Chapter 4: Gothic Cities
As a cornerstone in the history of mainstream popular fiction, the traditional Gothic novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century set the precedent for a genre of writing which assumed a less fashionable stature in the refined Victorian age. An epoch such as the nineteenth-century, populated by authors striving towards moralistic and intellectual works of literature, disregarded the subversively grotesque literature of shock and horror. However, Victorian novels often assimilated features which are indicative of the Gothic genre. The representation of the city in nineteenth-century literature is a fine example of how seemingly contemporary settings can be transformed into a Gothicised location; a space of transgression, where norms of society are perverted and asserted in various spaces, and where ominous and awe inspiring architectural landscapes are inhabited by monstrous figures derived from hideous strands of society. The composition of the Gothic genre, ideally location, transgression and character, as discussed in this chapter, are evidently key features that are employed in the realisation of the city in the Victorian novel.
The assimilation of a literary gothic style, into a contemporarily domesticated setting in Victorian literature, serves as an incredibly subversive strategy in the literal representation of city life. As Christopher Brooks explains in his study of the Gothic revival, ‘Nightmares no longer inhabited medieval piles in far-off locations, but smart suburban villas here and now.’ (Brooks, 1999, p.307) The immigration of the foreign monstrosities that once only existed in Gothicism, now penetrated the localised region of the home, the workplace, or the street, effectively domesticating the abhorrent terrors into the regions of the public and private spheres. Fears, phantoms and spectres of a modern kind could pervasively invade texts which were seemingly grounded in existing real life locations, streets and terraces. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol playfully employs the merger of gothic qualities with the cognizant city setting to great effect:
The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already - it had not been light all day - and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.
(Dickens, 1843, p.9)
Dickens presents the city, a regular street, as a vivid Gothic landscape, shrouded and ethereal through the external influences of unusual weather. The city is suffocated by both the ‘dark’ and dense ‘fog’, invading every sector of the region, penetrating ‘every chink’ and ‘keyhole’, directly through the doors of the private space, threatening to breech the protected sphere of the home. The traditional Gothic style of adopting almost paranormal meteorological conditions to evoke a sense of foreboding, effectively allows Dickens to distort the familiar city domiciles and streets of trade into an almost unrecognisable perversion of city life, transforming the homes and distant structures into indiscernible ‘phantoms’. In the case of A Christmas Carol, it could be argued that such a setting is employed singularly as a precursor to what will develop into a fantastical ghost story. However, it seems far more plausible to assume that Dickens is utilising traditional Gothic strategies in an urban setting to generate an uncomfortable relationship between the industrially advanced culture of the city, beside the mysterious, unrelenting nature of unexplained phenomena. The dichotomy of the structural realism as regards the city within the text, integrated with the unbound, unreality of the Gothic, induces a greater fear of the unknown because the Gothic has, quite literally, landed alarmingly on the reader’s own doorstep.
The literary Gothic cities in Victorian novels are almost transmogrified into a structure not dissimilar to that of the archetypal Gothic castle, which features as the locus of activity in the majority of traditional Gothic stories. Therefore the city, like the castle, has both regions of sanctuary and danger, often extended and Gothicised representations of the predatory spaces and places of the city as discussed previously in this study. At the forefront of these ominous places are the slums, the poorly illuminated, shrouded regions often ignored as an integral part of the city structure, as exemplified in Dombey and Son when the infantile Florence is abducted:
She stopped before a shabby little house, as closely shut up as a house that was full of cracks and crevices could be. Opening the door with a key she took out of her bonnet, she pushed the child before her into a back room, where there was a great heap of rags of different colours lying on the floor; a heap of bones, and a heap of sifted dust of cinders; but there was no furniture at all, and the walls and ceiling were quite black.
(Dickens, 1848, p.129)
The slums are indicative of the subterraneous, hidden precincts of the Gothic castle, which are home to unwonted and deviant strands of life. In this instance, the marauding monster is the decrepit Good Miss Brown, a figure who is as equally decayed and hideous as her surrounding abode, with a ‘shrivelled yellow face’ and a mouth that ‘mumbled and chattered of itself’ (Dickens, 1848, p.128). Dickens employs traditional Gothic conventions, such employing a dark hooded figure as the abductor who, through the use of a ‘key’, gains access into the hidden space of a dark room. The house itself is situated ‘down a dirty lane, where the mud lay in deep black ruts’ (Dickens, 1848, p.129) and is tightly tucked away from the public sectors of the street, effectively placing a deviant and dangerous dominion out of sight from the public gaze. Good Miss Brown is an enemy within the city structure, an animal who is seen to live among ‘rags’, ‘dust’ and ‘bones’, the literal remnants of decaying corpses. To place Brown in the city and then to thrust the innocent and virginal Florence into her own space, is very much a Gothic mechanism to induce terror in the reader for the sake of the protagonist. The fear is multiplied, however, by domesticating this evil into the urban city, effectively inducing an ‘internalised terror and fear’ (Brooks, 1999, p.307), which is inescapable due to its familiarity of locality. Perceived notions of the city as an organised and productive industrial mechanism are overthrown by the idea of it existing as a eclectic hub of modern commerce yet also repository of ancient, primal predators upon its unsuspecting populous. As such, the city citizens are as much at threat as the inhabitants of the Gothic castle are by the supernatural forces that haunt it. By injecting an innocent middle-class girl into the clutches of the city, who then becomes abducted by a creature, who subverts the middle class society by existing as the antithesis of modern culture, proves that despite the advances in city industry, there still prevails a remnant of the barbarously inhuman in the many strands of modern society.
The domesticated, almost proto-Urban Gothic setting of a Gothicised metropolis often transmutes the city into an archetypal monster figure. For Eliot and especially Dickens, the city often adopts a strong, figuratively conscious character role throughout their work. It is less a humanisation of the city, but more a Gothic representation of it as a force of its own industrial energy. Eliot’s The Lifted Vail presents Prague as a city supernaturally populated by its own Gothic architecture:
The city looked so thirsty that the broad river seemed to me a sheet of metal; and the blackened statues, as I passed under their blank gaze, along the unending bridge, with their ancient garments and their saintly crowns, seemed to me the real inhabitants and owners of this place, while the busy, trivial men and women, hurrying to and fro, were a swarm of ephemeral visitants infesting it for a day.
(Eliot, 1859, p.9)
The organic lifeblood of the city, the human populous, is physically and intellectually subordinated by Eliot, reduced to the puny scale of primitive insects within a cultured domain. They are an ‘infesting’ mass, a ‘swarm’ of ‘trivial’ creatures who are merely ‘visitants’ in a state of flux within the immortal, yet ancient body of the city. It is as if the city has consumed all the bygone cultures of life which have inhabited it over the centuries, a city ‘so thirsty’ that it consumes its minions each ‘day’. Interestingly, Eliot’s Gothic city is a direct attack upon its industrial counterpart, the metropolis of commerce. Her affinity with Romanticism and consequently the Gothic, is evident in her extension of the city as evoking awe-inducing effects of scale upon the minions within it, as they are individually threatened by its ‘unending’, all encompassing size. The notion that the city outlives the generations of society which inhabit it is an arresting conjecture; it is a visual stamping of the mortality of flesh and the immortality of stone. No matter how industrious the businessman, he will still become, despite his wealth, one of the many absorbed and deceased insects to be consumed by the city body. The city is all that survives in the wake of mankind’s mortality, and as Raymond Williams suggests, ‘the most evident inhabitants of cities are buildings’ (Williams, 1973, p.156), the only true, consistent citizens of the city. Like Eliot’s ‘blackened statues’, draped in ‘ancient garments and saintly crowns’, which continually overlook like the gods of a giant workhouse, these are the achievements and symbols of an aristocratic, tyrannical past. It is an evocative reminder of a past civilization who was part of the city, yet now is assimilated and digested by it, leaving behind the relics of this once prosperous, but now deceased generation. It is the undulating mass, an absorbing city body, an ever expanding and immortalised creature, who is the true Gothicised demonic giant of the nineteenth-century. Eliot’s use of the Gothic genre, a departure from her usual moralist style, presents a narration where her familiar authorial third person narrative voice is muted; for Eliot there is no social commentary to enlighten the reader within the clutches of the Gothic city. It has a body that exists in a genre that quite literally articulates itself.
Eliot notes that the statues of Prague stand upright, looking down upon the metropolis as a subject to ‘their blank gaze’. The notion of observation, the sensation of being studied by unseen eyes of surveillance, was as concern of city dwellers in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, the anxiety expressed over forms of modern surveillance has been sustained through to the present day, but in the densely packed, back-to-back urban housing estates and street apartments of Victorian London, little space allocated for privacy in a society which lived shoulder to shoulder. For Scrooge, even city structures gaze upon him:
The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations.
(Dickens, 1834, p.13)
The church bell appears to be surveying Scrooge’s activities from high above, watching him through its own ‘Gothic window’ onto the street below. The reference to it using a ‘window’ which also happens to be architecturally ‘Gothic’ in design is intriguing, highlighting the importance of windows as a means of not only allowing light to penetrate the internal spaces of the city, but also as a mechanism for allowing the internalised systems of the city to observe exterior activities. The bell consequently ‘becomes invisible’ as the ‘fog and darkness’ shrouds it from view (Dickens, 1834, p.21). It is of paramount importance that the bell tower is invisible to Scrooge, even though he can still hear it striking the hours, as it assumes a Panoptic position of surveillance; it can essentially gaze from an unverifiable location from the observed person’s field of vision. Thus Scrooge can’t see it, but he is conscious of its presence. Michel Foucault’s study of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish, relates the unverifiable presence of the subject as essential to the process, deducing that ‘the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.’ (Foucault, 1975, p.470) The notion of being watched, studied and regarded from an indiscernible person or place situates Scrooge within a mechanism of surveillance, were it ‘automatizes and disindividualizes’ his power as a city citizen. (Foucault, 1975, p.470) The act of being observed by a second party affects his freedom in the city, dictating what he can or cannot do within its limits. The added factor of being observed and aurally reminded through the tolling of the bell from an ‘ancient tower of a church’, also infers that the observing power has a religious agenda of morality, possibly resounding the omnipresence of God; where the invisible force is all seeing, all knowing. Indicative of Jeremy Bentham’s detainees of the Panopticon, the citizens of the city are free, but they are also trapped in a policed network, contained and regulated. Foucault suggests this process it is a reversal of the entrapment of the traditional dungeon, where light and space is utilised to illuminate the inmate, as opposed to locking the person away in a small dark space. (Foucault, 1975) The intrusive eye cast upon the inhabitants of a city is a conjecture that Eliot meets with disquietude, and as a consequence in Silas Marner, she ejects the protagonist from Lantern Yard, quite literally a floodlit region as its name implies, transporting him to the solitary region of the countryside as concealment, ‘where he felt hidden even from the heavens.’ (Eliot, 1861, p.22) Presenting the city as a sentient mechanism, a Gothic castle with hidden secrets with a mind and observing eye of its own, is an alienating factor projected towards the individuals who inhabit it. The populous is ‘carefully fabricated’ within it, simply ‘part of its mechanism,’ (Foucault, 1975, p.478) governed by its many structures and regions, perpetuated by who or what it may contain in its unverifiable districts.
The act of transforming streets into unrecognisable labyrinthine networks, peasants into grotesque imitations of death and city spaces into Panoptic regions of surveillance, reverts the nineteenth-century city into a primitive, barbaric system that subverts and disrupts Victorian disciplinarian mentality. To advocate the trusted and familiar region of the city, as a surreal and paranormal space, disconcerts all that is trusted about the structure. It internalises distant terrors, makes them localised and unavoidable, and places the barbarously savage aspect of the human animal in the centre of what it believes is the height of modern culture. The effect of urbanising Gothic conventions in recent years has become acknowledged as the Urban Gothic, a genre in its own right. However, for Dickens and Eliot in the middle of the nineteenth-century, to Gothicise the seemingly conservative city in literary texts is a radically unique and unconventional manoeuvre in English literature, intimating the birth of a completely new genre of writing.
The ninetieth-century gave rise to the development of a city structure, so intricate in its composition and industrially modern in functionality, that few literary environs had outmoded it in terms of its variable flexibility in social diversity. The influence on writers of the Victorian period cannot be overestimated; the city’s position in the social network of gender, class, and an infinite number of other cultural variables such as sexuality, explored nineteenth-century social conventions by ‘extending the various forms’ and ‘pursuing them according to lines of indefinite penetration.’ (Foucault, 1976, p.689) The metropolis became the harbinger of all of these segments and variances in social discourse. It is universally seen, through an industrial Dickens and pastoral Eliot, as the locus of activity and the expanding hub of modern culture. Indeed, it is equally embraced and repelled in each instance yet it is undeniably an essential body of culture, one that cannot be denied as paramount in a sociologically historical context. It is a harbour to a new industrial lifeforce that collectively swept up and enveloped society into a newly evolved generation, far more collectively segmented and differentiated, that it became a terse repository of a cosmopolitan culture. It is almost an explosive landmark in social history and the basis for a new subject of literature, a new dominant social form unlike anything before. For writers it became an unbound genre of its own, a region of social evolution and deviation, lodging an array of possibilities within the structure, raging from optimistic industrial progress to Gothically pessimistic forebodings. Raymond Williams notes a ‘sheer rush and noise and miscellaneity of this new and complex social order.’ (Williams, 1973, p.155) It is an order that is either loved or loathed, but as this study has shown, it undeniably exists on the Victorian panorama, if only as a dot on the literary landscape. Eliot’s disdain for the city may be strong, but her writing is still laced with furtive acknowledgements of its marauding existence in the distance. Dickens’ work is equally engaged with the city on such a level that he sees any deviation from its limits as a perversion from a substantial social system. For Dickens, to be surrounded, penetrated and assimilated by the city is to be validated as an essential cornerstone of modern society.
The Victorian epoch is but one, early chapter in the construction of the literary city. However, it marks the structural grouping of a newly modernised society, perpetuated by industry, often infused with religion, and haunted by its own Gothic architecture, placing it at the height of social expansion and diversity. In their literary representations of nineteenth-century cities, Dickens and Eliot were historically embedding the cultural epicentre of Victorian society in a vivid fictional form.
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