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




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