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There has been much (and often confusing) critical discussion since the mid-2000s as to whether ‘Irish Gothic’ constitutes a ‘tradition’, a ‘canon’, a ‘genre’ or a ‘mode’, discussion which sometimes suggests that these are all mutually exclusive terms. The terminological difficulty arises in part because it is difficult to know where Irish Gothic begins and ends since, on close examination, Gothic tropes, motifs and themes appear everywhere and anywhere in modern Irish literature. In a discussion of American Gothic, Fred Botting argues that in the United States ‘the literary canon is composed of works in which the influence of romances and Gothic novels is . . . overt’, so much so that American literature seems ‘virtually an effect of a Gothic tradition. Gothic can perhaps be called the only true [American] literary tradition’. This is even more the case with Irish literature. It is not that Ireland merely produced a large number of important writers such as Roche, Maturin, Le Fanu, Wilde and Stoker whose work is considered central to the Gothic canon, but also that the Gothic appears even in texts which seem, on a superficial reading, to be distant from or antagonistic to the genre – the work of the great national novelist Maria Edgeworth being a case in point. When what constitutes the Irish Gothic is so diffuse, achieving a critical bearing seems difficult if not impossible and this concern has led to calls for some terminological clarification and limitation.
For an example of the terminological confusion in which critics have sometimes found themselves when dealing with Irish Gothic, Siobhán Kilfeather’s generally excellent survey article both describes the period from the 1760s to the 1820s as the ‘heyday of the genre’ and, conversely, notes that ‘many of these novels are only partly Gothic (or mock-Gothic) but that is typical of the genre’. What is unclear here is whether a novel which is only ‘partly’ Gothic, or which mocks the Gothic, can still be included as representative of the genre. Is a ‘partly Gothic’ text Gothic? From the way this is phrased it would seem that Kilfeather assumes that a ‘partly’ or ‘mock’ Gothic novel should still be thought of as Gothic, and indeed, it would be difficult to accept that Mrs F. C. Patrick’s More Ghosts! (1798), which parodies the late eighteenth-century literary obsession with bumps in the night typical of Gothic, should be excluded on the basis that it ridicules rather than simply repeats the genre’s conventions. In a further potentially confusing sentence, Kilfeather indicates that Irish Gothic writers ‘crossed the Gothic with the sentimental novel, the novel of manners, or – most commonly – the national tale’, but neglects to explain whether such ‘crossings’ lifted these texts out of the Gothic ‘genre’ and into another one.
Once we widen our perspective, of course, it is clear that it is not just with the Irish Gothic that terminological confusion holds sway. To say, as Judith Halberstam has said, that the Gothic is ‘overdetermined’ is to understate things considerably! ‘Gothic’ is notoriously one of the most slippery terms in the literary critical dictionary, and it has been defined in very many ways. Indeed, the terms used for such definitions just keep multiplying: depending on which critic you are reading, the Gothic is a ‘genre’, a ‘domain’, a ‘mode’, a ‘discursive site’, an ‘area of literary space, a niche in the ecology of literature’. Robert Miles has spoken of Gothic as ‘a series of contemporaneously understood forms, devices, codes, figurations’. Given the sheer multiplicity of terms used about the Gothic by very eminent scholars it would be unwise to rule anything out, but this has not prevented some attempts at terminological policing. Because of the looseness of the Gothic, that it should be considered a genre at all has been denied. For example, for James Watt ‘any categorization of the Gothic as a continuous tradition, with a generic significance, is unable to do justice to the diversity of the romances which are now accommodated under the “Gothic” label, and liable to overlook the often antagonistic relations that existed between different works or writers’. Similarly, Gary Kelly has opined that the Gothic romance ‘was not so much a coherent and authentic genre as an ensemble of themes and formal elements which could be taken over and adapted in whole or in part by other novelists and writers’.
Although it may initially seem attractive to be able to discard the term ‘genre’ when dealing with the Gothic, on the basis that the Gothic is too unstable or impure since it combines different genres, ultimately this discarding does not help because it rather obscures literary history. Complaining about the Gothic’s ‘instability’, for example, and positing it as a reason why the Gothic does not constitute a ‘genre’, indicates a belief that it is possible to isolate a pure genre in the first place, one uncontaminated by other genres. However, as David Duff has reminded us, genre theory is a notoriously ‘disputatious field’ precisely for the reason that there are few (if any) texts which belong only to one particular genre. Expecting any genre to be categorically simple or pure is to misunderstand genre entirely, and to ignore the fact that, as John Frow explains, ‘the textual event is not a member of a genre-class because it may have membership in many genres, and because it is never fully defined by “its” genre’ (my italics). Frow supports Ann Freadman’s argument that it is useful to ‘think of genre in terms of sets of intertextual relations . . . the relation between all those texts that are perceived to be relevantly similar to this one, as well as all those texts that are perceived to be relevantly dissimilar’. Texts are ‘uses of genres, performances of or allusions to the norms and conventions which form them’. So, for example, while Charles Dickens’s extraordinarily complex Bleak House (1852–3) is best placed in the ‘realist’ genre, this is not to deny that it also has a place in the Gothic genre, as well as participating in a number of other subgenres (like detective fiction) of the much broader genre of the novel. A drive for complete conceptual clarity has been powerfully evident in some discussions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which has divided many critics over the question of whether it should be considered a Gothic novel at all. Robert Mighall makes an investment with history fundamental to his definition of the Gothic, highlighting a ‘concern with the historical past . . . [and] rhetorical and textual strategies to locate the past and represent its perceived iniquities, terrors, and survivals’, on which basis he excludes Frankenstein. For others it is Frankenstein’s position as the inaugurating text of the new genre of science fiction that lifts it out of the Gothic’s borders. Imagining that there is a potential generic purity will mislead the literary critic, and accepting that texts use genres (as well as being used by genres) prevents the critic from reaching the counter-intuitive conclusion that one of the most famous Gothic novels of all is not actually a Gothic novel at all.
An analogous case of generic mixing from Irish writing could be made for Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui (1804). On the face of it this novel is a realist text, indeed an anti-Gothic narrative, supporting the expulsion of the Gothic, anachronistic elements in Irish society so that modernity can be brought fully to bear on the island. The plot is apparently straightforward enough: the bored English Lord Glenthorn travels to his Irish estate in order to make his life more meaningful. On the way he encounters the standard stereotypes that were believed to populate Ireland, the inveterately lazy bumpkins who speak in rather silly accents. Glenthorn is presented with two alternative views of Ireland’s future. His land agent, Mr McLeod urges the slow but steady modernisation of the country through the introduction of English methods of agricultural production, education of the Catholic peasantry in non-denominational schools, and encouragement of industry (sounding very like Edgeworth’s father, Richard Lovell); his neighbour, Mr Hardcastle insists that the Irish are un-reformable and lazy and improvident by nature as opposed to culture, and he advocates coercion and a firm colonial hand in keeping them down. The choice lies between allowing the Irish to remain characters in a Gothic story or gently translating them into a national bildungsroman. The ideological weight of the novel appears to come down on Mr McLeod’s side and suggests that the spectre of the Gothic can be banished given enough reforms and patient application of reason and technology.
However, the main problem with this reading of the novel is that it ignores the energies of the text: Lord Glenthorn is completely bored while in ‘rational’ England and is only awakened to life’s possibilities when he meets Ellinor, his Irish former wet-nurse and a banshee-like figure straight out of a Gothic melodrama. His excitement increases once he arrives in Ireland, confronts its Gothic scenery, meets its Gothic cast list and almost becomes involved on the rebel side of the 1798 Rebellion (before fighting on behalf of the state). There is a sense, in other words, that recreating Ireland into a miniature version of England may well be industrially desirable and economically necessary, but that it will be disastrous from a psychological view and that cultural decadence and ennui will follow such a recreation. The plot of the novel certainly seems to opt for a reformable and possibly realist Ireland of the future; the energy of the novel lies with the Gothic melodrama Glenthorn finds being enacted when he migrates there. Ennui is, it seems to me, a good example of Gothic energy refusing to allow realist closure. Edgeworth may be intellectually on the side of English reform but psychologically her novel is more attracted to Irish Gothic irreality. Ennui, I argue, is a case of a novel which has a place in at least two genres: it is certainly a realist novel, but it is also, I think, a Gothic novel, and the two genres conduct an argument within its pages. Which genre actually triumphs is, ultimately, not a determining factor in deciding the genre to which the novel belongs, since it clearly ‘participates’ in both.
Bleak House, Frankenstein and Ennui are actually fairly late examples of texts in which the Gothic genre co-exists with other genres, and it should be emphasised that the Gothic originated in the eighteenth century when, as noted by David Duff, ‘genre-mixing’ was both ‘a critical idea’ and ‘a creative fact’.65 These are not, in other words, anomalous examples. The early history of the novel (including the Gothic novel) is, to say the least, very, very messy, and it is not simply difficult but next to impossible to make hard and fast distinctions between romances, histories, memoirs, Gothic novels and sentimental novels in this period. Genre mixing is simply part of what happens in the eighteenth century, from Horace Walpole’s mixture of the ancient and modern romance, to M. G. Lewis’s The Castle Spectre (1797), ‘a drama of a mingled nature, Operatic, Comical and Tragical’,66 to the ‘new species of writing’, as Samuel Richardson called Pamela (1740–1).67 As Markman Ellis has pointed out, although the ‘novel’ is a highly confusing and potentially misleading generic label to use to ‘describe the bulk of eighteenthcentury prose fiction’, it is also unavoidable.68
Moreover, Gothic has always been a self-consciously impure genre. There has always been a great deal of ‘crossing’ going on in fiction thought of as Gothic, and the Gothic itself, from the very beginning, describes itself as ‘spliced’, heterogeneous, anomalous, hybrid, a literary mutant. To object to the terminological confusion that is generated because of this mixing is to imagine that there could possibly be somewhere a Gothic uncontaminated by other genres, or a ‘pure’ Gothic mode that exists ready to be added as a kind of ingredient as part of the combination of a given novel (so that some novels have a pinch of Gothic with a dollop of the sentimental and a dash of the realist novel). When reading what has traditionally (and incorrectly) been considered the ‘first’ Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), it becomes clear that the Gothic has always been configured as an impure. Using Otranto as an ‘origin’ text has always been attractive because when, in the second edition, Walpole gave it the more expansive subtitle, ‘A Gothic Story’, he seemed to provide a kind of generic stability to a term that was causing desperate literary critics to pull their hair out. Yet, James Watt rightly observes that this novel only gave an ‘illusory stability to a body of fiction which is distinctly heterogeneous’.69 That illusory quality should have been obvious from Walpole’s second preface, of course, since he straightforwardly admits that his fictional experiment is a generic hybrid, a ‘blend’ combining two different ‘kinds of Romance’ (one we would now call ‘realist’, the other traditional romance) in one work.70 Like most hybrids in the history of Gothic, Walpole’s proved an unstable combination quite liable to break down, an amusing but ultimately unsatisfying experiment in generic splicing. The second novel which declared its Gothic affinities, Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story (1777), is rather more like a realist novel than a Gothic one in that Reeve reduces what she saw as Walpole’s supernatural excrescences to a minimum and attempts to make her story as faithful to reality as possible. For both Walpole and Reeve, the term ‘Gothic’ indicated not the supernatural but the medieval, and it was only later that it became clear that it was in relation to elements other than historical period (such as theme, tropes, props, stock characters) that these novels were influential. ‘Gothic’ then came to designate not temporal setting but a vast panoply of other elements, amusingly set out in the anonymous article ‘Terrorist Novel Writing’ (1797) with its famous ‘recipe’:
Take – An old castle, half of it ruinous. A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones. Three murdered bodies, quite fresh. As many skeletons, in chests and presses. An old woman hanging by the neck; with her throat cut. Assassins and desperados, ‘quant suff’. Noise, whispers and groans, threescore at least.71
As Jacqueline Howard comments, the Gothic has always been ‘an indeterminate genre’, comprised of ‘impurities’,72 from the very start not something ‘distinct’ from realism, but a genre which contained and combined the realist and romance genres. Part of what makes the Gothic Gothic is that it is a mixture. It is a genre which absorbs and assimilates other genres. To be blunt about it, ‘Gothic’ has been a mess since it was first used as a descriptive term for fiction, and that it continues to be such a terminological problem is very appropriate,73 and when the Gothic intrudes on other genres it tends to have a similarly destabilising effect. Thus, like Ennui, Irish texts which seem in one sense straightforwardly romantic national tales or realist novels often have their narratives of reconciliation disrupted and dissipated by the invasion of the Gothic elements, narrative devices, tropes and themes, preventing settlement and closure. Much Irish writing, while not full-blown Gothic, is ‘interrupted’ by Gothic as if to remind the reader of what the historian Brendan Bradshaw has described as the ‘cataclysmic element of Irish history’.74
That Gothic is therefore a genre which is generically unstable (like most other genres, but even more so) should not be too disturbing (unless we are addicted to certainties). According to Jacques Derrida, the ‘law of genre’ means that while a text ‘cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre’, and it is also true that ‘every text participates in one or several genres’. Assigning a text to a genre is therefore necessary, but ‘such participation never amounts to belonging’.75 Precisely the wrong question to ask about a novel like Frankenstein is whether it is a ‘Gothic’ or a ‘science fiction’ novel – because it is both. Richard Haslam complains about the tendency of many critics (including myself) to use the term ‘Gothic’ to apply to radically different novels and points out that ‘some Irish authors use the Gothic mode extensively in one work (Maturin’s Melmoth) but not in another (Maturin’s The Wild Irish Girl). Or they splice the Gothic mode with other supernaturalist or quasi-supernaturalist modes’.76 However, to split the ‘Gothic’ from the ‘supernaturalist’ in this way is to misunderstand the always already ‘spliced’ nature of the Gothic genre. Haslam’s addiction to classification prisons is even more damaging when it comes to eighteenth-century texts when these genres were in their infancy. As Michael Gamer points out, when looking at ‘Gothic’ or ‘romantic’ texts from the eighteenth century we are dealing with a period ‘in which the texts we now associate with each had not yet been categorized in the ways we would now find familiar’.77 For Gamer, Gothic texts ‘regularly contain multiple modes of writing’, and Gothic is a ‘site that moves, and that must be defined in part by its ability to transplant itself across forms and media’.78 This tendency to shift, to move and to morph is understandably frustrating for critics and historians since it is much easier to deal with objects and events that have a relative stability, but we must take things as they are and not re-make them to fit our intellectual preferences.
The Gothic as a genre often behaves rather like the ghosts and phantoms that populate many of its canonical texts. As Fred Botting explains, ‘Elusive, phantom-like, if not phantasmatic, floating across generic and historical boundaries, Gothic (re) appearances demand and disappoint, and demand again, further critical scrutiny to account for their continued mutation.’79 James Watt has urged that one way to deal with this elusiveness is through a renewed focus on discrete literary examples and urges literary historians to ‘focus in detail on the functioning of specific works, so as to provide the basis for a more nuanced account of the way that the genre was constituted in the late eighteenth [century]’.80 This kind of focus is specifically what I want to achieve here. For some critics, historical and terminological messiness, blurriness and amorphousness are enemies to be beaten into a conceptual clarity that glosses over the complexities of history and genre theory, but I suggest that such clarity is reached only by ignoring how individual texts actually work.