Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Victorian Gothic Literature: The Supernatural

Although the Gothic era occurred far before that of the Victorians, with Gothic architecture thriving during the latter medieval period, it had a large influence on a lot of Victorian culture. Some may argue that the Gothic revival was at its height from the eighteenth century, with literature and architecture in the style of medieval Gothic dating back to the 1700s, however the Victorians were highly influenced in many cultural aspects: From architecture to literature the Gothic influence on Victorian England is still prevalent to this day. 
Royal Holloway University, London, built 19th Century.
The ideas of supernatural elements, although pre-existent to the Victorian period, seemed to gain a certain momentum with the rise of the ghost story and supernatural elements in fiction. Although Gothic literature, as a genre, had been increasingly popular from the mid-eighteenth century, the Victorian period saw a rise in a new genre of Gothic. The main elements of Gothic literature are the combination of both the horror and romance genre. 

Arguably one of the main figures in this rise of Victorian Gothic literature was the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Much of Poe’s writing and poetry depicts eerie, supernaturalistic scenes and elements. In his poem Ulalume the Gothic elements are clear; there is a certain supernatural quality to his description of the moonlight: “let us bathe in this crystalline light!” (Poe, 63). This eerie, translucent feeling of light gives the impression of something unreal, or supernatural. This is again brought into the poem with Poe’s references to the dead: “...but were stopped by the door of a tomb” (Poe, 64). The image of a tomb clearly provides an idea of death in the poem. Poe also describes the tomb as “legended” (Poe, 64), allowing it to seem mysterious. “Legended” is a form of the word ‘legend’, which could give reference to the original gothic period. 

Perhaps Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven. Ravens are a sign of ill-omen, usually considered to be a symbol of something supernatural. Poe clearly picks up on this idea in the poem: “”Said I, ‘thing of evil!-prophet still, if bird or devil!-’” (Poe, 52-53) Poe’s use of “evil” and “devil” clearly give the impression of something otherworldly and wicked. Even today the symbol of the raven is perhaps one of the most common affiliations with Poe as a writer. 
John Cusack as Poe in The Raven (2010)
This same Gothic influence is apparent in the works of the Bronte sisters. The Brontes were raised in Yorkshire, which as a result of this features heavily as the backdrop for many of their novels. In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the moors provide a place of eerie, yet somewhat peaceful, loneliness to the character of Heathcliff: “...only varied by solitary rambles on the moors...” (Bronte, 315). Heathcliff’s affiliation with the moors gives his character a sense of desolation and despair. 
Kaya Scodelario as Cathy
Wuthering Heights (2011)
The character of Catherine in the novel gives the presence of the unknown and mysterious. Catherine is first introduced in the novel, after her death, by means of writing in a wall: 
“The writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small - Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton.” (Bronte, 32)
This introduction to the character of Catherine gives an sinister, ghostly feel, as though something is not quite right. This sense of something being  is affirmed by the nightmare suffered by Lockwood, the narrator, slightly later in the chapter:
“My fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me...a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in - let me in!’” (Bronte, 41)
Vanessa D. Dickerson suggests that, “The ghost story, in other words, offered far more license for the imagination that did more realist fiction” (Dickerson, 166). In Bronte’s novel the idea of this ghostly figure, which slightly later reveals itself to be Catherine, indicates that this nightmare is merely imagination. With Dickerson idea, by introducing the character of Catherine after her death, the reader is given license to envision who she was or even what happened to her.  

J. Sheridan Lefanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla, is another example of Victorian Gothic literature. Lefanu, however, unlike both Poe and Bronte, deals very directly with the idea of supernatural happenings. Lefanu is very direct in descriptions of setting, playing heavily on a Gothic backdrop for the novella: “Its towers, and its Gothic chapel...and at the right a steep Gothic bridge...” (Lefanu, 6). It is disclosed to the reader fairly on after Carmilla’s arrival that something is not quite right: “Did you remark what an ill-looking pack of men the servants were?” (Lefanu, 32), which allows the reader to, almost immediately after meeting Carmilla, envisage a reason for the servants’ strangeness. It is evident to the reader, perhaps before it is to Laura, that Carmilla is a vampire; Laura remains somewhat unaware until she hears of the General’s niece, who suffered similarly to herself. Lefanu’s ending to the novella: “fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla...” (Lefanu, 161), leaves the ending open, as though the reader should not expect that Carmilla had disappeared, or died, for good. This completely allows the reader to envisage for themselves what has happened, whilst also giving the impression that Carmilla is something completely inhuman, which has the power to revive itself.
Carmilla Youtube Webseries Adaptation, 2014
Although it can be argued that the medieval Gothic period influenced a time before the Victorians, from around the 1700s, the evidence from Victorian literature, such as Poe’s writing and the Bronte sister’s novels, suggests that there was a clear influence from the Gothic period in Victorian Gothic or supernatural literature. Although literature such as Poe or the Bronte’s do not deal as directly with supernatural elements as writers like Lefanu, the influence of the Gothic is still clear, and something which is still drawn upon from the Victorian period today. 


Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. England. 1910. E-Book. 

Dickerson, Vannessa D. Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 1996. 166. Web.

Lefanu, Sheridan, J. Carmilla. PG Distributed Proofreaders. 1872. E-Book. 

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Poetical Works. A. L. Burt Company. E-Book. 

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