Announcement: Sheffield Gothic guest blog

Hello Goths!

As some of you may have seen, Sheffield Gothic has launched a “Buffy Slays 20” blog series for August/September 2017, which features blog posts from guest contributors from a range of academic backgrounds. There will be two posts from yours truly, and the first of these has just been released today! You can check it out here: sheffieldgothicreadinggroup.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/the-woman-in-white-heroinism-victimhood.html

Happy Buffy Day!

In this blog, I discuss how Buffy as a character responds to and reshapes the ‘heroine’ tropes which were initially developed in early Gothic literature and which have come to define significant Gothic engagements. In particular, I focus on the Season One finale and explore how the show consciously uses the signifiers of heroine identity (and victimhood), and then progresses beyond them in order to highlight Buffy’s placement within larger generic negotiations.

Please follow @SheffieldGothic  and @gothicservants on twitter for updates on future Buffy blogs and the latest in Gothic studies.

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Announcement: Guest Blogging

Hello goths and ghouls! This is just a heads up throughout August and September Sheffield Gothic will be running a blog series on Joss Whedon’s TV classic Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I will be guest blogging twice in this series, so stayed tuned for further updates here and be sure to check out sheffieldgothicreadinggroup.blogspot.com for posts.

To stay up to date with all the latest in Gothic literature, movies, media, art, projects, and events, be sure to follow Sheffield Gothic on twitter at @SheffieldGothic, and follow the ‘Servants and the Gothic’ Project at @gothicservants

Gothic servant narratives and literary tradition, Part Two (IGA 2017 Conference)

Greetings Goths! The “Servants and the Gothic” project recently had an opportunity to present research at Universidad de las Américas Puebla  at the International Gothic Association Conference. The following post is Part Two of selections from my conference paper “‘Either heare my tale or kisse my tail’: Gothic servant narratives and literary tradition”, presented at the biannual International Gothic Association Conference in Mexico (2017). 

Servant narrative in the early Gothic mode developed from a number of literary sources and traditions, but one major source was the early modern period’s engagement with the concept of oral storytelling and the figure of the ‘old wife’ storyteller. By adopting this persona and the style of narrative which this figure typically used, Gothic servants were able to articulate a form of Gothicized narrative which bespoke a particular historical identity even as it transcended mainstream literary culture.

George Peele’s 1595 play, The Old Wives Tale is perhaps one of the earliest instances where the phrase ‘old wives tale’ is used, and is moreover one of the first works to satirize popular romance. In this work, a blacksmith and his wife Madge, the old wife of the title, give shelter to three young men. Madge begins to tell the young men a story in order to entertain them, though the men initially make disparaging remarks regarding her storytelling abilities:

Madge: Once upon a time there was a King or a Lord, or a Duke that had   a faire daughter, the fairest that ever was; as white as snowe, and as red as bloud: and once upon a time his   daughter was stolen away, and he sent all his men to seeke out his daughter, and he sent so long, that he sent all his men   out of his Land.

Frolic: Who drest his dinner then?

Madge: Nay either heare my tale, or kisse my taile.

Frol: Well sed, on with your tale Gammer.

Madge: O Lord I quite forgot, there was a Conjurer could doo any thing, and he tunned himself into a great Dragon, and carried the Kinges Daughter away in his mouth to a Castle he made of   stone […][1]

The men attempt to devalue Madge’s storytelling abilities while making assumptions about her class and gender – she is not a member of an educated elite and her tale is ‘outside’ of mainstream literary culture. Perhaps no one is more surprised than Madge, then, when the characters in her tale come to life and begin acting out a play within the larger frame narrative, a jumble of fantasy, romance, and comedic elements. Madge’s story quickly spirals out of control and takes on a life of it’s own, essentially becoming a play-within-a-play, and one which threatens in turn to undermine the identities of both narrator and audience.

We can see parallels between the structure and content of Madge’s narrative and what would later become ‘servant narrative’ in the Gothic. Madge and many Gothic servant narrators assume a certain system of belief and employ discursive practices which critics have identified as central to the Gothic – repetition, exaggeration, and excess – hyperbolic details which connect the story to ‘otherworldly’ or ‘romance’ tradition. There is a conscious engagement on the part of the authorial metonymic character with boundaries of so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural expression. We also see the servant narrator’s insistence on speaking even when their social superiors attempt to silence them, and their willingness to engage with an audience despite lacking, ostensibly, both a social and literary authority. This play also uses an innovative device widely believed to have been first used by Thomas Kyd is in  “The Spanish Tragedy” (1587), the “play-within-a-play” in which a second, embedded narrative is performed, essentially reincorporating the ‘Greek chorus’ and redirecting the audience and narrator’s attention to a more obviously meta-textual sub-plot. Of course, this device was also used frequently in Shakespeare, and the in-set ghost stories within early Gothic texts, as we shall see, similarly carry critical potential.

Peele was one of the first known authors to engage with and satirize a lower-class and gender-specific oral tradition. Shakespeare also frequently incorporated liminal narratives, and especially narratives prone to otherworldly explanations, in his texts – in the aptly titled The Winter’s Tale the doomed Mamillius tells his mother that: “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins.”[2] The gravedigger’s dialogue in Hamlet was famously controversial for eighteenth century critics who felt that such low-class interjections ruined the dignity of the piece, while Emilia’s refusal to stop speaking explodes misreadings in the final moments of Othello.

With these literary sources in mind we can reconsider Gothic servant narratives, such as those which take place between heroine Emily St Aubert and her maid Annette in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Annette is a servant who loves gossip, and when her mistress attempts to interrupt her, she frequently insists, as Madge does, that she be allowed to use her own storytelling methods. She is also semi-conscious of her narrative’s role as a form of fantasy entertainment. During their first night isolated in Udolpho castle, and after an unpleasant meeting between Emily and Montoni, Annette cheerfully creates a scene in which the terrors of the castle are put into an idealised supernatural context: “I can almost believe in giants again, and such like, for this is just like one of their castles; and, some night or other, I suppose I shall see fairies too, hopping about in that great old hall.”[3] Radcliffe famously eschewed supernatural machinery in her ‘explained’ Gothic texts, yet this statement constructs an aesthetic of the ‘fantastic’ as Annette envisions the supernatural and transposes a fantasy world on to reality.

The consequences of such an engagement here and in Peele’s work are profound, both in a political and literary sense. Samuel Johnson delivered an equivocal look at ‘romance’ in his criticism of Shakespeare, arguing that in ‘Gothic’ times “plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons and enchantments.”[4] Though representative of ‘plebeian’ and ‘gothic’ style, Emily engages with the imaginative servant narrative with pleasure, “glad to escape more serious thought” and suggesting that in fact “we shall certainly see it illuminated with a thousand lamps, and the fairies tripping in gay circles to the sound of delicious music.’”[5] Emily-as-reader both enjoys servant narrative and expands on Annette’s vision. This narrative expresses Annette’s creative potential as well as suggesting Joseph Addison’s study of Imagination in 1712 and his argument that “we have the power of retaining, altering, and compounding” images of ‘fancy’ and that “by this faculty a man in a dungeon is capable of entertaining himself.”[6] The servant narrative’s adoption of a ‘gothic’ oral tradition resists resistance to patriarchal oppression and gives value to a gender and class-specific literary form, and one which is suggestively distinct from written contributions of contemporary print culture. The folkloric belief in giants and fairies which belong to Akenside’s “village-matron” allows the heroine to indulge her sensibility and to use it as a distraction from the persecutions of the patriarchal authority. Moreover, unlike those moments of terror which isolate Emily, this kind of storytelling unites Emily and Annette in an alliance of thinking and feeling minds.

As with Madge’s story, too, this narrative’s personal and literary power lays precisely in its transitory nature, in its role as entertainment. Echoing Madge’s easy dismissal of her own tale in favor of breakfast at the end of Peele’s play, and Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Emily suggests the ephemeral nature of the exchange and tells Annette that “if once they (the fairies) hear your voice, the whole scene will vanish in an instant.”[7] This self-aware statement hints at the power of personal imagination and narrative to not only create an aesthetic space, as Annette does with her fairies, but also to make a vision, be it positive or negative, “vanish” using an individual “voice.” This parallels more general Gothic reading practices – reading creates visions and within that experience coded systems of identity are explored. Such visions are then dispelled by a personal application of reason, despite of (or in conjunction with) the ‘lowness’ of the form and the ‘fantastic’ and Gothic genre’s recourse to metaphor.

 

Stay tuned for more excerpts from“‘Either heare my tale or kisse my tail’: Gothic servant narratives and literary tradition” on this blog, and be sure to follow @gothicservants on twitter.

 

[1] Peele, George, The Old Wives Tale, 1595

[2] Shakespeare, William, The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, scene 1, line, 629-630

[3] Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, edited by Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 231

[4] Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” 1765

[5] Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 231

[6] Addison, Joseph, “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” The Spectator, no. 411-21 (1712), p. 139

[7] Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 231

 

 

Gothic servant narratives and literary tradition, Part One (IGA 2017 Conference Paper)

Greetings Goths! The “Servants and the Gothic” project recently went on an amazing outing to Mexico for the International Gothic Association Conference, where I presented research on the origins and traditions which impacted the development of servant narrative in the early Gothic novel. The following posts will be made up of selected parts of my conference paper “‘Either heare my tale or kisse my tail’: Gothic servant narratives and literary tradition”, presented at the biannual International Gothic Association Conference in Puebla (2017), starting with a short introduction to the topic below. Enjoy! 

 

Servant characters in early Gothic literature fulfill a crucial role as in-text storytellers whose narratives often reflect larger political and literary goals and illuminate the mechanics of the Gothic mode. In acting as metonym authors, oral storytellers, and theatrical performers within specific novels, Gothic servants assumed an ambiguous position between their ostensible source material, the ‘ancient romances’ of the early modern period and earlier, and their newer post-Enlightenment innovations. Most specifically, the use of servant narrators as representatives of a literary tradition of romance and oral tales of the fantastic suggest a reevaluation of these older forms as part of an attempt to define what Horace Walpole identified as a “new species of romance”.

Regina Maria Roche suggests this link in her 1798 novel Clermont when, in the middle of an exchange of ghost stories between two female servants and their increasingly frightened mistress, Roche invokes Mark Akenside’s poem “The Pleasures of the Imagination” (1744): Akenside describes “The village-matron, round the blazing hearth,” who “Suspends the infant audience with her tales.”[1] These tales are classic Gothic narratives and “witching rhymes”, and reflect an ‘ancient’ literary tradition as well as new patterns of expression in the emerging novel form.[2]

Agatha and Floretta, the servants in Roche’s work, gather around a fire in a creepy castle on a dark and stormy night, and as the wind and storm surround them they make toast and tell each other ghost stories, frightening and entertaining tales which suggest the larger themes of the novel and an engagement with ‘romance’ more broadly. The two servant characters, who have also become authorial metonyms in this instance, embody a proto-Gothic tradition in their adoption of the “village-matron” persona – and what’s more, this persona is itself a recognizable trope which is still performed to this day in oral Gothic storytelling.

Servants are ‘othered’ individuals capable of relatively free movement through and between liminal spaces, privy to domestic spaces and secrets and, to the great consternation of their employers, perfectly capable and willing to share their own narratives and those of their masters. They were also closely linked in popular thought in the Eighteenth Century with ‘ghost stories’, to the point where John Locke warned parents in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) against subjecting children those “Impressions of Goblins, Spectres, and Apparitions, wherewith their maids and those about them are apt to frighten them […] subjecting their Minds to Frights, fearful Apprehensions, Weakness and Superstition.”[3]

With this context, Gothic servant narrators reflect and complicate Angela Esterhammer’s conception, in her examination of speech-acts and performativity, of “the speaker’s identity as shaped and determined, indeed performed by, his or her utterance, rather than regarding the utterance and its effect on the world as determined by the status of the speaker.”[4] In effect servants are made Gothic narrators by their performance of specific stories, but this transformation would be initially impossible if a pervasive social construct did not consistently connect servants with oral tales of terror. They are historical artifacts, representatives of a medieval social hierarchy which immediately aligns them with a Gothicized identity, and independent representatives of a contemporary concept of class (and often gender) identity. Therein they are linked to a form of storytelling which transcends literary and historical boundaries even as it points to a very specific style and goal.

Oral storytelling by and through the ‘old wife’ narrative persona is a space for critical engagement and emerges as such during early modern examinations of early romantic prose works. The ‘old wife’ herself is typically identified through class and gender signifiers, paralleling similar assumptions made regarding servant narrators.  Thus figures such as Madge from George Peele’s Old Wives Tale (1595), Emilia from Shakespeare’s Othello, and Dorothee and Annette from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), share a common heritage, perform similar narrative idioms, and destabilize narrative boundaries and identity in the same ways.

 

Stay tuned for more excerpts from“‘Either heare my tale or kisse my tail’: Gothic servant narratives and literary tradition” on this blog, and be sure to follow @gothicservants on twitter.

 

[1] Akenside, Mark, The pleasures of the imagination: A poem in three books, (London: 1744); quoted in Roche, Regina Maria, Clermont, edited by Natalie Schroeder, (Chicago: Valancourt Books, 2006), p. 18

[2] Akenside, p. 31

[3] Locke, John, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (London: A. and J. Churchill, 1693),  “On Grammar”, Part II, Section 191, p. 227

[4] Esterhammer, Angela, “Performative Language and Speech-act Theory,” A Companion to Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998), p. 454

Goths Abroad: IGA Mexico 2017 Postmortem

Well folks, the biannual International Gothic Association Conference has come and gone! This year the academic Gothic community was pleased and privileged to have been invited to Cholula, Mexico to attend this event at Universidad de las Americas Puebla. As a proud member of the IGA, I was very excited to have the opportunity to present research on servants and the Gothic to my peers, to meet with a wide range of fellow scholars, and to reconnect with some of my oldest and dearest Gothic friends.

As part of a panel on “18th Century Gothic and the Literary Tradition”, which also features papers by James Udon of Boston University and Maria Teresa Marnieri, I presented research related to the “Servants and the Gothic” project. My paper, entitled “‘Either heare my tale or kisse my taile’: Gothic Servant Narratives and Literary Tradition”, traced the origins of certain servant narrative idioms in the early Gothic mode to early modern engagements with class-specific oral traditions. In doing so I argued that Gothic servant narratives constitute a conscious engagement with oral traditions and use these links as a means of destabilizing identity and restructuring political and social realities. This work was developed from research undertaken while developing my future monograph publication, and served as both a brief summary of my on-going work and a potential pathway into new areas of inquiry.

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Presenting my research on servant narrators at IGA 2018

The conference itself was a diverse and exciting collection of research panels, keynote presentations, and entertaining Gothic-themed events. Featuring keynote talks by speakers such as Isabella van Elfren of Kingston University, Maisha Wester of Indiana University Bloomington, and Aurora Pineiro of National Autonomous University of Mexico, the conference provided attendees with a fascinating insight into new developments in Gothic studies and linked that research to an ongoing negotiation with the concept of ‘tradition’. Other conference highlights included the breaking of Gothic-themed pinata’s at the conclusion of the conference, and a film screening of the short film Los misterios de las monjas vampiras (Primer misterio: Las monjas vampiras contra el hijo de Benito Juarez), followed by a Q&A with the director and lead actress following the screening. The film was a very well received creative cross-section of Mexican Gothic visuals and storytelling, and you can find out more about the film and the artistic vision of its creators at: http://alvarezmoran.com.mx/

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Hannah Moss, Enrique Ibarra, Antonio Alverex Moran (director of the film), and I pose in front of another representation of a vampire nun

The conference also included a panel hosted by the “Reimagining the Gothic” Project, chaired by the University of Sheffield’s Mary Going and featuring papers by Catherine Gadsby-Mace, Lauren Nixon, and Daniel Southward. Sheffield Gothic members Mary Going and Hannah Moss also presented their research in separate panels.

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Mar Going, Catherine Gadsby-Mace, Lauren Nixon and Daniel Southward at the “Reimagining the Gothic” panel

I think I speak for many IGA members when I say a special thank you to Enrique Ajuria Ibarra, fellow Goth, professor at Universidad de las Americas Puebla, and IGA 2018 conference organizer, as well as the entire IGA support team for the amazing work they’ve done. You guys have done an incredible job and made IGA Mexico 2017 one of the most memorable conferences I’ve ever been to. Thanks!

In breaking with the biannual schedule, the next IGA conference will take place next year and will be hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University. In 2019 the IGA conference will be hosted at Lewis University in Chicago, and will be the first ever IGA conference to take place in the United States.

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New friends!

Those interested in joining the IGA or finding out about the many resources IGA membership offers should visit their website at: internationalgothic.group.shef.ac.uk/

Those interested in the “Reimagining the Gothic” Project at should check them out at: reimagininggothic.com/

As always, please follow the “Servants and the Gothic” Project on twitter at @gothicservants

“A New Species of Romance”: The ‘Whys’ of researching servant narrative (Part Two)

The servant character in Gothic fiction develops a temporarily privileged individual narrative, a uniquely structured subjective viewpoint through which dominant perceptions of reality are challenged.  Servant narratives are legitimized within the third-person narrative for a variety of reasons particular to specific Gothic engagements, and those goals in turn shape the individual narrator-character.  Far from dismissing the servant narrative as overly subjective, however, it is important to understand how their unique construction is a literary statement which interrogates a variety of discourses, not the least of which is related to the identities of the ‘author’ and ‘reader’.

The Gothic servant character is in fact a highly individualized creation, frequently charged with presenting the protagonist and the reader with a narrative which dramatically affects characterization, plot, aesthetic, and mood.  Bruce Robbins, in his study of servants in nineteenth-century realist fiction, argues that servants in literature and in life exerted a “secret pressure” on their masters.[1]  This is certainly also true in early Gothic and Romantic fiction, where depictions of servant “pressure” not only reflect specific political or socio-moral anxieties but also facilitate readings of the Gothic genre as ‘Gothic’.

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Frontispiece for “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Anne Radcliffe

Servant narrative, the servant character’s creation and articulation of a dialogue, a story, or an interpretation of a character, situation, or setting, is a crucial part of the eighteenth-century Gothic tale.  Such narrative subtly complicates, investigates, and destabilizes the ethical, social, and psychological realities within the text.  Servants in the early Gothic novel help develop the story and offer an alternative means of engaging with narrative expression, social place and identity. They provide a commentary on, and often act as a manifestation of, the mechanisms which came to define the Gothic genre.  These include discourses on supernaturalism, imagination, and “popular tumults” – what Elizabeth Montagu identified in Shakespeare as “the rude spirit of liberty” and “the dark shades of Gothic barbarism” which characterize “a native English literary tradition […] worthy of protection, preservation and celebration.”[2]  Gothic authors consistently used servant narrative as a means of defining identity through “liberty,” “barbarism,” and “tradition,” and despite her social liminality the servant character in the Gothic genre does prove worthy of advanced literary engagement, a “celebration” of self.

The development of Gothic servant narrative at a time when the relatively new novel form was struggling with legitimacy and romantic-historical ideology was still problematized within the cultural spectrums of late eighteenth-century life suggests a defensive positioning of the genre.  In Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto servant Bianca actively justifies her narrative, stating that “there was no harm in what I said: it is no sin to talk” and that “a bystander often sees more of the game than those that play.”[3]  When Bianca is interrupted or dismissed she reacts in an outraged and assertive manner.  She equates the validity of her existence with the validity of her story, an idea both literally and figuratively true – Bianca’s concept of identity hinges on what she experiences with her senses and imagination and how she expresses those experiences in a personal narrative, and her role as a character in the larger text similarly depends on the information she imparts to the protagonists and reader.  She is one of what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as “the most privileged witnesses to private life,” while her “stylistically individualized speech” reflects the “stylistic uniqueness” of heteroglossia in the novel.[4]

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Some of the canonical early Gothic texts

This type of discourse tends to amuse and frustrate both reader and protagonist but is essentially not unlike the structure of the Gothic novel (or, indeed, any novel) – a subjective form with layered characterization and description, punctuated with ostensibly unrelated anecdotes, asides, and subplots which do not appear to contribute to the overall plot without personal interpretation. Servant narratives demonstrate what are critically considered some of the weakest parts of the Gothic genre, such as contrived delay, the uncertainty of the ‘fantastic,’ and the subjectivity of individual interpretations.  Within the engagement with narrative design, however, servants reflect the inherent ambiguity of subjective identity and language within a definitive socio-cultural space.  In spite of manifesting these supposed weaknesses in narrative style and language, servants not only persist in their narrative but actively argue against attempts to limit or control alternative narrative assertions.

Beyond a direct structural defense of the Gothic genre, servants in the Gothic narrative are the figures who, because of their specific social and familial positions, can best and most comprehensively transcend cultural, historical, political and spiritual boundaries and even restructure fundamental aspects of self and identity therein.  Indeed, masters and mistresses in both real life and fictional accounts seem to depend as much on their servants as servants depend on their masters, not only for physical comforts but also as a means of constructing or supporting a viable worldview and a functional identity.  Perhaps the best word Samuel Johnson used in his definition of servant and service, then, was “correlative,” for one cannot understand the servant narrative without first understanding how both individuals and their narrative constructions must function within a system of mutual and conjunctive creativity and adoption.

As such, the servants’ defense of their viewpoints and perceptions is a potent expression of alternative narrative privilege, a pseudo-self-aware justification of their place in the story independent of social marginalization.  They are the moderators of illicit knowledge critical to the development of the plot and a reflection of the broader socio-cultural and socio-political preoccupations of the text.  As the guardians of history and family, servants and their narratives function as part of the historical-romance tradition and articulate the impact of the unresolved past on formations of present and future selves.

 

 

[1] Robbins, Bruce, The Servants Hand: English fiction from Below (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 1

[2] Montagu, Elizabeth Robinson, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare, Compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets, with Some Remarks Upon the Misrepresentations of Mons. De Voltaire (London: J. Dodsley, 1769), pp. 66, 150

[3] Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966), pp. 46, 50

[4] Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holoquist, translated by Caryle Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 125, 262

“Was ever such a blockhead seen?”: The ‘Whys’ of researching servant narrative (Part One)

 

Was Ever such a Blockhead seen!

To choose a servant for his Heroine!

  • Henry and Anna Giffard, Pamela. A comedy, 1741[1]

 

The “Gothic Servants” project, including the monograph “Servants and the Gothic” (currently in development) and the supporting articles and profiles you may have already explored through this site, in many ways seems like a rather improbable undertaking. Servants in literature, and in particular early eighteenth century literature, are habitually marginalized in critical readings. This is perhaps less because no one actively acknowledges them than because because everyone assumes they know exactly how to define the fictional servant character’s very limited role. Personally, I found servant narratives very tedious when I first read the texts which would serve as the foundation of my research. Their brief, jumbled, seemingly unsophisticated interjections were at best a bathetic form of comic relief, and they were always the parts of early Gothic novels that I skipped. Why bother delving into servant narrative when veiled portraits and mad monks beckoned?

As the Giffards’ epilogue suggest, only a fool would think that a figure so marginalized within both the social hierarchy and literary depictions could possibly make for a compelling heroine. Alternatively, given that this epilogue came at the end of a theatrical adaptation of one of the most influential novels of the age, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Giffard’s assertion is somewhat tongue in cheek. This work inspired an unprecedented spike in literary output and redefined popular culture, and also, most notably, featured an extremely loquacious servant as the Heroine. In spite of (or because of) her servant role, Pamela Andrews was the archetypal heroine character through most of the early novel’s development, successfully navigating, conquering, and redefining a role determined by her social identity, her gender,and her moral being.

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In this plate from the 1742 edition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, Pamela and Mr. B- have a heated discussion regarding Pamela’s tendency to write and narrate her own realities.

Pamela is something of an anomaly in the Eighteenth Century, however, in that she is one of the few servant protagonists. More often than not servants occupy a very different role in eighteenth century fiction. In Samuel Johnson’s seminal Dictionary of the English Language (1755) a servant is defined as “1.) One who attends another, and acts at his command.  The correlative of master.” or “2.) One in a state of subjugation.”[2] The implication in Johnson’s definition that servitude requires a lowering of self and a personal dependency on the master, often with the subversion of the servant’s individual will, is an important consequence of words such as “subjugation.”  However, the servant’s parallel identity as “the correlative of master” indicates that the identities of both servant and master are actually closely interlinked and that the inclusion of servant narratives in the national rhetoric informs the identity of not just one class but of all classes.

And yet, despite the suggestion of, ideally, a co-dependent relationship in which the social boundaries are observed and individual roles remain in place, an underlying tension surrounding the servant-master relationship pervades literature and life. Johnson was drawing from a complex tradition of servant characterization and service-oriented discourse that reflected early modern structures as well as the emerging economic and social developments of the eighteenth century.  The above definitions cite examples from eighteenth-century authors such as Jonathan Swift, but also from earlier authors such as Milton, Dryden and especially William Shakespeare, whose plays Richard III, Macbeth, Coriolanus, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and others provide significant context.

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“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce, 1851 – an example of a co-dependent servant-master relationship in an early modern play

The use of such texts highlights changing perceptions of the servant’s ‘position’ within an evolving social discourse, a complex understanding of the servant’s socio-political role in eighteenth-century Britain which affects constructions of literature during that time.  The implication in Johnson’s definition that servitude requires a lowering of self and a personal dependency on the master, often with the subversion of the servant’s individual will, is an important consequence of words such as “subjugation.”  However, the servant’s parallel identity as “the correlative of master” indicates that the identities of both servant and master are actually closely interlinked and that the inclusion of servant narratives in the national rhetoric informs the identity of not just one class but of all classes.  In a world conforming to the overt patriarchal ethic expressed in Johnson’s definition, suggesting implicit co-dependency and explicit obedience, servant voices or ‘narratives’ would perhaps exclusively reflect the goals of the hegemonic patriarchal authority. Within an ‘ideal’ servant-master relationship, the master takes care of the physical requirements of the servant and the servant, in return, subverts his own will and identity, and obeys.  This characterization of service held a moral and commercial validity in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, but the reality is much more complicated.  Moreover, such systems were increasingly interrogated in British fiction and particularly in late eighteenth century Gothic romance novels.

The servant is a privileged witness in early Gothic fiction, capable of moving relatively freely in both the upstairs drawing rooms and the downstairs kitchens, and is often more than happy to share their knowledge with the Gothic heroine or indeed anyone else who might listen. While these narratives are often plagued with gaps and heavily editorialized, they still contain valuable information – in fact, the subjective commentary the servant adds only further illuminates the plain facts of a story and contextualizes them emotionally for the reading / listening audience.

 

[To Be Continued…]

 

[1] Giffard, Henry and Anna, “Epilogue to Pamela,” Pamela. A comedy (London: H. Hubbard, 1741), p. 64

[2] Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers, Vol. 2 (London: W, Strahan, 1755), accessed through Eighteenth Century Collections Online, image 667/1206