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Poetics Today 22.3 (2001) 704-705
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The Progress of Romance:
Literary Historiography and the Gothic Novel
In this book Richter attempts to tell the history of the Gothic novel from 1764, the year of publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, to the 1820s, notably including the 1790s, when the genre became a major force in English fiction. Richter’s book reflects an acute awareness of the meta-historiographical problems concerning the possibility of writing literary history in general and history of genres in particular. Although for the last two decades the Gothic has drawn much attention in literary criticism (especially feminist criticism and criticism interested in popular fiction), Richter claims that the great majority of critics have avoided any serious attempt to write a literary history (as opposed to a mere “chronicle”) of the genre.
Richter himself suggests a pluralistic approach to the writing of literary history and employs no fewer than three distinct modes of historiography, [End Page 704] informed by different theoretical perspectives. “No mode of historiography has a monopoly on truth, and . . . it is precisely the disparate truths of inconsistent historiographical modes that provide us with a literary history that can approach a full and rounded explanation of a literary phenomenon” (viii). According to their order of presentation, Richter’s three disparate historiographical modes are informed by Althusserian Marxism (exemplified by criticism practiced by such writers as Raymond Williams and Pierre Macherey), Chicago neo-Aristotelian “formalism” (exemplified by the critical practice of Ronald Crane, Sheldon Sacks, and Ralph Rader), and reception theory (whose major theoretician is Hans Robert Jauss).
According to Richter the different approaches are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary, since each offers a different focus and a different kind of causal perspective on the development of the genre. The three central chapters of the book (three to five) are so organized that each mode of explanation takes up the story of the Gothic where the other leaves it off. The discussion begins with an analysis of the ways the Gothic constituted a response to changes in England’s social structure. It continues with an examination of the development of the genre according to the inner logic of its literary form and ends with a survey of the reactions the Gothic aroused in its contemporary audience and how it helped to produce a shift in the composition of that audience and its motives for reading until new forms of writing (first and foremost, the historical romance of the kind inaugurated by Walter Scott) have made the Gothic “superfluous.”
The sixth chapter, “Ghosts of the Gothic,” deals with the question of the Gothic aftermath, describing its various offshoots. According to Richter, the Gothic is no longer considered a genre but a “mode,” that is, a source of characteristic narrative elements and emotional resonances that can be put to various ends. In this context Richter discusses three main issues: (1) the transformations of Gothic modalities in nineteenth century prose fiction genres, (2) the “neo-Gothic” wave of the late 1880s and 1890s (exemplified by such works as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), and (3) transformations of elements of the Gothic as the basis of some of the main genres in twentieth century popular fiction (science fiction, adult fantasy, mystery stories, horror stories, and romance). This chapter is highly condensed and suggestive and, as Richter himself states, lays the groundwork for a sequel to the present book.
Richter’s book makes a significant contribution to studies of the Gothic genre in particular and the problems of genre and literary historiography in general.