Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Through the Vaults: Remembering Last Year's Meetings. . .

We hope all Gothic Reading Group members (old and new) are settling into their courses at Sheffield and enjoying encountering new texts, authors and subjects (Gothic or otherwise) as part of their studies. It is, of course, the first meeting of the Gothic Reading Group next week. We know people are busy getting to grips with module reading lists and new research projects, so we haven't actually set any reading at all for the first session: all you need to do is come along, watch the new version of The Evil Dead,eat some cake and take part in a bit of discussion. One of the great things about the GRG is that it brings together people from all levels of the School of English in a relaxed round-table. This means our discussions benefit from the experience and expertise of our individual members, but aren't restricted to any pre-defined topics and can wander as we see fit. Last year's meetings were a great example of this. As we look forward to the first meeting of 2013-14, you might like to follow Mark as he steps tentatively into the dusty vaults of 2012-13... Careful as you go: mind the rusted daggers, step lightly around the giant helmet, don't touch that black curtain and please be especially wary of the cake-wrappers on the floor...


Session One, October 2012: Dominik Moll's Le Moine [The Monk] (2011)


Choosing material for our first ever session was tricky. The Reading Group was being established as term started and our newly recruited members wouldn't have time to read anything substantial in advance. We also wanted to pick something that appealed to a 'classic' form of the Gothic - in its eighteenth-century sense - without simply replicating material from one of Sheffield's many great Gothic Literature modules, or assuming all our members had taken them. So we picked a recent film adaptation of one of the major Gothic novels. Dominik Moll's Le Moine is based on Mathew Gregory Lewis's The Monk, originally published in 1796 as the new literary 'genre' took the presses by storm. Choosing a foreign-language film also helped us remain feeling suitably academic. . . as we sat munching snacks in our own private 'cinema'.

Discussion of the film naturally focused on the way in which it attempted to translate its source material. This was something all members were able to participate in as even those who hadn't read Lewis's novel were interested in the way this very recent film did or didn't accord with a contemporary expectation of what the 'Gothic' should be. More specific discussion focused on the way Moll's film dealt with the original novel's interest in different kinds of spectacle or voyeurism and its exploration of the relationships between characters' exterior and interior selves. We thought Moll conveyed this particularly well, with lingering shots on the carved faces decorating the abbey in which much of the action takes place. There was also a surprising use of masks and masking, literalising some of the novel's thematic concerns. As with any adaptation it was also interesting to ask what had been lost in the transition from one medium to another and what this said about the needs or expectations of different 'Gothic' audiences in 1796 and 2011. We found that Moll made much less of Lewis's narrative deviations and interpolated tales - including the famous supernatural apparition of the Bleeding Nun. This perhaps reflected a need for more streamlined narrative on the part of a contemporary cinema audience seeking an hour or two's entertainment. In contrast, Lewis's novel was happy to offer a much more substantial serving of varied material, designed to keep a reader engaged across multiple volumes.This helped The Monk appeal to an emerging readership keen for 'Gothic' romance, whose tastes would be further sated with miscellanies such as Lewis's own Tales of Wonder (1801).  

Le Moine also established a tradition in the GRG as every semester's schedule as continued to kick off with a film screening.


Session Two, October 2012: James Boaden's Aurelio and Miranda (1797)


Sarah Siddons, as painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
We followed up Moll's twenty-first century adaptation of Lewis with this eighteenth-century dramatisation by James Boaden. Boaden was a prolific writer for the late eighteenth-century stage and was well-established as an adapter of popular Gothic novels by the time he came to rework Lewis. The play's immediate context was interesting, as a few members had discovered by looking into its initial production and reception. We managed to find contemporary reviews and notices that suggested a less-than enthusiastic response from the play's audiences. Meanwhile, Boaden himself seemed eager to deflect potential criticisms stemming from the controversies surrounding his source material. The play had some serious eighteenth-century star power though, with Sarah Siddons and John Kemble in leading roles. Both were associated with the famous Kemble acting family and would have added significantly to the appeal of Boaden's play. Siddons in particular would have been an ideal choice for the female lead, having become famous for her portrayal of tragic heroines and particularly renowned as Lady Macbeth.

Unfortunately, the play itself didn't impress us as much as its performance context and cast-list - largely due to a lukewarm handling of the more powerful elements of Lewis's plot and a heroine that probably didn't make the most of Siddon's casting. This made for some good discussion, however. We noticed that the play's characterisation seemed more akin to work by Ann Radcliffe than Lewis's much more explicit brand of Gothic. Religious and revolutionary topics also seemed to be handled differently. This lead us to ponder the mechanics of 'showing' the Gothic on stage, as well as the 'bank-ability' of different authors in a dramatic context. We also thought about the audience for 'Gothic' plays: would it have been similar to that of the novels? - does the popularity of Gothic plays (attracting stars like Kemble and Siddons) tell us something else about contemporary attitudes to the Gothic and its criticism?


Session Three, November 2012: Frederick Marryat's "The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains" (inset within The Phantom Ship 1839).

[Extract from a novel]

A great scholarly edition of Victorian
 werewolf tales, including Marryat's
We brought our chronology forward and finally said farewell to the ghost of Lewis for the group's third meeting. This was also our first time discussing a piece of narrative prose - proof that the Gothic takes many interesting forms. Suggested by our membership, Frederick Marryat's short tale was a text many of us in the GRG had heard of, but very few had actually read. It makes up a brief inset tale in his supernatural adventure story, The Phantom Ship (a novel about the Flying Dutchman) where it is told to the hero by a companion recounting his history during part of a voyage. This seemed appropriate to Marryat, who was well known in the nineteenth-century as an author of naval adventure yarns. Of course, we were primarily interested in this very early version of the werewolf tale - a subset of monster fiction that tends to be eclipsed by several better-known vampire fictions in the Victorian period. Given that werewolves seem to have finally re-acquired some monster credibility as co-stars in contemporary vampire tales we were curious to see how they came across in their own narratives, decades before all that Dracula stuff.

We found the relationships between a precarious domestic space and a surrounding wilderness particularly interesting in Marryat's tale, which centres on a strange marriage and maternal replacement... We perhaps expected a focus upon gender and family roles, but were still drawn into discussing the intensity with which these themes were explored and the different symbolic registers Marryat seemed to be drawing upon. The story's function as a kind of inset moral fable also intrigued us and we wondered to what degree it displayed an ecological disposition. Some of our most interesting discussion actually used the short tale as a jumping-off point to consider the way in which different 'monster' narratives work and the degree to which tales of vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc actually differ from each other. 

This was the last session of our first term together, but it helped shape our choice of film to recommence with after the Christmas break. . .


Session Four, February 2013: James Whale's Frankenstein (1931)


Following the discussion of monster narratives in our last session of 2012, we decided to begin 2013 with a classic Universal Studios monster movie: James Whale's 'original' Frankenstein film. Some of the group had seen this before, but for a few of us it was (perhaps to our shame) our first time with a work that's arguably done as much as Mary Shelley herself to form 'Frankenstein's Monster' as a cultural archetype and metaphor.

As well as considering its adaptation of the novel, we wondered to what extent this film was a product of its own inter-war period. The decision to locate much of the action in Germany was interesting, though we noted that the film's Germans only seemed especially German during a long scene featuring country-dancing in lederhosen. . . Otherwise the main characters behaved as upper-class Englishmen. Class seemed to be a more general concern, as Lugosi's physically strong, but inarticulate and shabbily clothed creature was eventually burned alive in a mill.  Given its source material, we were also interested in the way Whale adapted Shelley's  investigation of Romantic innocence and the effect of experience on social and moral identity. Whale supposedly accounts for his creature's behaviour with the deterministic device of a "criminal brain," mistakenly inserted at his creation. This reminded some of us of the different scientific investigations of embodied moral character that played an important role in shaping Gothic anxieties at the fin de siecle. However, Whale's film seemed to retain a Romantic interest in experience: following the creature's progression from childlike incomprehension to bitter reprisal in a way that eschewed the supposed moral determinism of his physiology.


Session Five, March 2013: Matthew Lewis's The Castle Spectre (1797)


Having managed two entire sessions without reading any adaptations of Matthew Lewis's The Monk, we thought we'd continue that trend. . . and read a play by Lewis himself. This text was actually suggested by one of our postgraduate organisers, Kate Gadsby Mace, who was shortly to present a conference paper that included some discussion of The Castle Spectre. The first - though not the last - time GRG activity has fed neatly into our members' 'proper' academic work.

The Castle Spectre was Lewis's most popular Gothic drama and, unlike Boaden's adaptation of his own novel, it was a huge success with contemporary audiences. Part of its appeal lay in its successful use of eighteenth-century 'special effects' to produce lighting for a crucial supernatural scene. As with many of our texts so far, we were pleasantly surprised to find much more in this play than we'd expected. The usual eighteenth-century Gothic tropes were largely present, but there was also an unexpected (at least for those of us new to the play) treatment of race and an approach to gender that The Monk might not necessarily have lead us to expect. Comparing this play with Boaden's was an obvious approach, but an interesting one. We noticed that Lewis seemed to have less qualms about staging sensational and supernatural material than Boaden and to have produced a more successful play as a result. The experience of reading different eighteenth-century Gothic dramas had become interesting in its own right as even some of our more experienced members had much less experience of this medium than they did with prose fictions from the same period. Kate's paper went well, incidentally, but we like to think she felt far prouder discussing Lewis in a Sheffield seminar room with some biscuits than she did in front of an international audience of Gothic scholars. . . at Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill.


Session Six, April 2013: John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne" (1896)

[Short Stories]

For the final session of our first year, we chose two texts, book-ending the nineteenth century and offering different approaches to the vampire tale. The decision to read two texts in juxtaposition was the result of a suggestion by Dr. Helena Ifil, a lecturer in the School of English and specialist scholar of Victorian science and popular fiction. Helena  has recently been conducting research into the medical context for Victorian 'Gothic' fictions such as Braddon's and Polidori's and presenting her work at international conferences - another example of the way in which the GRG has benefited from members' expertise and enthusiasm. 

By looking at Polidori and Braddon we were able to ask questions about the generic expectations associated with the 'Vampire Tale' - particularly as these stories both pre-dated the archetypal Victorian vampire novel: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Much about Polidori's seemed to fit within a Romantic context, crossing the lone wanderer with the experience of early nineteenth-century tourism in dramatic landscapes. Braddon's story fascinated us as a relatively rare example of a female-authored vampire tale, featuring a female 'vampire.' We were interested in the treatment of gender in both texts, particularly the relationship between women as victims or villains - something that linked back to our earlier discussion of Marryat's werewolf tale. We were also obviously interested in the influence these texts might have had on later vampire fiction, including Stoker's. It seemed like a surprising number of tropes were already in place, including the sub-genre's interest in class and economic relationships, yet Braddon in particular was far more interested in the ambiguity of vampirism and its relationship to a medical context rather than the folk-wisdom and religious discourses that ultimately pin-down Stoker's Count. A medical context seemed to be generally significant to both Polidori and Braddon, as their tales explored questions of insanity and illness, but related these as much to the stories' protagonists as to the vampires themselves. 


... and that was the first year of the Gothic Reading Group. By the time we said farewell for the summer we'd become fairly knowledgeable about eighteenth-century Gothic drama, considered different monster archetypes and the chronology of their presentation in different cultural contexts, read a surprising amount of Lewis-related material and eaten quite a bit of cake. 

Having spent a lot of time in the eighteenth-century last year we're including more twentieth-century and contemporary texts in the first term of 2013-14. The second term is still a blank canvas, however...


Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English, working on eighteenth-century Gothic and travel writing. He isn't sure why he capitalises 'Gothic' and not 'travel.'

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