Hilary Grimes, The Late Victorian Gothic

Hilary Grimes, The Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011). 188 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 9781409427209

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Hilary Grimes’s The Late Victorian Gothic considers, as the introduction states, 'the ways in which writers and mental scientists of the fin de siècle were deeply conflicted between a desire to police the boundaries of science, identity, and the mind, and conversely, to experience the thrill of the "Unknown"' (1). Grimes’s ostensible literary focus is gothic fictions of the 1880s and 1890s, and while there are several examples of such fictions – including Du Maurier’s Trilby and Vernon Lee’s ghost stories – there are an equal number that are questionably part of other genres – such as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and a number of New Woman fictions. What does remain consistent (as far as they feature as central to the argument) are those marginal sciences that form the other key part of this study: applied technologies, mesmerism, and spiritualism.

Across six chapters, Grimes considers the technologies of the typewriter and telegraphy in the work and writing life of Henry James, spiritualism and the camera in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, mesmerism and hypnotism in Trilby, spiritualism and new woman ghost stories, Vernon Lee’s supernaturalism, and finally the new woman as writer in works by Sarah Grand and George Paston. These chapters have their own internal cohesion as individual studies but that does tend to be to the detriment of an overall coherence in the arguments produced by the book. Equally, while the sciences have a key role in the early chapters (1-3) this rather wanes from Chapter 4 onwards. Rather like the sciences Grimes discusses, there is an increasing marginalization of that knowledge as the book reaches its conclusions.

Nevertheless, the early chapters still offer some interesting analysis for the literature and science scholar. In the first chapter, Grimes suggests that Henry James’s use of a typewriter during the final years of his writing life might 'alter the content of what is written or the mindset of the writer.' (17). Comparing James’s role in dictating his fiction for a typewriting secretary to the ghostly spirit speaking through the body of a medium, Grimes argues that machines like the typewriter acted 'as the mediums for discursive practice' (29). This fresh argument, following perhaps a little too closely on Pamela Thurschwell’s opening up of this area in her own book Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (2001), invites us to think about writing technologies as part of a broader set of issues about the science of communications. This is certainly worth exploration, and it is important that Grimes has suggested it, but her conclusion that 'bodies, minds, and machines at the end of the century had the uncanny ability to mingle together' (29) is rather commonplace. Certainly the same point has been argued by historians of technology, as well as by critics and philosophers of the posthuman, for some time. In rethinking the originality of the argument here, the chapter would also have benefitted from a closer interaction with Richard Menke’s Telegraphic Realism (2008) which offers a fascinating account of the relationship between new Victorian technologies and artistic practice.

The second chapter is a great deal stronger in the case it makes for considering the importance of the camera for Doyle’s spiritualist interests and his Sherlock Holmes stories. Through some fine historical research Grimes reveals Doyle’s fascination with the camera and its technology, revealing the centrality to his work in fiction and spiritualism of minor essays he wrote for the British Journal of Photography. This detailed analysis is rewarding, and offers a reading of Doyle that sees his work as more technologically-driven than we might have previously thought, as well as more subtly allusive to technologies and their influences. This is most clearly asserted in Doyle’s use of the discourse of the camera (words such as shoot or expose) and the alliances therein with capturing the supernatural through spirit photography. For Grimes, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is an 'observing machine' because he is, to some extent, a camera, which 'both condemns and invites association with the supernatural' (58). Nevertheless, Grimes’s return to the book’s central thesis that man and machine are seen to merge somewhat occludes the real insights offered by this chapter. It would have been intriguing, for example, to consider Doyle’s invocation of the camera as it pertains to the relations between objective and subjective knowledge, via both Crary’s work on lenses and philosophy of science scholarship on observation. Instead, the argument rather reduces these broader implications by identifying the camera (and Holmes) as simply uncanny – the kind of binary on which the gothic thrives, of course, but which rather limits the fascinating new knowledge that the chapter has uncovered.

The third chapter deals specifically with mesmerism and hypnotism, and marks the end of the sustained engagement with science and technology and begins the turn towards new women fiction and its relation to psychical research and ghost-hunting. The focus here is George du Maurier’s Trilby – a novel which has received considerable critical attention in relation to mesmeric power. However, Grimes’s analysis of mesmerism cuts against the grain of existing scholarship on mesmerism; and does so persuasively. Rejecting the consensus of opinion that regards mesmeric relations between operator and subject as always displaying operational power over the recipient’s powerlessness, Grimes argues that 'the mesmerist/hypnotist and mesmerized/hypnotized share the site of power' (65) This argument is supported by some astute close readings of mesmerist manuals and hypnosis handbooks, as well as by a final re-reading of Trilby within this context. The thesis of the book works well to support this chapter as the new analysis of mesmeric relations which Grimes offers does indeed appear to confirm the merging of identities between different actors within scenes of scientific investigation. Within this schema, Grimes is right to conclude that what emerges is an attempt by various writers to 'safely contain the dangers of mesmerism and hypnotism within the fixity of print, while simultaneously delighting in the creative possibilities trance states offered' (81).

Overall, Late Victorian Gothic succeeds in revealing the interconnections between science and the supernatural in writings (both scientific and literary) in the 1880s and 1890s. The book could certainly have done more with ideas of the gothic as a genre (which is hinted at in the introduction but rarely returned to in the subsequent chapters) and might also have loosened the strictures imposed by adhering too often to binaries linked with the familiar/unfamiliar of the Freudian uncanny. Nevertheless, when the book considers in detail and in parallel the similar discourses of science and literature it is at its strongest. In doing this kind of cross-disciplinary reading Late Victorian Gothic does indeed make apparent that in texts of different kinds we find 'material witnesses to fin de siècle anxieties and preoccupations about identity' (162).

Martin Willis, University of Glamorgan

 

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