Text: Robert D. Hume, “Levy on the Gothic Novel,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, pp. 4:58-59


[page 58, column 1:]

Levy on the Gothic Novel

Maurice Levy. Le Roman “gothique” angleis 1764-1824. Toulouse: Publications de faculte des lettres et sciences humaines, 1968. Serie A, Tome 9. 750 pp. 90,00 F ($16.33). 

With the publication of this massive seven hundred and fifty page study, we finally have available for the first time a full treatment of the Gothic novel which can be recommended without serious reservation. Perhaps we can even hope that some enterprising publisher will venture a translation. Happily though, the book is written in a clear, crisp style which makes it easy reading, and even those whose French is pretty lame will appreciate Levy’s lucidity and dry wit.

Heretofore, no book on this subject has really done the job. Eino Railo’s The Haunted Castle (1927) contains much of value, but is disorganized, repetitive, unindexed, and critically erratic: Railo saw the Gothic in terms of “Romantic elements,” not as a powerful form in its own right. Montague Summers’ The Gothic Quest (1938) is packed with valuable observations, but is more descriptive than interpretive. Worse, it covers only half the ground, since Summers never completed his projected second volume. D. P. Varma’s The Gothic Flame (1957), until now the most readable general account, is slightly marred by purple prose, uneven coverage, and some vagueness about the affective import of different sorts of Gothic novels. (This last problem has been taken up in two recent essays, F. R. Hart’s fine “The Experience of Character in the English Gothic Novel,” English Institute Essays, 1968, and my “Gothic versus Romantic,” PMLA, 1969.) Useful tangential discussions appear in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony (good on thematic patterns) and J. M. S. Tompkins’ The Popular Novel in England (especially helpful on the “market” Gothics), but Levy’s book almost has its field to itself, and anyone seriously interested in the [column 2:] subject must read it.

Despite the vastness of the results, Levy’s study is tightly organized, holds strictly to a critical-analytical perspective, and is mercifully free of the digressions and authorial idiosyncracies which have haunted previous books. He resists the temptation to get into extensive biography or biographical speculation: thus Radcliffe and Maturin, who seem especially to elicit this sort of treatment on very slender evidence, are for once approached straightforwardly through their novels. Basically, Levy is content to trace the rise of mythic and archetypal elements in Gothic novels of all types, to distinguish varieties along the way, and to see what sorts of worlds and power emerge from these imaginative endeavors.

The organization is simplicity itself and represents a good compromise in the face of considerable problems. Of course there is no single, clearly-defined Gothic mode; a few rather disparate authors loom large; chronological limits and “evolution” are frustratingly vague. The temptation is to treat individuals in isolation, or to establish artificial categories with which to control a mass of balky material. Levy does neither. He gives a good chronological description without slighting major authors or failing to distinguish types sufficiently. One reason for this success is his knowledge of some four hundred Gothic novels in this period. He discusses nothing like that number, but his ability to refer helpfully to this great bulk of material, and to use it to show connections and fill in gaps, gives the book a solidity, range, and overall command of the subject which is truly impressive. In a way, the book is monolithic. Levy starts with a concept of Gothicism broadly defined in terms of architecture and the sublime, and then proceeds systematically to investigate its manifestations in the period he has delimited.

Thus the first chapter (some seventy pages) takes up the “medieval” elements behind the eighteenth-century Gothic revival, examining the manifestations of a new, distinctively un-classical spirit in architecture and aesthetics. Far more carefully than previous students, Levy demonstrates the foundation of the Gothic aesthetic and sensibility in mid-eighteenth-century culture. Patiently showing the prevalence of what was to be dubbed “Gothic” sensibility in English elegiac poetry, architecture, and painting by 1750, Levy has a good start on his later demolition t Chapter 10) of an old canard — that Gothic romance is an expression of French-revolutionary spirit. Moving then to Strawberry Hill and Walpole (Chapter 2), Levy sets up an important and heretofore underplayed differentiation between the aristocratic-dramatic mode established by Walpole, and the more bourgeois-lyrical form favored by his mostly feminine followers — especially Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith, and Ann Radcliffe to come. A full discussion (Chapter 4) of Radcliffe follows, with a sympathetic account of her use of suspense and the picturesque. Here Levy strikes a nice balance, appreciating her virtues while admitting the limitations imposed by her cautious Protestant rationalism. Moving on to Lewis, Levy again manages to draw sharp, helpful distinctions, emphasizing the architectural side of Radcliffe, who tends to dwell on demeures, as against the villain-oriented Lewis, for whom demons are all. Chapter 5, on Lewis, gives a well-balanced account of his many French and German [page 59:] sources, while rightly insisting on his essential originality. The discussion of de Sade is useful, and a passing comparison to Cleland (pp. 349 ff.) might be worth following up, especially in light of recent willingness to treat Cleland more seriously (see Leo Braudy in ECS, Fall 1970). What emerges by this point, halfway through the book, is an excellent sense of just how different in character the major early writers are, and this differentiation is achieved entirely without the imposition of artificial categories.

In the course of the second half, Levy maneuvers toward his culmination in Maturin. Chapter 6 (”L’ecole ‘frenetique’ “) displays the author’s massive erudition as he classifies and comments on huge numbers of almost unknown novels. He avoids outright categories by viewing works as “following” Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, or Lewis. Given the good differentiations already established in the first five chapters, this procedure works far better than one might expect. This classification by type is then complemented by a pause for an overview of the production of “Gothic novels” in this period (Chapter 7). One gets a good sense of the conditions which produced the flood of “Gothic” material: Levy gives summary accounts of the ages, sex, and gains of the authors; the formulas they wrote to; the publishers they worked for; and, incidentally, the vogue of translations into French. This background material gives a much more substantial setting for the major novels than is provided even by Summers. Logically enough Levy then goes on to consider reactions to the Gothic in the form of parodies and travesties — from Beckford to Northanger Abbey. This chapter (the eighth), though descriptively solid, seemed less substantial than some, and I wish that the author had seen fit to pair it with one on critical reactions.

Last and greatest in this chronological procession comes Charles Maturin. Chapter 9 gives us an eighty-page account, from The Fatal Revenge to The Albigenses, and one could wish for far more. At least Levy sees, more dearly than any of his predecessors, how profoundly original Maturin was. He comes at the end of the great Gothic boom, but he does not merely develop a tradition, for he starts where the others leave off. His fantastic power, savagery, and seriousness take his work to a different plane altogether. In Maturin we do get to a truly mythic and demonic level. Why he has not taken his place as a major English novelist is a mystery. Far more than Scott, Raddiffe, and Lewis, he deserves extended critical and biographical attention, and Levy has made a good beginning. Now we need a full-dress analysis of Maturin’s development.

When in Chapter 10 Levy looks back to survey and summarize, he makes fully explicit a theory which the reader has come to expect. He views the Gothic in terms of architecture and scenery, and the processes of dreams. From the “vertical” images — spiral staircases, plunging underground passages, precipices and cliffs — he deduces an interior, psychological delving into the deepest recesses of the mind. Personally, I find the notion of “verticality” a bit fanciful, but about the psychological questioning in the major Gothic novels there can be no doubt. [column 2:]

Overall, Levy provides an outstandingly good account of the types, evolution, and sources of the Gothic novel within the period of its greatest prominence (Poe and the Victorian romancers receive only brief mention in the conclusion; Brockden Brown goes almost unmentioned). The advantages of this restricted focus are obvious. One drawback, though, is the author’s heavy reliance on period in determining his subjects. Almost every novel with Gothic elements and devices is automatically included. To avoid arbitrary exclusions is a good thing, but so very inclusive a notion of Gothic lumps some great novels with a lot of trash — useful in some ways, but potentially disparaging. In light of this inclusiveness, Levy’s decision to discount Caleb Williams and Frankenstein (p. vii) seems to me questionable. Admittedly both contain elements which fall outside the Gothic province, but they use the Gothic; why include many works too lame to do more than imitate a convention, and ignore great works which use it creatively? Frankenstein seems to me a very interesting parallel to Maturin’s work.

Seeing how well Levy has done with what he has chosen to study suggests to me two areas outside his scope which now seem urgently to call for further work. One is the relation of the early Gothic novel (especially the “feminine” variety) to the Richardsonian tradition of feminine distress and the later boom in sensibility — problems often toyed with but not yet well handled. The second is the relation of the Gothic to other popular contemporary novel forms — the historical (for example, Jane Porter and Scott), and the revolutionary social-consciousness type (best exemplified in Bage, Holcroft, and Godwin). All three sorts have a foundation in sensibility, but seem to represent quite different ways of exploiting a foundation of aesthetic and psychological assumptions in which they have a good deal in common. I think we might get an interesting perspective on the Gothic by making this sort of comparison.

This review cannot be concluded without high praise for Levy’s bibliographies and indexes — ninety pages worth. He has a most helpful list of secondary sources (well broken down into categories), an index of titles, another of authors (both referring to a chronological list of novels), and separate indexes of names and titles cited in his text. I cannot pretend to have checked the accuracy carefully, but the errors I noticed are entirely venial — for example, 1933 as the original date of Tompkins’ book; “Partizan” Review. Summers’ Gothic Bibliography remains unsupplanted, but Levy’s lists are welcome. The “Bibliographic chronologique” is especially helpful. There we are given, year by year, a list of English Gothic novels between 1764 and 1824 — with a special extension for Gaston de Blondeville. From this list, one can see at a glance just how sparse Gothic production is for the first thirty years; how a real boom gets underway in the mid-1790’s; and how it drops off rapidly after 1810. More remains to be done on the Gothic novel, but this book must be accounted a splendid beginning. Levy’s fine readings of the novels and his exemplary thoroughness make this study indispensable.

Robert D. Hume, Cornell University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]