Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Travel Back in Time to a Very Gothic Nineteenth Century: GRG meets the Nineteenth Century Reading Group

The Gothic Reading Group, or the GRG, is without a doubt the best reading group the University of Sheffield has to offer.  Ok, I’ll admit I may be a little bit biased here.  But while I am an avid fan and regular attendee of the GRG, this post is actually about another reading group at the University of Sheffield, the Nineteenth Century Reading Group.  With a focus solely on nineteenth century texts, this group is just as enjoyable and engaging as the GRG, although it is perhaps lacking in it own memorable catchphrases (#cakeanddeath). 

Regardless, the Nineteenth Century Reading Group is very welcoming, and brings together students and tutors across the humanities, from the departments of History, English, and the Languages.  The group meet twice every semester, and is an excellent space for any budding Gothicist to discuss texts that are not necessarily Gothic in nature.  As any GRG meeting proves, pretty everything can be viewed as Gothic, or at least flavoured with Gothic themes or aesthetics, so this is a great opportunity to provide a Gothic perspective whilst also hearing and being able to engage with perspectives beyond this field. 

It was during my first semester as a Masters student that I first attended the reading group.  The topic for the semester was Death, and the group had been provided with a number of texts before the meeting.  These ranged from contemporary funeral songs, articles about archaeological digs discovering nineteenth century burial practices, as well as articles on Victorian mourning.  There was even a selection of photographs displaying Victorian death photography, allowing for a discussion of spirituality and religion during this period, and also prompting a comparison to the recent modern day trend of funeral selfies. 

"Come to Gothic Reading Group!!  Let me love you!!!"

The most recent meeting proved just as interesting and thought provoking.  In the middle of March of this year, the group assembled to discuss a classic nineteenth century novel: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  I can already imagine the confused looks on your faces, questioning the untimely, and even unseasonal, choice for a reading group to discuss a story about Christmas in the middle of spring.  Indeed, this look of bemusement was shared by several of the attendees.  However, the chosen theme for this semester is Time Travel, and Dickens’ Christmas novel not only provides a wealth of material regarding this theme, but discussing it in March proved in itself a kind of literary time travel.

Moreover, like many of Dickens’ novels, A Christmas Carol is enchantingly Gothic.  Perhaps the most obviously Gothic element of the novel is the inclusion of ghosts, the supernatural machinery through which time travel is achieved.  It is through the encounters with these ghosts that Dickens leads Scrooge, and his readers, on a journey that destabilizes the spaces of the supernatural and the real, the living and the dead, and the past, the present, and the future.  A focus of the meeting was on the three ghosts whose very names – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future – demarcate the respective period of time in which they appear to be responsible for, and with whose aid Scrooge is able to travel both backwards and forwards in time. 

This kind of time travel is fascinating in itself.  As was noted in the meeting, Scrooge is unable to interfere within the scenes he is presented with.  During his many visits across time, to scenes of his childhood, scenes of Christmas time at his nephew’s house in the present, and also scenes following his own death, Scrooge cannot interact with his former self or the people around him besides his ghostly guides.  He can, however, fully experience the sensory stimuli of each scene.  The smell of a cooking meal, the sights of his childhood haunts, and even a familiar tune from the past, but now played by the wife of his nephew, all trigger powerful memories within Scrooge.  These memories, a time travel of the mind, haunt Scrooge as he proceeds on his journey, and ultimately facilitate a genuine change in his character. 

Worst...slumber party...ever...

Yet while he cannot interact with the scenes before him, he can interact with the ghosts.  The ghosts of A Christmas Carol are strangely tangible, and physical.  The three Christmas ghosts, and in particular the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Future, present to the reader bodies that, when viewed through a Gothic lens, are indefinable, distorted, changeable, and even composed of disembodied parts. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past is described as ‘a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like as an old man,’ and this strange, supernatural body is constantly changing and distorting.  As Scrooge gazes on his ghostly visitor, its body undergoes strange contortions ‘so that the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without head, now a head without a body.’ Constantly changing, the body of this first ghost shifts between different grotesque bodies, and the grotesque nature is located in the physicality of possessing ‘twenty legs’ or being ‘a head without a body.’ While Scrooge is happy to take the hand of this fluctuating being as they travel back in time, he eventually grows angry and upset, and takes this out on the body of the ghost.  In an act of violence, Scrooge forcefully presses the ghost’s hat down upon his head until he finally extinguishes its whole form. 

While the Ghost of Christmas Past posses an array and ever changing number of body parts and limbs, the body of the final ghost Scrooge encounters has only one defining, physical feature.  The Ghost of Christmas Future approaches Scrooge ‘shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.’  Crucially, and as was remarked in the meeting, this ghost does not speak, but communicates everything to Scrooge through this disembodied hand.  Although Scrooge frequently questions the ghost, and even implores him to stop, the ghost remains silent; Scrooge can only follow the direction of the phantom’s ‘steady hand’ and his ‘inexorable finger.’ 

At the climax of the novel, Scrooge is shown his own grave, his own inevitable death.  Scrooge is clearly greatly affected, and his response is physical: he clings to the robes of the ghost, whose hand ‘appeared to shake’, and finally Scrooge ‘caught the spectral hand’ and detained it is own. Within a graveyard, and next to his own grave, Scrooge’s physical struggle with this shrouded phantom is very Gothic in nature, and perhaps more so due to Dickens’ inclusion of the mysterious description of the ghost’s hand.  Representing the whole body of the Ghost of Christmas Future, here the ‘kind hand trembled.’  This tantalizing sentence is left unexplained to the reader who can only puzzle over what this remark means, and who does it originate from (the narrator or Scrooge).  Like many Gothic novels, this final ghostly encounter is left shrouded in ambiguity, but it certainly provides an interesting discussion for any reading group. 

If you take only two things from this post, the first should be that A Christmas Carol is the perfect mix of Gothic and nineteenth century, and therefore ideal for any reading group regardless of the time of year.  The second thing to take from this post is that if you haven’t already, you should definitely check out the GRG and the Nineteenth Century Reading Groups.  Both groups offer a great space to discuss really interesting texts from a range of perspectives, and most importantly, like the GRG, the organizers of the Nineteenth Century Reading Group don’t bite!

Mary Going is a postgraduate researcher in Gothic literature at the University of Sheffield. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.

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