Book Review

Clery, E.J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

E.J. Clery’s The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800 is a rich, intelligent and important book on the turn toward the supernatural in the early days of the gothic novel. Many have pondered the paradox that the “age of enlightenment” should sponsor the “gothic turn” in modern entertainment, a taste for the thrills of the supernatural that shows no sign of waning as we enter the twenty-first century. Rather than seeing this turn in novelistic writing as a rejection of enlightenment rationality, or the invention of the modern divided subject (as some Lacanians do), Clery offers a careful scholarly genealogy for the “rise of the supernatural.” Her story begins with the sensational case of the Cock Lane ghost, the notoriety it caused and the inquiries it provoked. Clery shows how the interest in the supernatural has several contexts that elevate its importance to these early skeptical inquirers: Christian belief in spirits and afterlife, the Classical valuing of the sublime, and tragedy’s orchestration of moods of deep pathos. Clery shows how an early eighteenth century debunking of the reality of ghosts and spirits (in Joseph Addison and others) is transformed into a camp aesthetic, grounded in the way readers and viewers share the spectacle of the supernatural. For example, at mid-century David Garrick created scenes of what Clery calls “enthusiastic terror” in his performances of Hamlet confronting his father’s ghost. In this theatrical context, viewers can assume the fictionality of a ghost, but enjoy it nonetheless as a compelling aesthetic effect. It is this canny consumption of the supernatural as camp good fun, fearful suspense as an effect of cunning narrative, which Walpole’s Castle of Otranto both exploits and consolidates. The vogue for the supernatural not only challenged Richardson’s naturalistic program of reading for moral example; it also epitomized the danger of modern consumption to the whole program of enlightenment: the development of an unreal need for unreal representations. By Clery’s account, the attack upon the gothic craze in novel reading became an extension of the long-standing attack upon female luxury. In an ambitious and important chapter, “The terrorist system,” Clery begins by establishing the importance of William Lane’s launching of the Minerva Press in 1790. By regularizing format, specializing in the gothic genre, publishing many of the novels anonymously, and expanding his network of circulating libraries into the smallest towns and villages of Britain, Lane took a decisive step in the modern commodification of reading under his Minerva imprint. This is the genre of gothic writing that the self-styled literary men of the early 19th century loved to hate and denounce. But a different strain of the gothic, the German “paranoic supernaturalism” of male chases, doubles, and uncanny reversals, comes in for admiration (by the likes of Coleridge) for its sublime effects (140). The intensity of the vogue for the gothic, and the limited set of its conventions, helps to provoke imitation, plagiarism, pirating, parodies and formulas, as well as adaptation to the stage. Clery argues that it is at this juncture that something like the modern culture system is discernable. It begins to dawn upon some that this is not a phenomenon that might be “corrected” with condescending critique, but is now a permanent feature of the cultural landscape, a culture industry where each would follow their own taste, rather than the cultivated taste the eighteenth century successors to Addison had worked so hard to educate. The result is a partition of culture into high and low, with which we still live. Throughout this study Clery evinces a convincing skepticism of late eighteenth century efforts to assert the overwhelmingly female readership of gothic novels. Instead Clery argues that that idea enabled male critics to anathematize a general shift in reading tastes. Clery’s critical narrative also helps explain how literature of the English Romantic period became reduced and canonized around six poets. Thus Clery reads Walter Scott’s attack upon Ann Radcliffe’s rationalized supernatural (plots that re-enact the enlightenment expelling of fearful specters), as based upon a tendentious set of hierarchies: men are to women as imagination is to physical luxury as the supernatural gothic (of Monk Lewis) is to the natural gothic (of Radcliffe). Rather than characterize the supernatural as an arbitrary taste for fantasy escape (perhaps from a boring rationalism), Clery’s book develops the terms for seeing this turn in taste as deeply embedded in the complex cultural strife of the late eighteenth century.

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