“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’.


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]


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


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