- The Gothic Novel in Ireland, c. 1760–1829 by Christina Morin
Manchester University Press, 2018. 248pp. £70. ISBN 978-0-7190-9917-5.
When does the gothic novel begin and end? What are its characteristics? And where does Ireland fit in the literary terrain marked out by modern critics? In this valuable exploration, Christina Morin remaps time, place, and content. She argues that by giving sustained attention to Irish gothic literature we can (and should) widen, deepen, and redefine a field whose formal and generic properties have been at once slippery and overly restrictive.
Morin pitches the beginnings with Thomas Leland’s “historical gothic” Longsword: Earl of Salisbury, published in 1762 (hence, a little earlier than Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764). Leland was a Church of Ireland clergyman, and the key detail about his once popular novel is its setting: not Catholic Europe, although it does feature an odious monk, but England during the reign of Henry III (r. 1216–72). There are no ghosts or other supernatural apparatus, but there is an implicit message, which Morin also finds in Otranto, that the past, with its supposed barbarity and superstition, holds a meaning for contemporary readers about their own time. Rather than separating “gothic” and “historical,” Morin wants to find the gothic in the historical and vice versa, which a detailed [End Page 368] comparison of Otranto and Longsword enables her to do. At the same time, by claiming a starting point with Leland in 1762, or even The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley, by “A Lady,” in 1760, she radically tilts the landscape so that the new genre—which no one at this time was calling “gothic,” a term used by almost nobody except Walpole, who subtitled Otranto “a Gothic story”—is seen to flow from Dublin rather than London. She acknowledges her debt to Rolf Loeber and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, who in 2003 set off a mini-controversy when they proposed these two novels as the pre-Otranto beginnings of gothic. (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, “The Publication of Irish Novels and Novelettes: A Footnote on Irish Gothic Fiction,” Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text, no. 10 : 17–44.)
The Gothic Novel in Ireland, c. 1760–1829 offers a new critical paradigm that positions Irish writers at the centre of gothic literary production and argues for the importance of the gothic in any account of Irish Romanticism. This text is thorough, detailed, and convincing, making use of quantitative data as well as qualitative analysis and paying attention to once-popular novels that have been neglected by critics. The standard account of the early gothic runs from Otranto through Ann Radcliffe and Matthew “Monk” Lewis to end with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Its keynote is terror, or at least the uncanny, and most people will know from Jane Austen’s affectionate satire Northanger Abbey (1817) that it features stormy nights, gloomy interiors, inexplicable characters, hauntings from a troubled past, ruin and decay, kidnap and cruelty. Austen’s Catherine Morland goes safely home to her settled family at the end of her adventures. But what was playful fiction for some—including Walpole, who deployed his subtitle in a spirit of mischief—was historical reality for others. Morin quotes Siobhan Kilfeather: “Irish people in the Romantic period felt they were living gothic lives” (“Terrific Register: The Gothicization of Atrocity in Irish Romantic Writing,” boundary 2 31, no. 1 : 60).
The two pivotal events in Irish history during the period covered by this book are the rebellion of 1798 (and its harsh reprisals) and the Anglo-Irish Union in 1801. Real life for people in Ireland post-1798 was fractured by intrusive memories of horror and danger from the distant as well as the immediate past. The dominant literary form emerging from Ireland is understood to be the national tale, with such well-known novels as Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806), and Charles Maturin’s The Milesian Chief (1812) receiving critical attention. Morin, building on Kilfeather and recent work...