Monika Elbert and Bridget M. Marshall (eds), Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century (Farnham: Ashgate 2013) 282 pp. £37.99 Pb, £110.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781409447702
Through its engaging and multiple approaches, Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century offers original insights on the development of the Gothic in the long nineteenth century as not only a national phenomenon but also, and most importantly, as a global aesthetic category. Accordingly, the four parts that compose this collection, in a total of fourteen chapters, investigate the Gothic in American, Continental, Caribbean and Asian literature, engaging the reader in a fascinating network of cultural exchanges and mutual influences, whereby the Gothic becomes a transnational phenomenon that tackles religion, society, nationhood, colonization and de-colonization. The emphasis is on an idea of collectivity that goes beyond the categories of gender and race, which are usually considered to be at the basis of Gothic narratives.
Part One explores the transition from the 'Old World' to the 'New World Frontier' by contrasting the supposedly opposing values that these worlds represent (from a social, political and cultural point of view), whereby the Other always embodies a threat to the safe domestic circle. In this regard, Chapter Four by Roger Finger is certainly very effective in discussing the political and cultural role of the apparently minor character, Quincey Morris in Bram Stoker’s quintessential Gothic novel Dracula. Morris is the only American in the story, the immigrant who returns to his origins and the only one who fully embodies the foundational values of European culture. He is the perfect opposite of the other immigrant of the story, Dracula, who by contrast represents an enduring threat to the social order. Finger’s ingenious analysis of the text invites the reader to consider more carefully the implications within the Frontier literature of America, its meanings and values along with its narratives of the encounter with the Other and the foreign.
Part Two discusses Catholicism and the Catholic Church in its conflictual relationship with Protestantism, a major topic in many Gothic narratives (also defined as 'convent narratives'). Accordingly, the former is often presented as the paradigm of tyranny, perversion and betrayal of those moral values upon which the Catholic Church was originally founded, while the latter is presented as the paradigm of freedom, independence and a model of high moral commitment for the common good. Such a dichotomous relationship in Gothic narratives is usually presented with sexual overtones. The cluster of chapters investigating this topic, however, call for a reassessment of the definition of the Gothic as eminently anti-Catholic. For instance, in Chapter Six, Nancy F Sweet, in analysing Benjamin Barker’s romance Cecilia: The White Nun of the Wilderness (1845), skilfully illustrates the permeable and undecidable nature of the 'frontier' between Catholicism and Protestantism as bringers of opposite values and/or disvalues. Cecilia, the heroine of the story, with her unconventional behaviour as a free female agent undermines the very notion of a fixed national identity or the ideal of a supposed American purity (embodied by Protestantism) to be contrasted with corrupted European society (embodied by Catholicism).
Part Three, the most original and compelling section of the volume, engages with the Gothic in terms of genre. Both poetry and drama prove to be more than suitable for this particular literary form. Such adaptability to different genres reveals the extremely fluid and dynamic nature of the Gothic. Remarkably, in Chapter Nine Daniel Robinson considers how the poetic sections interpolated in some of the most representative Gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk (whose 'Alonzo metre' has become canonical in Gothic verse) call for a reconfiguration of English prosody, especially that related to Gothic poetry. Furthermore, Robinson discusses the impact of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s prosodic theories (both from a metrical and stanzaic perspective), exemplified in his Gothic ballad 'Christabel', on Edgar Allan Poe’s 'The Raven', which undoubtedly can be considered the epitome of 'Gothic prosody'.
The last part of the volume addresses the Gothic in its peculiar ability to display and question contemporary social anxieties, especially those referred to the intercultural tensions and transgressions that undermine an established political and social order. Attention is also paid to injustice and division, racial and cultural assimilation. Indeed, more than any other literary mode, the Gothic reflects the innermost fears of a society as it dialectically confronts cultural transformations. Notably in Chapter Eleven, Roxanne Hard explores these themes in relation to the primary social nucleus, the family. Hence social injustice and segregation are brought to the fore by child-ghosts, whose presence becomes a reminder of a disrupted order, of their betrayed innocence and the injustice they suffered, with their apparitions they demand revenge, punishment, and what Hard defines as 'restorative justice' (190). By comparing British child-ghost stories (by Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Elizabeth Riddell) with their American counterparts (by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mary Wilkins Freeman and Ellen Glasgow), Hard shows significant and in part unexpected interrelations and convergences, which turn the reading of these texts into 'a transatlantic conversation about suffering children' that 'transcends national borders' (190). Once again, the investigation on transnational Gothic leads to intertwining texts and motifs that demonstrate how the very essence of the Gothic cannot be reduced to a mere opposition between irreconcilable antinomies.
Elbert and Marshall place the Gothic in a space in between, at the crossroads of different nations and cultures, where borders are porous and transparent and transgression becomes an ontological necessity. They remind us that what makes the Gothic as relevant as ever is its ability to escape all-encompassing definitions or schematizing descriptions, as well as its quality of always presenting itself anew.
Annalisa Volpone, University of Perugia