So, in honour of Charlotte Bronte’s unbirthday (shut up, they’re totally a thing and it’s not just an excuse to better understand Jane Eyre), we’re having a look at the conventions of the Victorian Gothic this week. But before we can look specifically at the Victorian Gothic genre, let’s get some things straight about the Gothic genre in general (we’ll look at this in greater detail in a later article, but for now this is what you need to know) :
The goths love death, decay, and madness. Especially when it happens to rich people. Who doesn’t love seeing a wealthy aristocrat gradually lose everything they own, including their mind? Not to mention, a common trope is the belief and the fear that ancestral sins will come back to bite their descendants- let’s face it, the farther back and higher up you go, the bigger bastards the people are. (*cough* JP Morgan *cough* George III *cough* Literally any monarch really *cough*)
Now, let’s take a look at what’s going on in the Victorian Era (dat hierarchy diagram doe)- the Classically Gothic genre is basically dead; it encourages emotions, which are like the arch nemeses of society to Victorians. This is leading your literature into becoming as repressed and boring as the people. Of course, if you’ve ever repressed anything (the urge to eat a chocolate bar, for instance) then you know that it just builds up in the back of your mind (it’s in the cupboard. I could have it right now.) until it inevitably gets released (*Burp* Pardon me..).
So, it kind of makes sense that the Victorians have these morbid, Gothic obsessions with death, mourning, and general mortality. They’re terrified of death- and, in particular, what happens when you die. By the 1850s, Spiritualism (stuff like seances, the dead communicating with the living, yadda yadda yadda) is everywhere in society. Conventional religion started to drop off into an abyss of rationality, people became terrified of what happens when you die. They were almost prepared to suspend reason in favour of anything.
Then in 1859 this guy named Darwink Charlie or something published this collection of work called the ‘Origin of Species‘ and started a war. The sides? Rationality and scientific belief, vs spiritualism and superstition. To the loyal ‘morally superior’ churchgoers, this was basically the end of the world. All these lovely ideas like restraint and duty and social hierarchies were suddenly threatened by the wanton depravity of scientific reasoning.
The response to Darwin’s clear work of science fiction is known as Atavism. Atavism is the belief that since we evolved from monkeys and pond scum, then we could very easily regress back into monkeys and pond scum. And who was most likely to regress? DING DING DING! We have a winner! Working-class criminals. Particularly those with oddly shaped skulls. Get a doctor to check your skull out if you’re worried you or a loved one might be turning back into an animal.
Then, along comes Charles Dickens (of course I know his name, come on) publishing Oliver Twist, and Victorian Gothic, as well as Urban Gothic, is born in earnest. Most stories start taking place away from the traditional graveyards and castles, and inside London, and more urban environments, where death is everywhere and where everyone wants to be and everyone is afraid. Also, in cities, the contrast in the social hierarchy is obvious. You have the wealthiest and most prosperous people working and walking the same streets as the disorderly and ‘barbaric’ working class.
Plus, in cities you get fog. And that shit is creepy as fuck.
It’s also worth mentioning that throughout the Victorian era you also have this sense of fear of anything that can’t be understood. Prejudice against the Jewish and the Orient was growing, and after the popularisation of the Jack the Ripper murders, the ‘Aliens Act’ was passed in 1905 that effectively curtailed European immigration for a time on large scales. An example of this anxiety can be seen in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, where Bertha Rochester is said to be of a dark complexion in comparison to her surrounding stereotypically British counterparts.
Speaking of Jane Eyre, with the Victorian and the Urban Gothic, we also see the popularisation of the Female Gothic. The social hierarchies of the Victorian era were particularly hard on women. They were trapped in domestic places- at home, at the side of their man, in prisons and mental hospitals for being ‘hysterical’ or, as we say in modern terms, ‘human’. Any transgressions against the restrictions that the society of the time tried to enforce was seen as dangerous, and was almost immediately quashed, until they would be, say, sent to religious boarding school or locked in their husband’s attic and forgotten about.
More than anything, when you’re looking at a Gothic text, it’s important to keep in mind that the flaws of society are represented, more than the people the text is describing. A possible reason for this is that it is usually society that reduces people to such a mentally vulnerable state in the first place.
*COUGH* Anyway, if after all that you want to read some of this stuff, your basic classics are:
- Anything by Edgar Allan Poe. Literally, anything.
- Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker
- Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde
- And of course, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.