Servants have often operated in the early Gothic mode as a living, breathing equivalent of ‘found manuscripts’, as storytellers with a unique connection to the past, to liminal spaces, and to unique dialectic patterns. Like the written works discovered within the larger Gothic text, servants provide important narratives, albeit subjective and incomplete ones, which shape the Gothic heroine’s perception of reality and identity.
However, there are notable differences between oral servant narratives and written ‘found manuscripts’ in Gothic fiction. In order to better understand the distinction, it is worth breaking down the different kinds of servant narratives which occur in the early Gothic mode and identifying the goals of each. In this instance I am using the servant character Annette from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) as an example.
– A conversational exchange of information. Information included is often subjective or incomplete, is devalued by the socially- dominant body, and frequently in turn allows for “intimate revelation and commentary” according to Patricia Meyer Spacks’ work Gossip (Spacks, 3).
Example: Annette to Emily (The Mysteries of Udolpho) : “There I saw the Count’s carriage, and the Count in it, waiting at the great door […] When he door was opened, the Count said something, that I could not make out, and then got out, and another gentleman with him […] and Ludovico held up his finger, and laid it on his lips, as much to say – There is more going on, than you think of, Annette, but you must hold your tongue. And so I did hold my tongue, ma’amselle, and came away to tell you directly.” (Radcliffe, 257)
*What’s happening here: Annette is repeating things she has seen and heard around the castle to Emily, the Gothic heroine. While Emily is initially skeptical, this information is an important tool when piecing together what is happening within Udolpho castle.
2.) Ghost stories
– Told in a specific setting and calling attention to the intervention of the surrounding material world, such as flickering candles or noises. Some stories directly address places, people, past events relevant to the plot, while others are general moral or psychological studies which often still reflect the work’s themes.
Example: Annette’s tale of Lady Laurentini:”‘They searched all night long, but could not find her, or any trace of her; and, from that day to this, ma’amselle she has never been heard of […] But they do say,’ she added, lowering her voice, ‘they do say, that the Signora has been seen, several times since, walking in the woods and about the castle at night […]'” (Radcliffe, 239)
*What’s happening here: Annette is telling the Gothic heroine a ghost story about the previous lady of Udolpho castle. Although nobody is certain what happened to Lady Laurentini, Annette effectively transforms her into a literal and narrative ‘spectre’. The results are twofold – 1.) Annette’s story frightens Emily and the external reader and 2.) Annette’s story introduces an important plot point which eventually shapes Emily’s own position as a woman in a patriarchal space. This is especially important when Emily is tasked with…
3.) ‘Reconstructing Reality’
– The servant imposes an alternative interpretation or viewpoint on a situation – these instances can overlap with ‘ghost stories’ and with ‘gossip’
– This destabilizes individual and political identities by allowing characters to express and negotiate a liminal viewpoint, and one which often reflects a variation of the authors moral or political sensibilities
Example: “‘Nay, ma’amselle, you know the worst already.’ ‘I know nothing,’ said Emily. ‘Yes, you do, ma’amselle; you know, that nobody knows any thing about her; and it is plain, therefore, she is gone, the way of the first lady of the castle – nobody ever knew any thing about her.’” (Radcliffe, 333)
*What’s happening here: Annette uses Laurentini tale to contextualize Emily’s aunt’s disappearance later in the text – when Countess Montoni disappears, Annette redefines the role of women within the castle and articulates the anxieties which Emily herself feels about her own place therein. This tale enables Emily to better navigate reality and redefines both Emily and the patriarchal institutions which oppress her in more set terms.
The servant narrator’s role as an authorial metonym is complicated by the distinction between oral and written narratives. ‘Found manuscripts’ and written histories render the ‘story’ an ‘object’ and suggest participation in the wider print culture. First-person manuscripts, the scarred or incomplete written works which the Gothic characters discover and read (such as Ludovico’s ‘Provencal Tales’ in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the framing narrative of Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron, or Adeline’s manuscript in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest), are often produced by a noble captive or some similarly learned persona. Despite the acknowledgement that such texts are by nature subjective or limited in scope (either because of the incompleteness of the text or because the authors themselves were writing during a ‘dark’ age), they still constitute contributions by learned men. They thus have a value which the oral, gossip-based, narratives of uneducated women do not necessarily have.
Servant narratives are by necessity oral, personal conversations which by their very nature suggest the subjective and the transitory. It is factors such as these that make servant narratives so subversively relevant even as they ostensibly devalue them. They employ traditionally marginalized forms such as gossip and ‘fireside’ tales to present information, but this information itself often has a profound impact on how characters perceive reality and their own roles within upended domestic spaces. That servant narratives, despite being the relics of a class and gender-specific oral tradition, still have the power to destabilize everything is an intensely problematic proposition, yet it is one which confronts the nature of Gothic narrative in consistently innovative ways.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer, Gossip (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, Inc., 1985)
Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho, edited by Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)