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3 - Gothic and Victorian Supernatural Tales

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Jessica Cox
Edge Hill University
Dominic Head
University of Nottingham
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In her short story ‘Napoleon and the Spectre’ (1833), a young Charlotte Brontё parodies the established conventions of the gothic, portraying Napoleon tormented by a hideous spirit. The historical setting for Brontё's story harks back to a period when Napoleon himself functioned as a phantom haunting Europe, and consequently the narrative emphasizes the association between the gothic short story and the broader political landscape in the early nineteenth century, when the spectre of revolution threatened England. The American and French Revolutions (the latter leading to the Napoleonic Wars) were both in living memory. A different kind of revolution, industrialization, brought class unrest, threatening the established order – a threat brought to the fore by the Luddite disturbances of the 1810s. The anxieties provoked by these events contributed to the popularity of the gothic: a genre informed by and in turn informing the social and political climate. Gothic fiction reflects pervasive anxieties about a changing social order, and the language of the gothic is frequently appropriated by cultural and political commentators (most famously in Karl Marx's claim that ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’). This chapter traces the emergence and development of the gothic short story, examining its role in the literary marketplace as well as its broader cultural and political significance. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the gothic story, with its ability to ‘speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror’, became a dominant literary form, and remains perpetually popular, though critically neglected. Taking a broadly chronological approach, I identify the key trends in gothic and supernatural short fiction, from the emergence of the new literary magazines in the early nineteenth century to Victorian sensational gothic stories.

The roots of the literary gothic lie in the Enlightenment and subsequent Romantic backlash beginning in the late eighteenth century. Reacting against the Age of Reason, writers sought to emphasize the fantastical, inexplicable, ghostly and mysterious, evoking tensions between gothic and realism, science and religion, nature and the supernatural, the rational and the irrational, as well as drawing on the anxieties provoked by contemporary events. These tensions are central to gothic fiction, and enable the exploration of other dichotomies: life/death; masculine/feminine; self/society.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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Freeman, Nick, ‘Sensational Ghosts, Ghostly Sensations’, Women's Writing, 20:2 (2013), pp. 186–201.Google Scholar
Harris, Wendell V., British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979).
Morrison, Robert and Baldick, Chris, eds., Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine (Oxford University Press, 1995).
Polsgrave, Carol, ‘They Made it Pay: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1820–1840’, Studies in Short Fiction, 11 (1974), pp. 417–21.Google Scholar
Thurston, Luke, Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).
Wolfreys, Julian, Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny, and Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).
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