Stephanie Gallon interviewed Dr Alison Younger. Dr Younger is a literature lecturer at the University of Sunderland. Her specialties are in the Medieval, Gothic, monstrosity and the discourse of the gentleman in the 19th century. In that past year, she has had various articles published, on topics like Burke and Hare, body-snatching and R. L Stevenson.
Q: What is Spectral Visions to you?
A: Good question! It’s very difficult to define exactly what Spectral Visions is. It’s like Heraclitus’s river: constantly moving and changing so that it’s never the same thing twice. It’s a celebration of the spectral: that is the liminal, the in-between, that which lies between death and life, being and nothingness, the ghostly and the gothic. In short, it’s an ever-changing Gothic phantasmagoria which allows us to research and discuss questions that continue to preoccupy us, such as ‘why do we need monsters’? Why are we fascinated by ghosts and serial killers? The fact that it is central to the A’ level curriculum suggests that these questions continue to fascinate at all levels. It isn’t just a conference, or a symposium, it’s a real collaboration between staff and students which allows us to showcase the excellent work our students are doing, and engage with these knotty questions that underpin Gothic texts. It’s research-led, of course; our research and, also student research. As you know, you visionaries have been doing great things. We have bloggers and writers, (such as you and Chloe) taking the Gothic flame out into the world beyond the university. It’s a kind of magic (if you’ll pardon the cliché). We want bring that magic to take delegates at Spectral Visions – to take them into the heart of darkness and help to illuminate the enigmas that lie at its core. Most importantly we want people to enjoy their trip and to come out of the other side of it edified and inspired to learn more. In sum, it’s a mirror of the Gothic itself: excessive, theatrical celebration of ‘Otherness’ which is designed to delight and teach. Does this answer your question?
Q: Absolutely. So what is it exactly about the Gothic which inspires you?
A: The Gothic employs a rhetoric of radical excess. It’s subversive and challenging, uncannily romantic and enigmatic. It interrogates the boundaries of the self and society as a whole. It takes us into the unconscious, where desire, alienation and sexuality are formed. As Catherine Spooner rightly says: ‘In contemporary Western culture, the Gothic lurks in all sorts of unexpected corners. Like a malevolent virus, Gothic narratives have escaped the confines of literature and spread across disciplinary boundaries to infect all kinds of media, from fashion and advertising to the way contemporary events are constructed in mass culture’ . It’s really all things to all people. It’s expansive, imaginative and sublime, and it allows us to wrestle with our own inner demons. We’re all drawn to the fantastic, the folkloric and the phantasmagoric. We love to peek into the abyss from the safety of our own armchair and explore the sensational and supernatural. Gothic allows us to do this. What fascinates me in particular about the Gothic is the way in which it allows us to view debates about highbrow and lowbrow culture through a critical lens. Gothic has historically been as popular with the masses (whoever they may be) as it was distasteful to the critical elite, (belletrists have repeated labelled it ‘trash’ since its generic Blue book beginnings). Without a doubt it has been excessively commercialised, hyped, mass-marketed and niche-marketed. As Spooner rightly says, ‘Gothic sells’. The question of why this might be must give us pause to think. It brings us back to the question of the longevity and popularity of Gothic as a protean, near Kaleidoscopic genre and we’re back to the start of our Gothic maze. So, for me I think it’s the subversive, playful element of Gothic that inspires. It’s a ludic funhouse which can be navigated using any critical theory, and yet, there is always something new to say about it. It’s a literature of paradoxes and otherness; as trivial and ‘pulp’ as it is profound, and, latterly, canonical but it’s unerring in its power to provoke. This is a fraction of what I find inspirational and exciting about Gothic. I could say more, but then I’d have to kill you. Joke!
Q: The late Victorian period brought a surge of popular Gothic fiction. What is it about that period or those works that made the Gothic so popular?
A: I came to late Victorian Gothic by quite a circuitous route – through the back door from the first Gothic Revival, so to speak. I’d been researching the way in which William Burke and William Hare, two run-of-the-mill murderers for their time) came to be represented as murderous, monstrous cause célèbres. This led me up two research alleys which would eventually direct me to the late Victorian period. The first was the idea of the Gothic as symptomatic of social anxieties within a given time or epoch (Marxist, materialist, cultural and New Historicist critics would tend to foreground these ideas). The second was a reintroduction to the works of the wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson via his ‘crawler’ The Body Snatcher. What became very clear is that there was what Foucault would describe as an epistemic shift between the late Georgian and the late Victorian period. Burke and Hare had monstrous resonance because of profound social fears of the Anatomist’s table and what happens to the body after death (the same, of course can be said of Shelley’s Frankenstein). Gothic responds to, and allows us to confront unsettling cultural changes and beliefs such as these. Of course it evolves and changes as these ‘fears’ for want of a better word, evolve and change. Gothic fiction has always been preoccupied with the taboo, the transgressive and the terrifying, and these taboos, transgressions and terrors changed in the course of the nineteenth century. As Maggie Kilgour suggests, the ‘Romantic Gothic’ emerged as ‘the rebellion of the imagination against the tyranny of reason’. Gothic is a narrative of the ineffable or unutterable; filled with gaps, uncertainty and hesitations. In the sense of aesthetic developments it was also associated with the heightened emotional sensitivity (in the sense of madness, paranoia and melancholy) displayed by its characters. Often the cause of this sublime sensitivity is found to be buried in the past – in family secrets and ghosts that will not remain in their graves. As such it really speaks of the mature art of the High Romantics and shares their preoccupations: Antiquarianism; Revolution; Enlightenment reason set against the tyranny and barbarity of Medieval (and therefore Feudal) times; egalitarianism and the debate over the privileges of the aristocratic few set against the rights (or lack of them) of the many. Fear of the mob stampedes through the supernaturally sublime landscapes of Romantic Gothic, and while this fear of the proletarian crowds is still evident in Late Victorian Gothic, its post Darwinian monsters slink and hide in the doorways of urban rookeries and lurk like detritus in the cess pools which were urban criminal quarters. They carry the visible stigmata of the ‘criminal type’ or racial other. Worse, they have the fatal beauty of the femme fatale! We’re not so far removed from Victorian sensibilities as we might suspect. We still look for scapegoats in times of imminent disaster. To sum up, though, and to answer your questions (by a most circuitous route) I’d say that the Late Victorian period was a time of great cultural ferment which saw the Dusk of Nations; the birth of the New Woman and the popularisation of ‘faux’ sciences such as phrenology and physiognomy (and a growing interest in the psychological theories of Freud and Jung). Add to this a growing belief in Criminality, Social Darwinism and Degeneration theory. Mix in the development of theories of Atavism, devolution into barbarism and the horrors of social definition and throw them into the melting pot of febrile young minds in revolt against the status quo (Stoker, Stevenson and Wilde are classic examples of this). You have a perfect recipe for Gothic. Devour it! You might also want to read Patrick Brantlinger who is an acknowledged expert in this field.
Q: One of your areas of study is the discourse of the gentleman. How does that play in to Gothic literature? Are there any character which you think are a good study in to the gentleman?
A: When David Punter describes the gothic hero as having a “twisted nature…full of unnatural lusts and passions [but] suffer[ing] the torments of the damned while committing his nefarious deeds” it seems like a fair description of what has come to be known as ‘the Byronic Hero’ doesn’t it? And, Byron was certainly a powerful force in the creation of Gothic gentlemen villains, but The elements of the Byronic hero existed before Byron in Romantic hero tradition which was nearly a half-century old when the bold Lord appeared in literary circles. I could speak for hours on the self-fashioning of Regency gentlemen and their louche and riotous behaviours (simmering under a veneer of extreme mannerliness and societal rituals). I’ll stick to the Gothic today though. The Gothic ‘gentleman’ hero is an enigma, noble and attractive in appearance, brooding, taciturn, melancholic, dark, defiant, destructive and self-damned, invariably manly (in a square-jawed type of way), usually gentlemanly, and with the Titanic properties of Milton’s Satan. Heathcliff would epitomise this type of hero, or would he? Is he ever a ‘gentleman’ or does he just put on the trappings of a gentleman? The latter, I think. And again, much as we love Heathcliff, he’s not a prototype. He’s almost an exact double of Hugh Lawlor, the protagonist of the anonymous “The Bridegroom of Barna,” which Blackwood’s Magazine printed anonymously in 1840. With the Romantic gentleman villain we expect a certain amount of dash and swagger, a bravura physicality and a certain physical prowess. By the late Victorian era this translates into the idea of ‘Muscular Christianity’, based in part on the fact that the notion of manliness (for a variety of reasons such as gender, class, sexuality) was becoming more beleaguered and under attack, and ‘gentlemanliness’ becomes, more than ever a role that is play. Count Dracula attempts to play this role but he simply cannot carry it off. More interesting to me is the way in which Dr Jekyll attempts to present himself to a community of fellow gentlemen as sans reproche, and, to retain the respect of his fellow men he creates Hyde as a low alter-ego who is everything that the gentleman is not. Yet, as Stephen Arata suggests of Hyde, ‘his vices are clearly of a monied gentleman’. Arata argues further that the ‘prime horror’ of Jekyll and Hyde is ‘not that the professional man is transformed into an atavistic criminal, but that the atavist learns to pass as a gentleman’ . This, for me is one of the most interesting parts of the novel.
Q: You’re also interested in the idea of monstrosity and monster theory. What exactly is monster theory, and how does it apply to some of mainstream, classic monsters?
A: Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Theory was a revelation to me. It answered a lot of the questions I’d been asking myself about ideological and institutional power structures and how they come to marginalise and Other anything which doesn’t conform to the norm. His suggestion that ‘the monster exits only to be read’ is really very profound. Reading the monster is a tremendously illuminating hermeneutic as it gives us direct access to the discourses that label any group (or being) ‘monstrous’. It tells us about their anxieties and fears, and so it holds up a mirror (reflective and distorting) on to the society from which they emerge. A topic which I know is close to your heart is that of the Late Victorian New Woman. Let’s take this group as a collective ‘glyph’ or symbol. How were they used to police social norms and support social hierarchies? How does an ethnological reading of them challenge the notion of what was considered human, feminine, and appropriate? Why would women’s empowerment and creative expression be considered, at best iconoclastic and at worst terrifying? We can take it for granted that these women were militant anarchic and subversive. They wanted to break down an ideology of separate spheres which relegated them to the position of scions of the house – domesticated and disempowered by a logic of domesticity and familism and entirely dependent on men for their existence. As women started to militate against these roles they began to appear in the press and in literature as monstrous, aberrant, and abject – the wantonly transgressive and deadly phallic woman. Why? Because ‘She’ represented an affront to patriarchy and was therefore depicted as either risible or deadly. Fred Botting suggests that: ‘The terrors and horrors of transgression in Gothic writing become a powerful means to reassert the values of society, virtue and propriety: transgression, by crossing the social and aesthetic limits, serves to reinforce or underline their value and necessity, restoring or defining limits’ In other words, the Gothic often allows transgression in order to contain it. Let’s return to our ideas on the New Woman and put Her in the context of Ryder Haggard’s ‘She’. Ayesha (She who must be obeyed) is a profoundly ambiguous character – a savage, dusty queen who is as desirable as she is fearful. She’s a femme fatale in the tradition of Homer’s Circe. Admittedly she doesn’t transform men into animals, but she degrades them to an animal-like state. Men are expected to crawl in her presence, the Englishmen, who refuse to do this, are given names like “the Baboon”, “the Lion” and “the Pig”. She combines feminine and masculine elements in one person and thus blurs the traditional Victorian distinction between the sexes. She can therefore be seen as a monstrous representation of the New Woman, which reflects particularly male anxieties of the time. Ayesha represents changing attitudes to and anxieties about sexuality: from the problems of heterosexual relations (including marriage and the family), to increasing sexual desire in women (changing social position of women), to increasing acknowledgement of the prevalence of sexual “perversions” like homosexuality, and promiscuity. She transgresses and so she has to be made safe, hence her punishment for her impurity and impiety and her eventual death at the end of the novel. There’s your ‘happy-ever-after ending for the Victorian gentleman. But as Cohen suggests, ‘the monster always returns’…there’s the rub.
Q: You ask the question of “who is the real monster” a lot. Please tell us why you think Mr Hyde is not the monster of his own tale.
A: Dare I say that Henry James over-simplified the text when he said that it is about the “difficulty of being good and the brutishness of being bad”? For a start we have to question what James means. What is good and bad to Henry James may be radically different to what constitutes goodness and badness to any or all of us. It’s all relative. The assumption, of course is repeatedly made that Hyde represents that which is bad, and Jekyll that which is good. Can we fit them so easily into a neat binarism? The narrative structure of the text doesn’t give any clear answers as it’s an unreliable assemblage of, often highly biased narratives and reports which give no clear-cut answers about the characters of Jekyll or Hyde. Let’s imagine for a moment that the novel is about hypocrisy, the importance of public image and bourgeois corruption among a homosocial community of Victorian male elites: how would we read Hyde then? Is he the monster, the victim of a monster, or something else altogether? The fact is, (if we can ascertain any facts about this text) that he is impossible to define or codify. It’s implied that he is ‘masculine’ in his ‘strange lusts’ (which we never really learn about), but he weeps ‘like a woman’. He’s depicted as the lower class social other: a troglodytic post-Darwinian outsider, and yet he’s really very cultured and able to mix in ‘polite society’ with ease. Like the narrative of the novel he’s ineffable and impossible to articulate. We don’t even know what he looks like! He’s described as both ‘a damned juggernaut’ and a ‘little man’. There’s really no name for what he is at all. Perhaps he’s what Nietzsche would describe as the ‘ubermensch’. Whatever he is, he exists in all of us; better to challenge his passion than deny his existence, because do what we will, he will escape!
Q: Certain character types seem timeless in the Gothic, i.e. the vampire or the werewolf. What is it about these creatures which allows them to have a place in a changing society?
A: I think they represent archetypal fears which exist in all cultures. The fact that they evolve and change, (often only in appearance – the archetype often remains) is a testament to the way in which societies evolve and change. We will always need monsters in the same way in which Jekyll needs Hyde. They are everything that we are not, and on these grounds they make us feel safe in who we think we are!
Q: What is your favourite Gothic piece of literature?
A: Am I limited to one? If I was forced to I’d say that Clemence Houseman’s ‘the Werewolf’ changed my life due to the gorgeous ‘cleanness’ of the writing style and the challenge to my preconceptions about werewolves. Reading it is like bathing in an Arctic stream. Beyond this, for terror I love William Maginn’s ‘The Man in the Bell’ (I’ll acknowledge Poe’s debt to him here). For satire and parody I love the works of Saki (such a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek writing style). For sheer cleverness I love ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ by James Hogg, and then, of course there are all of Stevenson’s Gothic texts which, for me are jewels in the gothic diadem. I also have a huge soft spot for Arthur Machen’s works (the Great God Pan is a must-read to any fan of Gothic). I’ve just looked at this list and my book choices indicate that I am well over one hundred years old, so I’ll had Thomas Harris to the list. His novels are well researched and suspenseful. Hannibal Lecter is a beautifully drawn protagonist, but of course a much older type of monster than his contemporary setting would have us believe. And there I go, back to the nineteenth century!
Q: Pick one: Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
A: I’ll let you guess by giving you a riddle: he’s a rakish, voracious wicked child who becomes a caricature of all that is unsavoury to the bourgeois Victorian (male) mind. He’s the Shadow that we suppress at our peril. He’s anti-structure; anti-authority – the eternal Other who becomes a caricature of everything Victorian society chose to either fear or indulge in and ‘hide’ (pardon the pun). Given that there are no real verifiable facts in a ‘full confession’ that isn’t full or even a confession really, (it’s more of a justification), then he is what we make him, and that tells us a great deal about our own ideas and beliefs. He’s the abyss into which we’re afraid to stare lest we see our own faces staring back at us! Have you guessed?
Q: Werewolves or vampires?
A: Werewolves! I’m Team Jacob all the way. They are savage tricksters who, like Hyde epitomise the duality of humankind. They speak of the divided self, and yet they are the ultimate expression of the externalised scapegoat who must be removed from the community at large. In this they’re the ultimate irony; the perfect example of the abyss staring back in a distorted reflection that we will never, ever have to recognise as ourselves.
Dr Younger will be speaking at this year’s Spectral Visions conference on 26th June, hosted at the University of Sunderland St.Peter’s campus. To book your place, contact firstname.lastname@example.org