Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Colman’

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. — Last sentence of 1935 and Dickens’s ATOTC

Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in the closing moments of the 1935 MGM A Tale of Two Cities

Random Harvest — like Lost Horizon the film may be “read” as anti-war

Dear friends and readers,

When I was 12 or 13 my screen idol was Ronald Colman. I remember my love for him best in A Tale of Two Cities and Talk of the Town, which in the way Million Dollar Movie (Channel 9, local NYC metromedia station) operated in the 1950s I saw every night for 5 nights and all day Saturday and Sunday each time they were scheduled. At the time I used to tell anyone who would listen (not many, probably just my father) that were I to tell any of the girls in school my heart-throb was Ronald Colman, they’d stare and ask me, who’s he? Girls my age then loved Frankie Avalon, Frankie Valli (The Four Seasons). Looking back I guess I never told anyone lest I appall anyone.

Not that Colman was not — as well as self-contained, strongly ethical, seeking personal fulfillment, sad, wistful, noble, deeply disillusioned, looking away ironically, quizzically, averted eyes — beautiful in the 1920s in the way of matinee idols. This may still be seen in the 1935 film when he talks with Lucie in the garden in a scene which in the novel may correspond to Dickens’s idealization of his relationship with Ellen Ternan (for whom he had brutally ejected his wife just as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities):


Around that time I managed to watch the 1937 Prisoner of Zenda and just loved Colman’s gay and bitter ironies and thought him so alluring as a swashbuckler against Barrymore, Jr (I’ve not forgotten their thrilling sword fight down a turning stairway over a cliff uttering with many a bon mot at one another);; I saw a much mangled censured version of Lost Horizon which I also read (Hilton’s novel), and then decades (when I was in my later 50s) later replaced some years ago in my memory by reading buying a re-digitalized, newly restored (to an original version not seen in the theaters) DVD (complete with commentary and features) at the same time as I added to my repertoire Random Harvest (1942 MGM, also based on a Hilton novel); his very last performance of Othello in a 1948 Universal adaption of Othello, as actor and character, A Double Life. There is a worth while analysis of Random Harvest in Brian McFarland’s Novel into Film:


and of Under Two Flags (with Claudette Colbert and which I’ve never seen) by Victoria Szabo (“Love on the Algerian Sands: Reviving Cigarette”) in Women at the Movies, Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack:

Adapted from Ouida’s (Louise de la Ramee) novel

I’ve even managed a totally silent DVD of the 1925 Romola where Colman played a tenderly brother-type (not in the novel) to the heroine.

The trouble is I know these few films do not begin to cover those Colman acted in. While it’s true he sued Samuel Goldwyn for insinuating he was a depressive alcoholic and was neither (at all), I’ve learned that the suit helped his career. He was being given shallow silly parts, cliched roles, and he was quickly scooped up by MGM and Fox and went on to do some of his best work in the later 1930s. The books to read and peruse are the somewhat hagiographic R. Dixon Smith, RC: Gentleman of the Cinema, and the encyclopedic Ronald Colman: A Bio-bibliography by Sam Frank.

Still, after watching the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, and liking it better each time (though it is anti- the French revolution) I put this still from the film on the wall. It is Colman as Carton standing outside the Darnay home looking in (a sort of Stella Dallas):


I’ve now bought myself a re-digitalized 1938 Paramount The Light that Failed (Colman as Rupert Kipling’s failed painter) and await the DVD from Amazon eagerly).

with Ida Lupino, a dual Snake Pit


I watched the 1935 MGM ATOTC as well as the 1958 Rank ATOTC — with Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton and the 1989 mini-series ATOTC, with James Wilbry as Carton, scripted by Arthur Hopcroft (who scripted the 1988 BBC Bleak House) because with a few people on Inimitable-Boz, I’d been reading & discussing Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

I had last read it in my senior year in high school so that’s 41 years ago, and yet as I read parts I remembered them. This time I’m finding it a seriously flawed book. Again and again there are long astonishingly insightful and indeed prophetic passages on endless unjust imprisonment; state-fomented paranoia; torture and humiliation of people then murdered by the state, and then psychotic madness of people do tortured (Dr Manette’s fits); an understandable crazed need for revenge after a life of ravaging injustice (the knit, knit, knit chapter) — but then these are not rooted in any sound analysis of the history of the era, or human nature as it is, but instead we get a melodramatic story. We see a man try to change his identity because he rightly cannot bear the one imposed on him (Darnay), but we are given no reason for, no understanding of Carton’s depression, alcoholism, despair. He is a character without a past, no context. How did Carton end up Striver’s jackal. We are not told.

We see this abysmally poor man’s child run over and grief jeered at — no wonder Gaspard seeks to murder the killer-blight on his life and all those around him.

But then a history of the time would emphasize these new principles and from what I’ve read of Carlyle he certainly does. Carlyle’s French Revolution (a possible source) is very hard reading — at least I find it opaque. The style is madness.

The question would be, how does a novelist dramatize these ideas? what plot-situation or dramatic scenes can convey them? Hugo resorts to outright chapters of idea- and history. I like these very much and think he carries it off splendidly, but now English translations of his Les Miserables actually put these in the back of the book, as if they were appendices and it’s hard to figure out where they came. One forgets they are there so forgets to read them.

Dickens’s story tends to criminalize the people making the revolution – as they are the perpetrators of the false trials of Darnay. They are presented as crazed and only a couple of anecdotes and stories produced to justify why they are seething with fear and rage. Darnay is Carton’s double and he figures a modern alienation: he does not want the identity imposed on him; he attempts in good faith to build a new life, but finds he cannot escape the past, his roots, his property even, and those around him will not let him escape what his uncle did before him.

As to the films: I watched the 1935 ATOTC twice and the 1958 ATOTC with Dirk Bogarde in the leading role, it shone. The 1958 film is a close imitation of the 1935, step-by-step influenced, but the changes were often deviations into something less believable and fudged (meaning the politics of the film). Especially the characters of Sydney Carton and Miss Manette. 1958: Dirk Bogarde was directed to play the part of an alcoholic who has given up on life without quite saying why; the typology really feel into a ne’er-do-well Skimpole (from Bleak House). Since I’ve seen Bogarde playing greatly (Night Porter, The Servant) I know he was directed into this. Elizabeth Allen believed in her role in 1935 and had an intense sort of femaleness; poor Dorothy Tutin (1958) was embarrassing as Lucie Manette; she didn’t believe the character for a moment and was told to make her voice high.

Colman really played the part of a depressed man, disillusioned by all he’s seen. gayly, poignantly ironic — he was typed this way in other films (Lost Horizon) and as I wrote at one point in his career sued the studio for insinuating this was his real character in life and broke his contract (he had some courage and integrity). The actors in 1935 were closer to Dickens’s world and were better at the grotesques, especially I admit Edna May Oliver and the woman enacting Madame Defarge as well as Basil Rathbone as her evil nemesis who destroyed her family.

From the totally wild self-abjecton and tender chapter of Sydney declaring his love, a chapter undermining masculinity, i 1935 they carried it off, especially since in the 1935 movie it was followed up by slight montages and vignettes suggesting in fact their relationship deepened and was part of their mutual lives for a few years to come. The dialogue reappears even in 1989. Hopcraft just didn’t drop it.

Not that there were no moments in 1958: Leo McKern was the lawyer attacking Darnay, and Donald Pleasance a young Barsad, the spy. Both films are hurt by the excess of sentiment and filming at studio lots. The 1958 could have been more political; it was eschewed, but the individual portraits hit home: the 1958 Mr Manette put me in mind of the prisoners now starving to death in Gitmo, there for more than 11 years, many innocent of any crime but being in Pakistan and poor and known to be leftist in sympathy during the time the bribing scheme was on. The prisons too — they brought to mind our own huge prison industry and people put away in solitary confinement for years and years.

1989: Although the film with James Wilby as Carton and Serena Gordon as Lucie was probably more effective for a modern audience, it was inferior to the 1935. Again it hinges on Carton: John Wilby actually played it as something like a gothic wanderer: he was filmed as a Byronic type. Unlike both Colman and Bogarde, the alcoholism was marginalized.

Wilby plays the role as the outsider, the man who does not belong, a man apart, alone

The real problem with this character seems to be is he’s absolutely socially unacceptable to a wide audience and only the 1935 group had the nerve and only Colman the ability to play it.

It’s as if with each new version the film-makers departed more from the first try by getting rid of every good touch in the ’35 movie: one of my favorites is when (1935 movie) the people are jeering at Colman and others in the cart, and laughing at him especially, the actor says, “don’t laugh, and some words about the nature of the person or what’s happening there the man doesn’t understand.” Coming from Barsad that’s one of the finest moments in all 3 films.

Hopcraft was the writer and he wrote the 1988 Bleak House and that was excellent yet here he falls into the trap of having the actors do these fake semi-Frenchified voices and behaving in this stilted manner to indicate their Frenchness. It reminds me of the way Arab people are often represented on TV, as “different.” (A rare one not to do this was Prime Suspect). The harm to the movie was incessant. Hopcraft had moderned Esther Summerson by giving her some real characteristics of anger and resentment, and also pro-activity; nothing like that here, though unlike either previous Lucie at the film’s end Serena Gordon seems to realize she has done Carton in and at least looks some regret and memory of him.

This is actually the last close-up shot of the 1989 film: Lucie in the carriage

I expect the movie-producers were afraid of offending as this is a book that’s well known. I feel the book itself got in the way. OTOH, no more of this stigmatizing of the “mob” as in 1935 and 1958, more incidents were invented to make us understand the rage and fear of the people in charge of the terror, not a lot but something.

The 1958 and 1989 film were afraid of imitating the 1935 and this too got in the way. Bogarde did have a consistent fulfilling final moment: in accordance with his character, he is not eager to go, rather passively letting things happen than (as with Colman) reaching out (to the seamstress).

Bogarde as an apprehensive Carton

In 1989 we don’t see Wilby mount the scaffold, and the film ends with the carriage trundling away and the over-voice is the Christian “I am the Resurrection and the Light.” While that’s in the novel, it’s not the ending, and to put it last is to make Christian what is a part suicide scene: Carton seeking oblivion, peace, not redemption.

No one is redeemed in Dickens’s novel; it’s deeply pessimistic and as Colman mounts the scaffold (see the still prefacing this blog) we know the reason we do not hear catcalls is Miss Pross has murdered Madame Defarge. Jerry Cruncher, like Dickens’s Flintwich, beats his wife mercilessly, is the Resurrectionist of the book and bleakly parodies all the deaths. He conducts parody of the corpses of the ancien regime, and the corpses of the reign of (more intense because more crowded) few years to come. What is it Jay Gatsby says to Nick Carraway at the close of The Great Gatsby? “Tell me, old sport — what are we going to do with all these corpses on our hands?”

The ancien regime mutilated them. Jerry digs them up and sells them. Resurrectionist — a dark parody of I am the resurrection and the life, no? The US throws them out to sea.


I know I’ve not written much since May 2nd (Disability Studies). I’ve been both busy and have lacked the heart to write much since My busyness has included finishing two powerful long novels by Trollope (He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now read alternatively) and then carrying on reading three more remarkable novels by Anthony Trollope, the last very long (Framley Parsonage, The American Senator, Phineas Redux). I’m doing some fascinating reading about the use of maps, about the presentation of the city through plot-designs and action which emerge from how space is mapped in these books and hope to write about this soon.

I return to Colman to say to equate him with the “old-fashioned silver-screen gentleman” is to underestimate him. He had gone to a boarding school and started a good education, but was forced to leave school at 16 when his father died suddenly; while working at an office job, he turned to dramatics as an amateur by the time he was 22. For 18th century lovers, he is said to have been able to trace his family tree directly back to George Colman. He fought in World War One, a Ypres, and was very badly wounded. He limped all his life afterward and part of his acting was to disguise this.

As the reporter waiting for his plan in Lost Horizon (this too is on one of my workroom walls)


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I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light …
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
— Byron, inspiration for Shelley’s The Last Man

The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler Tichelaar

Caspar David Friedrich (1174-1840), A Monk by the Sea: a sublime picture Stephen C. Behrendt uses when teaching the gothic (from Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions: Approaches to Teaching, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller

Dear friends and readers,

As someone who has been reading gothic books ever since I began to read books meant for adults, and has taught gothic books many times, constructed a course I gave several times in different versions, Exploring the Gothic, and dedicated part of my website to the gothic, I found myself a little startled to discover that of some 19 or so novels Tyler Tichelaar analyses with care, I’d read through only 5 of them (!), and never finished another 2 — until I turned to the MLA-sponsored Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller, to find my ratio there was just as bad, maybe worse. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain capable of swallowing up a variety of forms (novel, poetry, film, story, opera, video game) and conveying a themes diverse enough to be popular across several centuries. Sometimes the same book at the same time can be accurately interpreted as reactionary-conservative or radical progressive (see Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 Years … ). Nevertheless, as those of us who love the mode know there are a number of images, plot-, and character types, moods, emphases that repeat like a formula. That’s why it’s easy to make fun of. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient (preferably partly ruined) dwelling, one cavern, a seashore, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past …

It seems most teachers begin a course in the gothic the way I did: by attempting to immerse students somehow or other: I used a short gothic novel, Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and the 1989 film adaptation, a genuinely unnerving experience whose central figure students told me they feared seeing afterward, or (for brevity as well as power), Edith Wharton’s short story, Afterward, with the BBC 1 hour film adaptation. Then I’d have the students say what they thought was characteristically gothic in either.

Tyler Tichelaar would though probably not begin with these two, nor Scott Simpkins (one of the contributors to Gothic Fiction) who seems to concentrate his course on what’s called the male gothic, and who says there are nowadays few full-scale books devoted to the male gothic, probably because the revival and recent respectability of the form is a direct result of feminism. As Eva Figes shows in her Sex and Subterfuge, the female gothic allows women writers and readers to express, experience, awake up to see, express and protest in a displaced fantasy form the real oppression and destructive nature of the upbringing and circumstances women are subjected to. At its center is usually a woman who is unjustly victimized, often imprisoned, beaten in some way. The male gothic takes the male trajectory of inflicted stress, loss, pressure, punishment, usually a male at the center, and often someone exiled — wandering far from home, unable to find or make a home, to belong anywhere. I am here simplifying of course, a book can contain both modes, women can write male gothics; men, female gothics.

This is not the only fault-line. How is it related to the picturesque on the one hand and the sublime on the other? Are horror distinguishable from terror gothics? There are sub-genres to the form: the ghost story does tend to dwell on guilt, on some irretrievable injustice having been done and is not physically violent but offers psychological terror, where the vampire story is a brutal physical exercise in breaking bodily taboos, its origins include fear of the dead hating the living, simply because (in atavistic kinds of thought) they are still living. The modern short story with its subtle sudden intrusion of the uncanny (un-home-y) stemming from M. R. James tends to present the supernatural as psychological projection. So too ways of reading differ. Tichelaar tends to analyze his stories from a Christian perspective, looking to see how the gothic enables readers to cope with the breakdown of family-centered or supportive laws and customs, and older traditional forms of state organization; Eva Sedgwick is persuaded that the gothic arises from paranoia about homosexuality (really any transgressive sexuality outside a narrow set of conventions) and discusses what gothics can make us see sexually which realistic conventions would preclude (Between Men; also her notorious “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” reprinted in Tendencies).

I take this direction because it is the great merit of Tichelaar’s book to dwell on the male gothic and use the figure of the wanderer as a way of exploring a series of related books, some written by, as for example, Fanny Burney where he analyses the distinctively feminist perspective of her work (a long chapter on her The Wanderer) and Mary Shelley where he analyses the woman’s deployment of Rosicrucian elements, the Christian myth of Paradise Lost, a profoundly pessimistic rejection of much of the romantic in an apocalyptic mythos (another long chapter, this one on Frankenstein and then The Last Man).

Robert de Niro as Frankenstein’s outcast, lonely monster, wandering in a world of snow and ice (1993 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

As Tichelaar says, we never learn for sure that the monster has found peace in death. Tichelaar’s point of view on The Wanderer as a gothic book about a figure seeking a community has recently been discussed in The Burney Journal too: Andrew Dicus, “Evelina, The Wanderer, and Gothic Spatiality: Francis Burney and a Problem of Imagined Community,” Burney Journal 11 (2011):23-38.

Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk are also key texts. Tichelaar empathizes with Antonio. He understands and justifies Radcliffe’s heroines turn to reason and community at the close of harrowing losses, where especially married women and daughters are abused.

Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, an illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

Tichelaar takes the gothic into the Edwardian era and then the 20th century with discussions of Stoker’s Dracula (another long chapter), Tarzan and the modern heroic vampire. (Although not discussed as an example by Tichelaar I’ve done Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980s Vampire Tapestry, much indebted to geological ideas, with great success with students.)

This could be an effective book for teachers to send students to read. Tichelaar writes in a readable style; he really does tell the stories of his books effectively. I can vouch for this as in a number of cases I was not at all at a loss not having read the book. Their situations and character types are summed up clearly. He begins with Milton’s Paradise Lost which is a centrally alluded-to text — until recent times and its presentation of legitimate transgression (as the romantics saw it). I liked the plainness and personal sincerity of the approach. Tichelaar begins with his love of the gothic as a boy, how he found himself when he first became an academic forced to travel far from home (upper Michigan), displaced, identified with the gothic wanderer, and feels this is a figure who can speak home to people today similarly transplanted, or peoples today who fight to control their homeland. He traces anti-semitism and sympathy for the outcast Jew in the figure of the wanderer. He’s very concrete when he makes analogies. It is true that gambling is a central sin in Udolpho. Godwin’s St Leon does seem to be about Godwin’s own troubles as a radical philosopher trying to persuade people that reason (and a scientific outlook ultimately) drawn from experience is a far better guide to life than religious beliefs (or myths). Tichelaar is unusual for arguing that for Godwin “life’s true meaning exists in the value of human relationships, so he condemns whatever may sunder them” (p. 67). Many critics suggest Godwin’s detachment from his personal context when he argued his theses that he offended his readers intensely.

I probably learned most (new) material from Tichelaar’s chapter leading from Thomas Carlyle’s at first despairing Sartor Resartus (he ponders suicide) as a text about a gothic to Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni leading to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens borrowed his tale of Sidney Carlton substituting himself for another man from Zanoni, was influenced by Carlyle’s French Revolution, and B-L’s use of Rosicrucian ideas about immortality and Christian Redemption. For my part I’m not sure that Dickens himself believed in these providential patterns, but he was willing to use them to (as Tichelaar says) “create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wandering characters” (p. 193). Tichelaar emphasizes the number of wanderers in this novel, the theme of “recalled to life” (as an imperative), and how Carlton acts for the Darnay family (“I hold a sanctuary in their hearts,” p. 206) group and is a Christ-figure. The revolution is a background for a plot of sacrifice (p. 196). Maybe. I remember I was intensely moved by Dickens’s portrait of the depressive Sidney Carlton, and his poignant semi-suicide (I just cried and cried), the famous line (no matter how parodied I care not): “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” and Ronald Colman’s enactment:

Ronald Colman (when I was 13 my very favorite actor) — a noble-in-failure gothic wanderer

Jim’s complaint has been (while watching the movie, he read the book decades ago) that Dickens’s text lends itself to anti-French revolution propaganda of a simplistic sort. It’s easy to fear and detest the Madame Defarges of the 1935 film. I’m not sure; I’m hoping later this year (or next) to read the book with a fun and generous group of people on Inimitable-Boz (at Yahoo) and watch a number of the films adapted from it before pronouncing even tentatively.

The MLA Gothic Fiction is so rich with titles of books, ways of defining and introducing different forms of gothic, and then essays on specific gothic texts, I must perforce select out those chapters which either impressed me particularly or troubled me and draw examples from those where the kinds of gothic and those specific texts I’ve gravitated towards, preferred to read or have taught are those analysed.

Friedrich, Woman at the Window (1822)

The opening section of the book is particularly rich and useful. Six essays by respected scholars on how they start their gothic courses, how go about defining the gothic, exemplifying it: Marshall Brown uses philosophical texts:

Solitude moves us in every one of its peaceful pictures. In sweet melancholy the soul collects itself to all feelings that lead aside from world and men at the distant rustic tone of a monastery bell, at the quiet of nature in a beautiful night, on every high mountain, near each crumbling monument of old times, in every terrifying forest. But he who knows not what it is to have a friend, a society in himself, who is never at home with his thought, never with himself, to him solitude and death is one and the same.

Stephen Behrendt offers pictures, Anne Williams distinguishes female from male gothic, Carol Snef gothic’s distrust and use of science. In the last part of the book we again get general approaches, which films (Wheeler Winston Dixon), how to cope with demands one make the course interdisciplinary or include public service, reach out to relatively unprepared students. There are just a cornucopia of cited secondary studies; I looked and did see all my favorite texts were there (including the profound Elegant Nightmares, about ghost stories as popular version of Kafkaesque visions, by Jack Sullivan), though I missed the French studies that are so important (Maurice Levy). The book is limited to Anglo versions of the gothic — though these are influenced by European texts and pictures.

Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), Perceval delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783) — said to be wholly invented by Fuseli. What is happening here: Is the man trying to kill himself, thrust that sword down the women’s body or is he trying to break the chain of the kneeling man?

Then there are 19 essays on specific texts set out chronologically (starting with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and ending on African-American gothics, e.g., Naylor’s Linden Hills, and really pop books (equivalent to Tichelaar’s Tarzan) like Anne Rice’s. Notable: Angela Wright on the intermingling of solid historicity with narratives of female sexual exploitation in Sophia Lee’s The Recess, Diane Long Hoeveler in effect summarizes her book Gothic Feminism for you (using among others Wollstonecraft, Dacre). Like Tichelaar, Daniel Scoggin takes you on a journey through the gothic by follwing a single figure: the vampire. I found myself learning new characteristics of sub-genres in Mark M. Hennely’s description of the Irish gothic (big-house displacement), liked the clarity of Susan Allen Ford on contemporary female gothic (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood).

I’ll concentrate just on Judith Wilt “‘And still he insists He Sees the Ghosts’: Defining the Gothic” and Kathy Justice Gentile’s “Supernatural Transmissions Turn-of-the-Century Ghosts in American Women’s Fiction: Jewett, Freeman, Wharton and Gilman.” I was troubled by Wilt (and a couple of other contributors) who said she encourages her students to suspend their disbelief and really believe in this world of spirits or “spirituality,” and cannot quite believe her assertion that their students are sceptical. I taught gothic courses for a number of years and I found students all too frequently did believe in ghosts or could be led into saying they did. They’d imply “we don’t know, do we?” sometimes at the end of a talk. Gentile shows how to read Sarah Orne Jewet’s Country of the Pointed Firs as gothic, and then Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (collected as The Wind in the Rose) re-enacting the tragedies of mothers losing their children and their loneliness and rage, culminating in Wharton’s ghost stories one which I’ve read again and again with my students and with people online in cyberspace. Wharton’s subjects marriage to a relentlessly alert scrutiny; as theme across them all is a concealed repressed vulnerable self who becomes enthralled by the past and the dead evaluation of Edith Wharton’s.

“The Lost Ghost” (from Forrest Reid, Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties, 1928, p. 89)

As a measure of this MLA’s book’s advice, the bibliographic essayist recommends Chris Baldick’s introduction to his Gothic Tales volume as one short place which really puts the history of the genre and it central dispositions together. I read it and agree. I like how Baldick denies that the gothic is universal in reach: each of its fears work only within “the peculiar framework of its conventions” and it does belong to a peculiar set of people in a specific set of centuries where life has been lived in a fraught way (pp. xx-xxi). Margaret Anne Doody’s essay, ‘Deserts, Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction (in Genre, 1977) is one of the best essays (and so enjoyable) ever written on the female gothic. I bought myself Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (I had read only one thus far), read in a couple of the anthologies of tales and ghost stories I have in the house, and vowed I’d read my collection of essays on intertextuality in Wharton bye Adeline Tintner next.


“The Library Window” (illustration for ghost story by Margaret Oliphant)

I have myself been troubled that when I teach the gothic that I am encouraging atavistic dangerous beliefs. I’d be careful at the outset to say I didn’t believe there was a supernatural world filled with ghosts, witches, vampires or anything else. I emphasizes we were entering a fantasy realm which made heavy use of realism to draw us in. I know the gothic takes us into the realm of the numinous (to my mind the origin of the term where cathedrals are concerned) well beyond the limited doctrinal codes of establishment religions. But once we raise these terrors and the awareness death is not far from us at any time do we have the courage to confront honestly the perception of human experience raised. Elizabeth Napier famously honestly argued gothic novels fail, are silly, masochistic, disjunctive in form. Neither of these books answers responds to such objections.

I felt a residual reluctance because the material can be called sick. To myself I would say that much in human live and society is sick or very bad, and this mode enables us to explore serious issues in life, loss, grief, sexuality, madness, death, but yet I know the instigation of fear and playing around with character who are made neurotic has a downside. When students morally condemn this or that, it’s no help as most students are regarding what they are reading as “other” than them. To suggest that the stories are ethical because they bring out spirituality (religious feelings) in characters is to suggest that those who do not believe in religion are unethical. By implication this is discussed continually when the critic analyses the story to bring out its ethical content or how it criticizes society, and yet I know many students do not listen well, do not understand what they are told, and simply dismiss what a professor might say if it goes against their deep-seated lessons from their family backgrounds.

I admit I chose the gothic because it was safer. When I taught directly realistic books I would often end up being directly political or more clearly so than I meant to be. Students often did not agree with my politics, were disturbed and even angered by books like say All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Marque or John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener. So when I did Walter von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident after say doing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the depiction of the violence of US culture was somehow deflected by the use of fantasy to depict victimization.

Still I carried on teaching gothic books as part or the whole of a course because students responded intensely to some of the material. The very formulaic quality of some of it (ghost story structure) made asking them to do a talk something they could do. Perhaps Leslie Fielder was right and US culture really has gothic currents embedded in it. I like how Tyler Tichelaar reads the gothic out of his personal experience. His idea seems to me valid: we are turned into rootless souls in emotionally destructive environments when we are torn from our birthplaces and original families because that is what one must do to get a paying job (survive) in the US. I identify with the female victim heroine or the hero who is a man of sensitivity attacked for this, and this is out of my experience of growing up female in the US. Like Ann Radcliffe’s heroines I turn to reveries in beautifully ordered (picturesque) landscapes to find peace.

Friedrich, Evening

I recommend both books for readers and teachers of the gothic.


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