Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal

Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2016) 272 pp. £72 Hb. ISBN: 9780719085413

The gothic imaginary foregrounds the body unlike any other imaginary. In her methodically researched and richly detailed work, Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal, Marie Mulvey-Roberts confirms this truth. Corporal parts, the bloodied bits, scraps and orts of the human body, and Gothic’s preoccupation with threading them often literally together, as in the case of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, are evaluated in Mulvey-Roberts’s text. The Gothic has always explored, exploited and revelled in the extremes of the body; it has always enjoyed the messy, monstrous and grotesque potential that the human form offers. Similarly, Mulvey-Roberts revels in the critical possibilities and scholarly opportunities that a study of gothic corporeality holds. Moving through several compelling chapters devoted to canonical works of literature and film, she demonstrates that the gothic body is at once site, structural marker and loaded signifier for the socio-political issues of the past and present. Thus body multiplies to ‘bodies’; that is, institutional and governmental powers, whose fears, anxieties and prejudices mark the skins, distort the features and fragment the forms of marginalised groups and individuals. By beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and ending with Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron, Mulvey-Roberts maps out each dangerous fictional body(ies) and the historical corporeal atrocities which underpin them.

The real ‘dangerous bodies’ are the institutions that have, over the centuries, deemed others such. The Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and Tudor dynasty; the French National Assembly during the terror-filled years of the revolution, the British Government in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries; as well as the British and American medical establishment, and, of course, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party are a few of the ‘dangerous bodies’ identified by Mulvey-Roberts in her book. It is these suppressive and oppressive powers that have portrayed the bodies of marginal groups and under-represented individuals – enslaved Africans, Catholics, Eastern Europeans, the Jewish diaspora and women – as monstrous, demonic and dangerous. Projecting their fears of disruption, rebellion, invasion, pollution and possession onto the lives and bodies of others, such institutions and political groups trigger a process of othering, stigmatisation and demonization that is, to Mulvey-Roberts’s mind, decidedly gothic. It is this pivotal and tragic paradox that sits at the centre of her definition of the Gothic. That the genre both ‘deconstructs’ and ‘builds’ stereotypes; that it is involved in the process of making and breaking taboos reveals it be a mode both problematic and potent. For Mulvey-Roberts, we cannot celebrate the potentiality and literary opportunities afforded by the Gothic if we do not attempt to critically acknowledge and ‘countenance’ all that is difficult and challenging about it too.

The 'othered' bodies that are to be found in gothic fiction and their historical counterparts are examined closely by her. In Chapter One, Matthew Lewis’s eponymous monk does not so much expose prejudice towards Catholicism and Catholics in eighteenth-century Britain, as chart the anti-clerical fervour violently felt and expressed in revolutionary France. And contrary to popular and critical thought, Shelley’s monster is not so much a personified denouncement of modern scientific inquiry, but a warning, as its Latin etymology reveals, to those abolitionists calling for parliament to emancipate enslaved Africans in the British colonies. In fact, Chapter Two (entitled ‘Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and Slavery’) supplies ample evidence for Mulvey-Roberts’s argument that Gothic is at once potential and problem; that the genre can bring to the fore societal ills and biases, but also perpetuate and feed into them with catastrophic results.

Seeing the monster as a fictional representation of a fugitive slave, Mulvey-Roberts exposes Mary Shelley’s ameliorist views towards slavery and emancipation, in addition to her less savoury attitude to race and ethnic difference. Shelley, who was ostensibly an abolitionist, feared that immediate manumission would lead to violent retributive acts or a population of uneducated and ill-equipped men. Her ameliorist and racist views were in every way inscribed onto the monster’s body: from his patchwork skin and carcass corporeality (Frankenstein steals body parts from the dead, which again aligns the monster to the ‘deadening’ state of a slave), to his yellow eyes, jaundiced coloration (akin to contemporary descriptions of mixed race slaves known as mulattos) and large stature, the monster was in every way a nightmarish evocation of colonial fear and guilt. What is worse, contemporary adaptations of the novel merely served to reinforce the racialization of the monster. In 1823, the first theatrical performance of Frankenstein appeared, with the monster apparelled as, and likened to, an African man. A year later, George Canning gave a speech in parliament which used Shelley’s monster to promote ameliorist measures when considering emancipation. Shelley’s response to Canning’s speech in a letter to a friend was one of deep satisfaction. This, together with Mulvey-Roberts’s dissection of how the female monster betrays Shelley’s opposition to miscegenation and slave rebellions, begins a highly persuasive chapter on the novel’s connections to slavery and its depiction of the enslaved African body.

Systemic persecution, structural injustice and social prejudices are evinced in other gothic bodies from film and literature. Chapter Four examines the genre’s treatment of the Jewish body and how it has facilitated anti-Semitic tropes and discourse in the late nineteenth century through to the mid twentieth century. Drawing a convincing line from Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and other literary portrayals of vampires, to German Expressionist cinema and Nazis propaganda, Mulvey-Roberts shows how anti-Semitic ideas of the Jewish body haunted the page and screen, only to find life in the courts of Nuremberg and the death camps of Hitler’s Germany. If in earlier chapters the theories of Freud, Žižek and Kristeva have helped to shed light on the tragic effects of gothic corporeality, here it is Derrida’s concept of hauntology that frames the reoccurring spectre of antisemitism.

If anything it is the blood lost and shed through vampiric institutions that runs thick and fast throughout Mulvey-Roberts’s text. Blood lust, blood libels, blood transfusions and bloodied markings are all touched on; bleeding stigmatics and blood-covered fields of war, the body’s vitality and demise through this single feature are returned to again and again in each chapter. What is more, gothic texts and cinema have a canny propensity to consume the lifeblood of past works and reconstruct themselves anew; that is, Gothic has a problematic and purposeful habit of respawning old tropes and resurrecting corporeal referents. We see this in Lewis’s borrowings from Walpole, James Whale’s racialized monster from Shelley’s original work and Murnau’s refashioning of Stoker’s Dracula. Mulvey-Roberts’s book asks the reader and scholar of gothic literary, cinematic and visual art to not only consider the thematic and conventional vitality of such a bloodline, but to consider the challenging and often frightening ideas passed on to us by such works. Her warning simply is to not ignore the contextual realities embedded, albeit gruesomely, in their ‘dangerous bodies’.

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou, University College London