From Wollstonecraft to Stoker
Marilyn Brock, ed. From Wollstonecraft to Stoker: Essays on Gothic and Victorian Sensation Fiction. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009. vii+212 pp. $35 (p).
Rev. by Marlene Tromp
Brock’s volume of thirteen essays sets out to explore gender, class, and empire in Gothic and sensation fiction of the nineteenth century. Three sections structure the book: the first on the instability of identity, the second on the colonial context of the fiction, and the third on fallen women and fallen men in Victorian literature (developing a discussion of “fallen men” is one of the more interesting aspects of the book). Several of the essays utilize a psychoanalytic framework to explore the genres under consideration. Kristevan notions of abjection play a particularly important role in many of the discussions. The significant interpretive power of psychoanalytic study in these two genres suggests, from the outset, an interesting connection between the Gothic and sensation, and offers one of the ways in which the collection can be valuable for readers. More significantly, many of the pieces raise intriguing questions, exploring, for example, masculinity and its reconfiguration in these genres.
It is significant that a number of the essays outside the section designated for its exploration concern the role of these genres in shaping notions of masculinity and femininity. Brock’s opening essay about the role of abjection in Wollstonecraft’s writing explores the ways in which her fiction worked to recast the limits of feminine identity. Judith Sanders’s fascinating discussion of The Woman in White discusses masculinity in the text (though, puzzlingly, she doesn’t situate her argument in the context of Collins criticism written after 1999). Elizabeth Anderman’s essay, exploring the same novel, speaks to “hysterical reading” as a means of understanding gender fluidity, sexual trauma, and desire. These essays aren’t limited to uses of psychoanalysis, however. Maria Granic-White’s reads Ruth using Derridian notions of the supplement to explore the symbolic structuring of femininity, for example.
One of the most exciting aspects of this collection is its potential to flesh out the relationship between Gothic fiction and strategies and those of the sensation novel. A few essays gesture toward this goal in ways that are useful and intriguing. Richard Fantina’s piece on Letitia Elizabeth Landon makes a persuasive claim about L.E.L.’s use of “passive agency” as the source of her dismissal in the Victorian era but also as a site of real power alongside the “pursuit of sensual pleasure” in her work. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas explores the role of visual and textual images in Jane Eyre as a means of effacing and refabricating the heroine’s body with gothic tools. Stephanie King discusses violence as a significant English patrimony in Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas. One might walk away from the volume, however, wishing that the genuinely important question about the relationship between these generic forms had been more fully engaged. The introduction notes that the two genres “have much in common” in “providing access to a dark, unconscious mode of knowledge,” but the nuances of this idea and its implications are rarely explicitly or directly explored in the essays that follow. Instead, implicit connections are suggested by the placement of essays on different genres alongside one another. Sometimes, in fact, the connections seem quite loose: an essay simply names literature “sensational” without grounding that in the text or mentions “Gothic” elements without addressing the significance of their presence in a sensation piece.
Still, many of the pieces are well worth reading. The best of these are Julie Barst’s fine piece on Lady Audley’s Secret that explores the significance of Australia as a political and social landscape in the novel, and Saverio Tomailuolo’s, which fruitfully brings economics and fertility to play in the vampiric “Good Lady Ducayne.” Kate Holterhoff’s essay on liminality poses some very interesting questions about the structure of power in Victorian culture and in Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars, and Jennifer Beauvais discusses bachelorhood in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, dissecting the public/private divide and masculinity (while this piece jumped around in ways that were sometimes confusing, it made me anxious to see the promise of this essay developed in the larger work Beauvais is writing on the subject).
I would like to see other critics take up the call that this volume (and Tamar Heller’s pioneering work before them) offers: to deeply engage the relationship between these genres and to assess the implications of that relationship. Brock and the other authors in this volume are on the mark when they suggest that the connection is an important one, with many critical elements that have the potential to reshape our understanding of the nineteenth century. For this reason, too, I wish that the presentation of the volume had done justice to the importance of the questions within. The index and bibliographies are incomplete, and the essays merited more careful copyediting. Still, I would encourage those with interest in the literature and authors addressed here to read the essays, which are worth mining for the value they contain.
Marlene Tromp is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Denison University. She is the author of Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism (SUNY, 2006) and The Private Rod: Sexual Violence, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England (UP Virginia, 2000). She has also edited or co-edited and contributed to Fear and Loathing: Victorian Xenophobia (Ohio State UP, forthcoming) Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in the Nineteenth Century (Ohio State UP, 2007), Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Beyond Sensation (SUNY 2000). She has another new book under review: Force of Habit: Life and Death on the Titanic.