Friday, 17 March 2017

Pastoral Gothic: Ann Radcliffe and the Sublime

The Gothic Reading Group will be meeting on Wednesday 22nd March to continue this semester’s on-going discussion of all things Eco-Gothic. This time around we’ll be focusing on sublime pastoral landscapes.

During the session we’ll be thinking about the pastoral mode in relation to the poetry of the Mistress of Udolpho herself, Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe’s novels are interspersed with poems which are often described as being either composed or sung by the heroine at times when she feels particularly inspired by her natural surroundings. In this post I’ll be considering how a sublime aesthetic experience effectively kick-starts the process of artistic creativity.

The novels of Ann Radcliffe are famous for their lengthy passages of landscape description in which she evokes the art of Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682), Salvator Rosa (1616-1673) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Their rugged yet idealised pastoral landscapes populated by shepherds and banditti going about their daily lives, but it is the soaring trees, rocky edifices and wide expanses of open water that dominate the canvases and subsequently shaped Radcliffe’s impressions of Italy.

Pastoral Landscape by Claude Lorrain (1644)
In A Sicilian Romance (1790) Madame de Menon is travelling through such a landscape as painted by Claude when she is reunited with her young charge, Julia: 

‘Her thoughts, affected by the surrounding objects, gradually sunk into a pleasing and complacent melancholy, and she was insensibly led on. She still followed the course of the stream to where the deep shades retired, and the scene again opening to day, yielded to her view so various and sublime, that she paused in thrilling and delightful wonder. A group of wild and grotesque rocks rose in a semicircular form, and their fantastic shapes exhibited Nature in her most sublime and striking attitudes. Here her vast magnificence elevated the mind of the beholder to enthusiasm. Fancy caught the thrilling sensation, and at her touch the towering steeps became shaded with unreal glooms; the caves more darkly frowned – the projecting cliffs assumed a more terrific aspect, and the wild overhanging shrubs waved to the gale in deeper murmurs. The scene inspired madame with reverential awe, and her thoughts involuntarily rose, ‘from Nature up to Nature’s God.’ The last dying gleams of day tinted the rocks and shone upon the waters, which retired through a rugged channel and were lost afar among the receding cliffs. While she listened to their distant murmur, a voice of liquid and melodious sweetness arose from among the rocks; it sung in the air, and captivated her heart.’[1]
Alison Milbank argues that Madame’s aesthetic experience has ‘an actual, practical effect’ in that she is not paralysed by what she sees, but achieves transcendence which leads her to achieve her aim of being reunited with Julia through ‘voluntary passivity’.[2]  Julia is similarly responsive to the environment, and the sublime surroundings frequently inspire her to sing, compose or recite poetry:

She loved to indulge the melancholy of her heart in the solitude of the woods. One evening she took her lute to a favourite spot on the seashore, and resigning herself to a pleasing sadness, touched some sweet and plaintive airs. The purple flush of evening was diffused over the heavens. The sun, involved in clouds of splendid and innumerable hues, was setting o’er the distant waters, whose clear bosom glowed with rich reflection. The beauty of the scene, the soothing murmur of the high trees, waved by the light air which overshadowed her, and the soft shelling of the waves that flowed gently in upon the shores, insensibly sunk her mind into a state of repose.’ (Radcliffe, 1993: 42)

Evening Landscape by Salvator Rosa c. 1640-3
In such a state of repose, as Archibald Allison deems necessary in order to fully appreciate the sublime in his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1789), Julia is in the perfect state of mind for artistic creativity to flow, and proceeds to sing the following ode: 

Evening veil'd in dewy shades,
Slowly sinks upon the main;
See th' empurpled glory fades,
Beneath her sober, chasten'd reign.

Around her car the pensive Hours,
In sweet illapses meet the sight,
Crown'd their brows with closing flow'rs,
Rich with chrystal dews of night.

Her hands, the dusky hues arrange
O'er the fine tints of parting day;
Insensibly the colours change,
And languish into soft decay.

Wide o'er the waves her shadowy veil she draws,
As faint they die along the distant shores;
Through the still air I mark each solemn pause,
Each rising murmur which the wild wave pours.

A browner shadow spreads upon the air,
And o'er the scene a pensive grandeur throws;
The rocks-the woods a wilder beauty wear,
And the deep wave in softer music flows.

And now the distant view where vision fails
Twilight and grey obscurity pervade;
Tint following tint each dark'ning object veils,
Till all the landscape sinks into the shade.

Oft from the airy steep of some lone hill,
While sleeps the scene beneath the purple glow;
And evening lives o'er all serene and still,
Wrapt let me view the magic world below!

And catch the dying gale that swells remote,
That steals the sweetness from the shepherd's flute;
The distant torrent's melancholy note
And the soft warblings of the lover's lute.

Still through the deep'ning gloom of bow'ry shades
To Fancy's eye fantastic forms appear;
Low whisp'ring echoes steal along the glades
And thrill the ear with wildly-pleasing fear.

Parent of shades!-of silence!-dewy airs!
Of solemn musing, and of vision wild!
To thee my soul her pensive tribute bears,
And hails thy gradual step, thy influence mild.

This poem is heavily inspired by William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ (1746). Like Collins, Radcliffe personifies evening as a maid, or muse, who inspires musical performance in harmony with the melancholy scene. Music, like the fading evening light, is transient – a fleeting moment of beauty that will pass in a matter of moments. Radcliffe’s use of the veil motif to describe the onset of evening is another aspect of the poem adapted from Collins’ ode, but the idea of obscurity is also central to Edmund Burke’s conceptualisation of the sublime.  In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke suggests that the sublime is the most powerful emotion we are capable of experiencing, and that our inability to perceive or comprehend something in its entirety is a source of sublime terror as ‘the ideas of eternity, and infinity, are among the most affecting we have.’[3]

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
When it comes to summing up what makes a landscape sublime, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) pretty much encapsulates the concept. The image of a man standing on a precipice with a vast, mountainous landscape unfolding before his eyes invites the beholder to contemplate their own precarious position in the world from a position of safety. Faced by the enormity of God’s creation and human mortality we are awe inspired and drawn to meditate on the relationship between man and nature.  

Ken Hiltner’s study of the environment in Renaissance pastoral poetry identifies an ‘environmental consciousness’ in the mode and he goes on to argue that the pastoral responds to the mounting anxiety about the threat urban expansion poses to the natural environment.[4] It will be worth considering, then, how the Gothic responds to this issue by exploring how Radcliffe contrasts the experience of pastoral aesthetics with those of urban luxury and vice. 

During the session on Wednesday we will have more time to consider the relationship between pastoral poetry and the Gothic, and the influence of the Burkean sublime on Radcliffe’s work. If there is a particular example of pastoral Gothic you’d like to share – whether it’s an extract from Paradise Lost or an ode by your favourite graveyard poet - bring it along. We’ll be meeting in Jessop West room G.03 from 4pm-6pm. As always, snacks and sweets provided. All staff and students welcome!

Hannah Moss is a first year PhD student at the University of Sheffield researching the representation of art and the female artist in Gothic novels of the long eighteenth-century. We cannot confirm or deny whether she has a portrait hidden in her attic.

[1] Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993), p. 104.
[2] Alison Milbank, ‘Introduction’ to A Sicilian Romance, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993), p. xviii.
[3] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Paul Guyer, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2015), p.51.
[4] Ken Hiltner, What Else is Pastoral? Renaissance Literature and the Environment, (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2011).

Friday, 10 March 2017

Celebrating Twenty Years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Sheffield Gothic's Top Ten Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

If for some inexplicable reason you have somehow managed to escape the cult phenomenon that is Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then let me tell you now, you have really been missing out. With its debut episode airing twenty years ago on 10 March 1997, it has since become a cult classic and favourite of Gothic fans and scholars alike. Receiving both critical and popular acclaim, the series is often (and correctly!) listed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and its sheer success and popularity can be seen through the expansion of the Buffyverse. Buffy ran for seven seasons, and in 1999 Whedon also launched a spin of show, Angel, which itself ran five seasons, while novels, comics, and video games have further developed and expanded this supernatural universe. If that’s not enough, Buffy can attest to a huge fandom that is still thriving today, and critical interest in the show is showing no sign of slowing down with the seventh Biennial Slayage Conference being held at Kingston University, London in 2016 (which was also the first time the conference was held outside North America).

So, you might ask, what is all the fuss about? Before diving into what I think are the best Buffy episodes, it is probably a good idea to explain what the series is about. Essentially, the show is about a teenage girl (Buffy Summers – and yes, we’re all aware that Buffy is a weird name) who just happens to be the Slayer; we follow Buffy as she slays vampires and other monsters while also trying to survive high school, university, and the general transition between teenager and adult life. If you’ve seen the not so successful film of the same name (1992), then the first episode basically picks up where the film leaves off: following a vampire-related incident at her previous school, Buffy’s mum moves the Summers family to Sunnydale hoping for a new, vampire-free start.

Xander, Giles, Buffy, Cordelia, and Willow

However, thanks to the new librarian Giles who identifies her as the Slayer and soon becomes her Watcher – a sort of mentor who helps to train and guide the Slayer – and the fact that Sunnydale is conveniently located right above a Hellmouth, Buffy cannot escape vampires of her identity as the Slayer. It might be worth mentioning here that there can only ever be one Slayer at a time, and she is always female (#GirlPower). When the Slayer is killed, the abilities of the Slayer are awoken in another potential Slayer, and another Watcher steps in. Of course, it wouldn’t be high school without friends, and at Sunnydale High Buffy also meets Willow and Xander, who will become part of the Scooby gang with Buffy, and Cordelia, the typical popular girl; in their own way these characters help Buffy slay a lot of Vamps and other creepy monsters whilst also battling the horrors of high school and then adult life.

Whedon’s initial concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was to ‘twist Horror movies’ and empower the young girl who is typically killed off in the Horror genre. Rather than creating another film where a young, typically blonde girl gets trapped in some dark alley, only to be killed (often violently) by a monster, Whedon inverts the formula and creates a story where the girl fought back. And, as he explains in the video below, in the TV show he expanded this narrative to explore the fact that high school is essentially a Horror movie. It is this foundation, and the fact that the show was constantly pushing boundaries and conventions, that set Buffy apart from other shows and has ensured its impact and influence is still being felt and discussed today.

So, without much ado (Whedon pun intended), here’s my list of the ten best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the order they aired.[i]

Welcome to the Hellmouth, Season 1 Episode 1
What better place to start that at the beginning. Ok, so in many way this is the typical pilot episode: we meet Buffy on her first day at Sunnydale high, and through her we are introduced to Xander, Willow, Jesse, Cordelia, and of course the librarian Giles, who also happens to be new (what a crazy random happenstance!). Although its clear that Buffy is trying to leave behind her vampire-slaying past, Giles’ not-so-subtle hints – candidly offering her a book titled Vampyr in the school library – and the discovery of a dead guy in the locker room with puncture marks on his neck quickly reveals that this is not an option.  This episode marks the first, and very mysterious appearance of Angel, who is in no way sparkly but definitely very, very sexy. This episode also has one of the best opening scenes which immediately sets the tone for the whole series: watch out for the young blonde because she may not always be as defenceless as she first appears, and I’m not just talking about Buffy. So ultimately, this is not exactly your typical pilot. Welcome to Sunnydale, and welcome to the Hellmouth.

Angel: 'Don't worry, I don't bite'

I, Robot…You, Jane
, Season 1 Episode 8
Ok, so on its own I probably wouldn’t have included it on this list, although I do love the premise that you can upload a demon onto the Internet. The main reason I’ve included this episode is that its essentially Ultron, and yes I do mean The Avengers: Age of Ultron also directed by Joss Whedon (again, what a crazy random happenstance!). In this episode, Willow accidently scans a book from Giles private collection rather than an ordinary school library book, and in the process uploads and then releases the demon Moloch onto the internet. Being a power hungry demon (now in love with Willow and talking to her in an online chat using the name Malcom - cue lessons about the dangers of online dating), Moloch starts to take over the internet. With the help of some helpful Sunnydale residents, Moloch builds himself a robot suit into which he uploads himself as part one in his scheme to take over the world (and Willow). Sealing him into the suit and destroying him is the only way Buffy and the Scooby gang can put a halt to his plans. So an evil entity uploaded onto the Internet, planning world domination, and building a robot suit to physically house him and allow him to fight and destroy the world - sound familiar?

The demon Moloch in his Robot suit

Halloween, Season 2 Episode 6
Halloween is the first of three Halloween episodes in Buffy, and what’s not to love about an episode where the characters turn into their Halloween costumes. I discuss the episode in more detail in a previous post, but its still worth mentioning here as Buffy transforms from the slayer that we have all grown to know and love into an eighteenth century Gothic heroine. With Buffy confused and helpless, it falls to Xander, now a soldier, Willow, now a (sexy) ghost, and Cordelia dressed as a cat (not everyone transforms into their costume) to set things right – with the help of Angel, your friendly neighbourhood vampire.

Ghost Willow, Eighteenth-Century Buffy, and Army Xander

Doppelgangland, Season 3 Episode 16
As we follow Buffy through her journey as the Slayer, what’s great about the series is that other characters and their own unique, individual journeys are also depicted, including Willow’s journey into witchcraft and discovery of her own self and sexuality. This episode is one of several that follows Willow’s spells gone wrong: helping former Vengeance demon Anya, Willow and Anya accidentally release Vampire Willow from an alternate dimension (see previous episode The Wish, Season 3, Episode 9). A lot of confusion occurs regarding Willow and her vampire doppelgänger  to say nothing of the other doubles that are explored in this episode – and at one point Willow even plays the part of Vampire Willow: if you’re at all interested in Gothic doubles then this is really the episode for you. Although Vampire Willow is eventually returned to her own dimension (and then quickly staked), our Willow has learnt a lot about herself, and how to be assertive with what she wants. And, of course, she realises that Vampire Willow is ‘kinda gay,’ providing a great piece of foreshadowing.

Seeing double: Willow and Vamp Willow

Season 4 Episode 10
Hush is quite simply a beautifully terrifying episode. Following critical praise of the show and in particular its dialogue, Whedon set out to challenge himself and construct an episode almost entirely devoid of speech. In the whole 44 minute episode, there are only 17 minutes of dialogue, and you don’t need to take just my word for it that Whedon succeeded in his aim: not did Hush receive high critical praise, but it is the only episode of the series to be nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. This episode is truly brilliant, and without giving too much away, it features what series writer Doug Petrie states were ‘the creepiest villains we’ve ever done’: The Gentlemen[ii] The Gentlemen, their accompanying straitjacket-wearing minions, and their mythology are fashioned in the style of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Having stolen all the voices in the town, The Gentlemen smile unsettlingly as they cut out their victims’ hearts; without a voice, their victims are unable to scream.

'Can't even shout, can't even cry. The Gentlemen are coming by.'

Fool For Love, Season 5 Episode 7
Like all good vampire fiction, the mythology of the fictional world is an integral part of the narrative, and in this episode we learn a lot about the mythology of the Slayer from a vampire who has killed two of them: Spike. We also learn a lot about the history of Spike himself – who was an unsuccessful and quite terrible poet before he was made into a vampire – and in turn we learn more about the show’s vampire foursome, Darla, Angel, Drusilla, and Spike, as they travel the world indulging their sexual, vampiric, and murderous desires. Although Buffy pays Spike to tell her what he knows about killing Slayers (and we learn exactly how he acquired his trademark leather coat), she is unhappy with what he reveals and, after insulting him, leaves. Spike eventually follows her home intent on finally killing her. However, finding her upset at her mother’s illness, we are instead presented with a touching scene as vampire comforts, rather than kills, the Slayer.

Spike killing his second Slayer

The Body, Season 5 Episode 16
This episode needs to come with a warning. It is a beautiful episode, brilliantly written, directed, and shot, but it will also leave you emotionally ruined for days. Broken into four distinct ‘acts,’ each beginning in total silence and with a close up shot of Joyce’s face, The Body follows Buffy’s discovery of the dead body of her mother at home, her journey into the acceptance of her mother’s death, and the grief of other characters as they learn of her death and struggle to come to terms with what this loss means to them. Devoid of music and incorporating many disorienting effects, The Body depicts what Whedon has termed ‘the black ashes in your mouth numbness of death.’[iii]  You should definitely watch this episode, but be prepared to have an avalanche of uncontrollable emotions when you do.

Buffy discovering her mother's body

Once More, with Feeling, Season 6 Episode 7
I believe that a fundamental part of the Gothic is its campness, and the performative aspects of the Gothic go hand in hand with its dark and gloomy elements; so, what’s more camp and performative than a horror TV show musical? That’s right, this episode of Buffy is a musical, complete with song and dance numbers such as ‘Going Through the Motions,’ ‘Rest in Peace,’ ‘Under Your Spell,’ ‘Walk Through the Fire’ and the unforgettable ‘The Mustard.’ Of course, this isn’t your standard musical, and in fact the residents of Sunnydale are being compelled to break into song and dance and express hidden truths by a demon, but it totally works. The success of this episode has inspired other shows to incorporate the musical episode format, and yes, you can still buy the soundtrack.

Once More, With Feeling poster

Normal Again, Season 6 Episode 17
This is another episode where Whedon yet again pushes the boundaries of the TV show. What if every crazy, unbelievable, vampire or monster or witch related event that has happened throughout Buffy was actually a hallucination taking place in Buffy’s head? What if there is no such thing as vampires or Slayers or monsters, and instead, Buffy has been in a mental hospital the whole time. In this episode, Buffy is poisoned and starts to hallucinate an alternate reality where for the past six years, and the past six seasons, she has been living in a mental hospital. Or, perhaps she has been hallucinating the Buffyverse as we know it all along and she really is in a mental hospital. As the episode falls and jumps between each reality, we are never presented with certainty either way, and, as Whedon says, ‘if the viewer wants, the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles.’[iv]

Alternative reality: Buffy in a mental hospital

Chosen, Season 7 Episode 22
With the final episode of Buffy Whedon takes us back to its beginning, and back to the heart of the show: empowered girls and women who can and will fight back. This episode is not so much about one girl, the Slayer, the Chosen One, as it is about relationships, friendships, and community. It is up to Buffy, the Scooby gang, and a group of potential Slayers, along with Spike, to stop the approaching apocalypse brought on by The Big Bad of the season: the First Evil. The First is using a group of creepy monks called the Bringers and the Turok-Hand – Ubervamps who are ridiculously strong and definitely not sexy in any way – and where else would you choose to start the apocalypse but the Hellmouth conveniently located under Sunnydale High. Angel returns as well to offer his help, providing plenty of hilarious Angel/Spike jealousy. Not only is this a great episode, but it is a great show finale.

'Where do we go from here?'


Do you agree with our list? Are there any episodes you think we have missed? Or do you have your own favourite that you want to share? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

Mary 'Slayer' Going is a PhD Researcher at the University of Sheffield and member of Sheffield Gothic. her research focuses on representations of Jewish figures in Romantic and Gothic fiction. She is our vampiric expert, especially when it comes to Buffy.

[i] Disclaimer: these are not necessarily my favourite episodes, which involve a lot more Spike including Pangs, season 4, episode 8, Something Blue, season 4 episode 9, and Tabula Rasa, season 6, episode 8. #TeamSpike
[ii] Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season; "Hush" Featurette. [DVD]. 20th Century Fox. 
[iii] Whedon, Joss (2008). Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season; DVD commentary for the episode "The Body". [DVD]. 20th Century Fox. 
[iv] "10 Questions for Joss Whedon". New York Times. May 16, 2003.