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


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