hold untold quantities of hauntings.

Ultimately, the book supports its thesis of Cornwall as a place that was integral to the development of the Victorian Gothic: by analysing elements that were both significant to nineteenth-century Cornwall and Gothic tropes (the subterranean, shipwrecks, hauntings, and more), it backs up the claim that Gothic literature was a way to process change in Cornwall, and that it provided the language to express anxieties from the uncertain economy, the loss of the Cornish language, and the rapidly shifting sense of Cornish identity. Further, by establishing connections between the macro and the micro, it functions as a link between regional studies of Cornish history and literature and Gothic scholarship.

Carolina Ciucci, Independent scholar