Saturday, 25 April 2015

Resurrecting the Gothic Bluebook

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the The Rise of the Gothic module last semester was the chance to study a selection of Gothic bluebooks dating from the turn of the 19th Century. These were the kind of stories the teenage Percy Shelley read voraciously, inspiring his early foray into Gothic prose even though bluebooks were considered ephemeral in their day. The fact that they were bought for a cheap thrill and then simply thrown away means that relatively few survive, but some of the 36 and 72 pages stories have been sourced and reprinted by the likes of Zittaw Press and Valancourt Books. 

Dragging the bluebook kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, you can even find Kindle e-book collections focused on the themes of castles and ruins. Not quite the same as reading a mouldering manuscript, I know, but it brings these texts back into the reach of the reading public and literary scholars alike, although the humble bluebook still remains a largely neglected form.

Many bluebooks tend to be anonymously penned redactions of popular Gothic novels of the time – so texts like Mathew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) would be hacked down to size, with the character names cunningly disguised (or not). With the story re-titled and the pages sewn into the blue covers that gave the books their name, the texts would finally be sold to the masses for mere pennies. For anyone who has struggled to find the time or the inclination to read their way through the 600+ pages of Udolpho, the bluebook The Mysteries of Gorgono, or The Veiled Picture (1802) cuts the action down to just 72 pages. 

How is that even possible, you say? With inadequate copyright law and a willingness to undertake some very heavy-handed editing, that’s how! Just imagine Radcliffe’s novel minus the prolonged landscape description, the poetry and the embedded Proven├žal tale and you've pretty much got it.  

But what you've gained in time, you've inevitably lost in terms of the overall essence of the source text. As Jack G. Voller writes in his Introduction to the text, ‘to read The Veiled Picture is not to read The Mysteries of Udolpho.’ Basically, you’ll know all the plot twists but this isn't a cheeky shortcut for a seminar on Udolpho. So why read it at all? Personally, I think bluebooks have a charm all of their own, but here interest also lies in textual comparison to identify exactly which aspects have been deleted. Do the changes represent an authorial anticipation that an audience of lower socio-economic standing are more interested in a fast-paced plot than the subtleties of the sublime, or do they perhaps reveal a change in popular taste? There’s a study there for somebody.

Frontispiece to The Black Forest; or the Cavern of Horrors! A Gothic Romance (London: Ann Lemoine / J. Roe, 1802)

Of course, when it comes to terror size really doesn't matter. From the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and M.R. James to the one line horror stories doing the rounds, there’s a high degree of skill in handling the right amount of material to leave you chilled and contemplating the unexplained, as opposed to trying to fit enough plot twists for a 3 volume novel into 32 pages – as Sarah Wilkinson does in The Chateau de Montville, or The Golden Cross (1803). Wilkinson was a prolific writer whose literary output ranged from translation work to novels and books for children as she struggled to live by her pen. Franz Potter’s research acknowledges Wilkinson as the writer of over 100 ‘short tales’ – 50 of which can be categorized as Gothic bluebooks. Montville is thought to be one of her earliest attempts at writing in the genre and is packed with Gothic motifs. Despite needing to draw out a family tree of character relationships to make sense of it, this text and the other bluebooks we read in class provide an interesting, valuable and untapped source for Gothic Studies.

Fast forward two centuries and the question is whether readers today would actually prefer a one sitting story they can flick through on the commute rather than having to invest emotional and intellectual commitment to the slow reveal of a lengthy tome? If this is the case, the resurrection of the bluebook could well be a publishing hit. 

A quick search on social media finds the Twitter account for @GothicBlueBooks, an ‘amateur press association dedicated to resurrecting the literary tradition of the Gothic bluebook & producing a whole new mouldering corpus of horrid tales’, whilst @BurialDayBooks have published a series of new bluebooks based around the themes of folklore, hauntings and revenge. 

Hannah Moss is an MA student at the University of Sheffield.  When she's not just generally rocking 18th century studies she can usually be found exploring the assuredly haunted archives of Chatsworth House.

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