- Social Reform in Gothic Writing: Fantastic Forms of Change, 1764-1834 by Ellen Malenas Ledoux
The Gothic has long taken a backseat to realism in studies of genre. Ellen Malenas Ledoux’s Social Reform in Gothic Writing: Fantastic Forms of Change, 1764-1834 challenges entrenched generic hierarchies, arguing that “Gothic writing [End Page 518] has a particular power, greater than that of verisimilar writing, to raise audience consciousness about political issues” (1). By remapping the generic and national boundaries that have limited studies of the Gothic, Ledoux frames Gothic writing as an activist “mode” and surveys novels, plays, and poems from Britain, Colonial America, and the Caribbean. She invites readers to look beyond the discussions of domesticity and nationalism that have dominated studies of the early Gothic and instead establishes how a range of Gothic texts—from Horace Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho to Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn and Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West Indian Proprietor—served as transnational tools for reform.
By beginning her study with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, she inevitably retraces familiar ground; however, the literary texts and historical situations she reads alongside these oft-studied novels create fresh vantage points for her readers. By pairing Walpole’s novel with his play The Mysterious Mother, she emphasizes the way in which Walpole combined narrative and tragedy to “dramatize how political events originate” (27). The tragic formula Walpole exploits conditioned readers’ responses to political events, such as the Gordon Riots and the discussions of class and race that the riots triggered. In her second chapter, she usefully complicates standard feminist readings of the “female Gothic” that rely almost exclusively on Radcliffe’s fiction. She finds in other Romantic-era novelists alternatives to Radcliffe’s treatment of space and domestic politics. For instance, the castles in Radcliffe’s novel have been read as symbols of patriarchal repression; however, the castle in Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline serves as a symbol of matriarchal power and reconfigures the gender politics of the Gothic. Most interestingly, she reads the working-class author Sarah Wilkinson’s bluebook The Castle of Montabino as challenging the bourgeois biases built into The Mysteries of Udolpho and generating a working-class critique of Radcliffean politics. In Wilkinson’s novel, readers “are left with an unnerving feeling that ‘virtue’ is over-rewarded in some classes and that suffering goes unacknowledged in others” (91).
From domestic politics, Ledoux moves to William Godwin’s treatment of political economy in St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century. St. Leon relates the adventures of a sixteenth-century alchemist who “uses magic to engage in an economic thought experiment” (95), which advocates a radical form of equality and critiques class hierarchies. Her careful reading uncovers Godwin’s response to Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population and his desire to popularize the controversial tenets of his philosophical treatise Political Justice in a fantastic form. Godwin uses the Gothic mode to mask his radical politics in fiction and evade the politically powerful conservative censors of post–French Revolution Britain. Ledoux’s fourth chapter moves to Colonial America and examines Charles Brockden Brown’s account of Philadelphia’s response to a yellow fever outbreak in Arthur Mervyn. By exaggerating the horrors of the city’s infamous Bush-hill hospital, Brockden Brown creates this public institution as an “American version of the haunted Gothic space” (137). As an alternative to public health care, Brockden Brown advocates an ethic of “brotherly love” that relies on the goodwill and charity of neighbors and sets the groundwork for a deeply American suspicion toward public institutions. Ledoux documents Brockden Brown’s efforts to circulate these ideas in a transatlantic context. He immediately published the novel in serial form in Philadelphia’s Weekly Magazine; later, he published the complete novel with the British Minerva Press. [End Page 519]
The study concludes with an intensive look at Matthew Lewis...