“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


“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.


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.


“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

Publication Announcement: Book Review

Hello Goths!

Hope you’ve had a rollicking January – here’s a new announcement to get your February off to a fun (and suitably Gothic) start!

The latest issue of Studies in Gothic Fiction is out now, featuring my very own book review of Women and the the Gothic, an exciting new edited essay collection by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik.

Anyone interested should check out the journal at: Studies in Gothic Fiction: Vol 5, No 2

Be sure to follow Studies in Gothic Fiction on Twitter at @StudiesinGothic, and follow the “Gothic Servants” project at @gothicservants

Publication announcement: Journal Article

Hello mighty marauding Goths!

This is just a quick announcement that my article “The Pauper and the Provider: Servant Negotiations of Gender and Class in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest” has been published in Gothic Studies Vol. 18, No. 2, and is available online or via subscription as of November 2016.

This article attempts to clarify the role and position of a pervasive figure in early Gothic literature. Male servants in Ann Radcliffe’s early Gothic novels are frequently under-explored in critical examinations of gender identity in Radcliffe’s literary politics due to a long tradition of social and literary marginalization. However, class-specific masculine identities built on a socio-moral and political ideologies and domestic anxieties are not only particularly evident in Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), but also effectively problematize an already unstable masculine ideal which greatly impacted social roles and relationships during the Eighteenth Century. Servant masculine identity in Radcliffe’s work is examined in this article through the contrast between servant characters and their employers, through examples of potentially revolutionary active and narrative agency by male servants, and through the instance of the heroine and male servant’s joint ‘flight’ from the Gothic space. This article establishes that the male servant character in the early Gothic novel is essential to understanding socio-gendered identity in Radcliffe’s work, and that this figure’ s incorporation in Gothic class and gender politics merits further examination.

This article is a useful read for anyone looking for an introduction to the many ways servant characters influenced the development of narrative and identity in the early Gothic mode, and particularly in the Female Gothic sub-category. In particular, this piece focuses on issues of gender and class identity as a way of contextualizing and illuminating what these figures meant as individuals, as verbal and performing narrators, and as members of a complex social structure.

Those interested can access the article  here, and the article is also available to those with a subscription to Gothic Studies. You also get a subscription to this journal when you join the International Gothic Association.

For more information on publications by Manchester University Press, follow @MUPJournals on Twitter. Those interested in the International Gothic Association should follow @IGA_mexico2017 for information on the upcoming biannual conference.

If you’re interested in Gothic servants or just Gothic studies more generally, please stay tuned to this blog and follow us on Twitter at @gothicservants



Have a Happy (Horrifying) Holiday!

Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings, my great Goth friends!

As 2016 draws to a close and the time of year for circumspection and gratitude barrels towards us, I’d just like to shoot out a huge thank you to the family, friends, and colleagues who have helped me throughout my academic career and who in particular have provided the love and support necessary to get the ‘Gothic Servants’ project up and running.

We’re looking forward to participating in many new and exciting research opportunities and continuing to share all things great and Gothic in the coming years, and I greatly appreciate the enthusiastic support that really defines the academic Gothic community and that has made this work that much richer and worthwhile. I’d also like to give a special shout out to the fine folks at @SheffieldGothic and @TheReimagining, who helped out in the initial stages of the project and who continue to act as the indispensable peanut gallery.

I’ll be on a work break for the next two weeks, but blogging and updating will resume in the second week of January, so stay tuned for more updates in the new year!

For news and updates please follow this project on Twitter at @GothicServants

Have a wonderful and safe holiday and a happy New Year!



Welcome to the blog!

Hello Goths!

Welcome to the inaugural post for “Gothic Servants” – a new blog dedicated to the study of Gothic literature and especially to work on servant characters in Gothic fiction.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Dr. Kathleen Hudson and I work in 18th and 19th century Gothic studies, specializing, as you might have guessed, in servants and their narrative contributions to early Gothic novels. While this may seem like a very narrow area to be interested in, my research scope spans from the development of romance and lower-class voices in the early modern period all the way to new depictions of Nelly Dean shepherding Heathcliff and Cathy through the latest Wuthering Heights adaptation. Servant characters are trully important aspects of literature, and their role in the Gothic is particuarly complex.



Earlier research, posts, and reviews have been previously published via Sheffield Gothic at the University of Sheffield, where I was also part of the Reimagining the Gothic project during my postgraduate studies. In addition to a number of other forthcoming pieces, my article “The Pauper and the Provider: Servant Negotiations of Gender and Class in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest” is currently available in the journal Gothic Studies, available online as a fast-tracked article here: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/manup/gothst/pre-prints/content-gs_0009

This site is a support blog for my primary research project, a monograph publication entitled Servant Narratives and the Gothic,1764–1831: A half-told tale, which is currently in the research and writing stages with University of Wales Press. More information about this project is available on this website, and publication details will be made available at a later date.

For those of you who are familiar with my work at Sheffield Gothic, this is a new project which will focus more fully on my individual research on Gothic servant narratives and my personal forays into Gothic fiction, media, and teaching practice. Do continue to check out Sheffield Gothic’s fantastic posts at sheffieldgothicreadinggroup.blogspot.com and get involved with Reimagining the Gothic, a postgraduate and early careers researcher – run project dedicated to the facilitation and promotion of interdisciplinary and creative Gothic research.

I’m always up for movie recommendations, live-tweeting, comments, group projects, and just people saying hello! Be sure to follow on twitter at @kathleenh42 and @gothicservants