Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wendy Walker | Sexual Stealing (on the Gothic Novel)

Walpole's Strawberry Hill

Charles Brockden Brown

Wendy Walker
Sexual Stealing

Of the four inventors of Gothic literature in English . William Beckford, Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Horace Walpole, and Ann Radcliffe, two, Beckford and Lewis, were owners of major sugar plantations in Jamaica. They both came of families that had owned slaves for centuries. At a time when sodomy in Britain was a capital offense, Lewis was homosexual and Beckford actively bisexual. Thus each man was intimately implicated in the most extreme versions of domination (slaveowning) and victimization (execution) that British society could then afford.

In both Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Beckford’s Vathek (1784), one can see each man struggling to come to terms with his double predicament in different narrative disguises. Beckford uses the new genre of the oriental tale to embody his fascination with and fear of black power and magic, while Lewis sets his tale in two societies, the monastery and the convent, as closed-off from the world and as hierarchical as the plantation. There extremes of sexual exploitation, torture, and murder take place, which are finally revealed as instances of incest and matricide. Lewis has reason to be obsessed with this subject, for the best portrait of him suggests that he, like many Creole Britons (notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning), had some African ancestry himself.

Since the Gothic novel, originally known as the “terrorist novel,” has its roots in Jamaica, the scene not only of the most brutal chattel slavery but also of the most continuous and successful slave rebellions (the Maroon Wars), these origins seem to be worthy of more attention than they have received. Nor is the transposing of the scene from plantation to convent a far-fetched one. The Church of England had large holdings in Jamaica, and its slaves were bizarrely branded with the word Society.

Lewis and Beckford both succeeded to ownership of huge estates in Jamaica when their fathers died. Both fathers were very powerful men, Beckford’s having been twice Lord Mayor of London and the only man to oppose the King over corruption, born in Jamaica and long resident there. Lewis’s father was British Deputy Secretary of War during the American Revolution. Both men were impossible role models for their sons, who, after writing seminal fictions in their late teens and publishing them in their early twenties, went on to devote their lives to the creation of alternative realities, Beckford in the building of his fantastical architectural project at Fonthill, and Lewis upon the stage, where he authored many Gothic melodramas and contributed greatly to the development of stage machinery for elaborate extravaganzas that foreshadow modern spectaculars and film.

In the most famous of his plays, The Castle Spectre, the African character Hassan so eloquently describes the psychological state of a person taken from his country and sold into slavery that Lewis was widely perceived as supporting the San Domingo (Haitian) Revolution. This was an almost unthinkably radical position for a member of Parliament, which he was.

But Lewis, upon the death of his father, “abandoned the stage for sugar” and went to Jamaica to look into his holdings there. For the era, he was the most liberal of slave-owners and vastly unpopular with his neighbors for many of his initiatives. He made two trips, dying on the second return voyage of yellow fever contracted on the island. He left a posthumously published account, Journal of a West Indian Proprietor, by far his best piece of writing.

Horace Walpole, though not a plantation owner, was, like Lewis, homosexual and closely involved with the exercise of extreme power through his relationship with his father, one of the most important men of the day. Robert Walpole, England’s first prime minister, was de facto ruler of the land, a politician so famous for his flexible ethical standards that he was immortalized by Henry Fielding as Jonathan Wild, the eponymous hero of the novel of that name, ostensibly based on the life of a famous thief who, like Balzac’s Vautrin, turned his knowledge of the underworld to advantage by becoming Chief of Police.

Theft and hypocrisy are Jonathan Wild’s trademarks: he presides over an empire of safe houses where thieves take stolen goods to warehouse them before they can be resold. Just so did Robert Walpole, as head of the government that sponsored and condoned the activities of the Royal African Company and its competitors, oversee the African Service, whose officers staffed Cape Coast Castle, the largest of the European-built castle-forts along the Gold Coast. To Cape Coast Castle and two other castles (Christiansborg operated by the Danes and Elmina by the Dutch) as well as the twenty-odd lesser forts of the same nature, kidnapped Africans were brought from the interior to languish briefly in pits before passing through a “door of no return” into the holds of slave ships.

Although Horace Walpole wrote tirelessly to vindicate his father’s political legacy, he was highly critical of slavery and the rationalizations supporting it long before abolition became a popular issue. His famously witty letters contain many passages testifying to his unorthodox sympathies in this regard. The Castle of Otranto is an allegory of political retribution. The book opens as a huge helmet with black plumes plummets into the castle courtyard, crushing the ruler’s son. A prophecy, that the dynasty will pass from the present line “when the owner of the castle grows too large to inhabit it,” revives with the fall of the giant helmet. The anxious ruler, feeling the necessity for another son, determines to impregnate his dead son’s fiancée. He threatens the peasant who speaks truth to power and when the peasant escapes, proclaims him a dangerous necromancer.

The tyrannical government and remote setting of the castle, the immense helmet and the significantly black marble statue of the good ruler to which it turns out to belong, suggest a vision of just rule restored by the victims of oppression themselves. The peasant brings the unwelcome piece of news about the origins of the helmet, secures the love of the dead prince’s fiancée, is revealed to be related to the ruler commemorated in the black marble statue, and finally, at the moment he is about to be beheaded by the tyrant, is recognized from a scar on his neck as the tyrant’s son. Walpole’s sentiments regarding colonialism were of a piece with his feelings about slavery: “Europe has no other title to America except force and murder, which are rather the executive parts of government than a right.” Like Beckford, Walpole used his wealth to build a fantastic Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill, in which the tension between privilege and victimization was turned into art.

Ann Radcliffe, née Ward, author of the latest of the early gothic novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), was effectively abandoned by her parents early in life and farmed out to a series of relatives who happened to be among the radical elite of the time. Although information is scarce on her early childhood, she may have resided with her activist great-uncle Dr. John Jebb, a Dissenting Unitarian who failed to win the professorship in Arabic at Cambridge because of his perceived zeal for civil and religious liberties. From age seven to twelve she lived with her uncle Richard Bentley, the partner of Josiah Wedgwood, of Bentley and Wedgwood pottery fame. Their great firm produced and popularized the medallion of a slave kneeling beneath the legend “Am I not a man and a brother?” which became an emblem of the anti-slavery movement. It was reproduced on brooches, cufflinks, hatpins, and other fashion accessories; becoming, in effect, the first political “button.” Bentley’s daughter Sukey, Ann Ward’s only childhood friend, eventually married Robert Darwin and became the mother of Charles. For her part, Ann married William Radcliffe, a lawyer turned parliamentary reporter, translator, and editor. It was during the long nights when he sat in on the endless debates regarding the French and Haitian revolutions that Ann Radcliffe began to write her books.

William Radcliffe was his wife’s literary partner as well as her staunchest supporter. That Ann wrote so extensively on property as the true object of desire, at a time when slavery, as Alexander Kojève put it, was “consciousness in the form of thinghood,” may be as much a reaction to William’s translations of French newspapers and pamphlets as it was to her understanding of women’s legal predicament at this time. Ann Radcliffe’s heroine is orphaned and abducted to an isolated castle where she is locked up by her uncle to be given to the political henchman of his choice. The object of desire seems less her sexual person than her identity as inheritor and holder of sexualized property. Person as property is conflated with woman as the legal road to (male) ownership and inheritance. Until the late nineteenth century women in England had no legal financial existence apart from their husbands. Emily, Radcliffe’s protagonist, has not only her inheritance but her actual wedding stolen from her. “Woman as vehicle of property transfer” stands in for “chattel” in a text where the word plantation is repeated surprisingly often, given that the characters never leave the European mainland.

Throughout Radcliffe’s writing heterosexual relations, whether positive or negative, are oddly abstract, while the relations between women seem rooted in more genuine affect, and on this basis Rictor Norton makes a persuasive case for an unacknowledged preference on Radcliffe’s part for women.

The genre of Gothic has been characterized in many ways, but I wish to re-establish the tie to its early epithet “terrorist literature,” as I believe this tells us something about its increasingly central position in American literature and current American foreign policy in Haiti, Central America, and the Middle East. The roots of Gothic writing go deep in the United States. In recent years it has become mainstream, but it stands at the root of our national literature in the Quaker and feminist Charles Brockden Brown, our first significant professional novelist, who read Lewis, Walpole, Beckford, and Radcliffe, and who planned a history of slavery using the records of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Brown’s debut book, Alcuin, is a dialogue directly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, dealing with broader opportunities for women and the merits of divorce. Since it was first published it has been almost unobtainable.

His better known works, Gothic novels that use American milieux, contain the first homosexual character in American fiction (The Memoirs of Stephen Calvert), the first depiction of settlers in conflict with Native Americans (Edgar Huntley, or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker), the first description of a slave-owner’s mixed race family and the child abuse therein (Stephen Calvert), and the first religious visionary who commits serial murder (Wieland, or The Transformation). The novels also include depictions of intense homosocial relationships (Ormond, or The Secret Witness), the ravages of epidemic disease (Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793), and the disastrous consequences of good intentions pursued by blinkered protagonists (seriatim).

Brown’s writing influenced Poe, Cooper, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and the British Mary Shelley, and through them, much of America’s greatest writing. This is the Gothic novel that fathered the quintessential horror that permeates our national literature. It is the ancestor of the horror genre in fiction, graphic novels, and film.

What that Gothic horror most deeply consists in may be glimpsed in Brown’s life when, at the age of six, on September 11, 1771, the future novelist saw his father arrested on the order of John Adams’ Committee on Spies. Elijah Brown and twenty-five other Quakers, all pacifists, were borne through the city in open wagons on their way to exile in Virginia, then the frontier. Members of the sect, which had started the abolition movement in Britain, they now found their own rights under habeas corpus suspended. Detained without charge and never brought to trial, the group was released a year and a half later, with no explanation, apology, or redress. Brown went on to unleash, in his work, the spirits of many other such social victims. If some of them lacked demonic power, they at least recaptured on some plane of action the freedom whose loss is the essential Gothic emotion.

Structurally, gothic narratives are organized around “sexual stealing.” “Sexual stealing” can take many forms, but it always involves the illegal appropriation of a highly libidinized object: a person’s liberty, sexual consent, virginity, life, a sacred object, or a work of art. The stealing is performed by the powerful and is unacknowledged as stealing, indeed proclaimed as legal or honorable: the victim rises up as daemon to avenge the outrage. This is the only narrative solution in a world where justice does not function to protect people.

Note: I am indebted to Henry Wessells for recommending William St. Clair’s The Grand Slave Emporium, and for suggesting its relevance to this topic.


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Bleiler, E. F., ed. Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, The Vampyre. New York: Dover, 1966.

Brown, Charles Brockden Brown. Alcuin: a dialogue; Memoirs of Stephen Calvert. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, c.1987.
———. Arthur Mervyn, or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1965.
———. Edgar Huntley,or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. New York: Penguin Viking, 1988.
———. Ormond, or The Secret Witness. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, c.1963.
———. Wieland, or The Transformation. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Dolphin, 1962.

Buckridge, Steeve O. The Language of Dress: Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760–1890. Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004.

Burnard, Trevor. Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History and the Gods. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

Fielding, Henry. The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. New York: Signet, 1961.

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———. The Monk, ed. Louis Peck. New York: Grove Press, 1952.

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_______. William Beckford: Composing for Mozart. London: John Murray, 1998.

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St. Clair, William. The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and British Slave Trade. London: Profile Books, 2006.

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Zips, Werner. Black Rebels: African Caribbean Freedom Fighters in Jamaica. tr. Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Wiener, 1999.

Copyright ©2010 by Wendy Walker.

Wendy Walker (www.wendywalker.com) is the author of a novel and two collections of tales (Sun & Moon Press), Knots (tales), edited by L. Timmel Duchamp (Aqueduct Press), Blue Fire, an ideogrammatic history of “the great crime of 1860” (Proteotypes), and Sexual Stealing, an Oulipian exegesis of the Gothic novel’s origins in Jamaica. She is the author of numerous “critical fictions” published in Conjunctions, Parnassus, 3rd Bed, and Fantastic Metropolis, and has translated (with Rabia Zbakh) the Moroccan poet Abdelkrim Tabal. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is an editor at Proteotypes (Proteus Gowanus Publications).

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