Review of Francesca Saggini’s CRECS talk, ‘From The Vaults: Frances Burney and the Tragic Muse’, 13 Mar 2017

Many thanks to Jannat Ahmed (@PemberleyParade) for writing this review of our CRECS event, which took place on Monday 13 March 2017.

The Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar recently had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Francesca Saggini (Università della Tuscia, Visiting Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge), author of Backstage in the Novel: Frances Burney and the Theater Arts, to present her new (never-before-presented) research on Frances Burney and the Tragic Muse. Discussing the neglect of Burney and her fellow female tragedians in most anthologies of eighteenth-century plays/drama, Saggini drew our attention to the contexts of Burney’s tragedies, and issued a call to take them more seriously. Continue reading

Monday 13 March 2017: Francesca Saggini, ‘From the Vaults: Frances Burney and the Tragic Muse’


Frances Burney is often best known as the writer of pioneering novels of manners that inspired Jane Austen, such as Evelina, or: The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778). But she was also a playwright, who drew upon a rich tradition of tragic drama to reflect on her experiences at the court of George III and, more broadly, the ideological constraints that women faced in eighteenth-century society. In this talk, Francesca Saggini will discuss Burney’s ‘Tragic Muse’, and will more broadly reflect on the way that critical reception inflects our treatment of Burney and other late eighteenth-century dramatists.

Francesca Saggini is a Professor of English Literature at the Università della Tuscia and a Visiting Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. She has published extensively on Gothic fiction and the stage, the house in literature, and the fiction and drama of Frances Burney. Her most recent book is The Gothic Novel and the Stage. Romantic Appropriations (Pickering and Chatto-Routledge, 2015), which was awarded an Honourable Mention at the European Society for the Study of English Book Awards in 2016.

Please join us in Cardiff University’s Special Collections, in the basement of the Arts and Social Studies Library. The event starts at 5.30pm on Monday 13 March 2017. As usual, refreshments will follow after the presentations and discussion.

Attendance is free, but we would be grateful if you could register using our EventBrite link:

Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

 We are delighted to be able to publish the second of the winning essays from our CRECS Essay Prize 2015/16: “There was a ship”: Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Alexander Diggins, which was the winner in our Third-Year BA category.

Alex is currently doing an Mphil in American Literature at Cambridge, working towards a thesis on language, landscape and legibility on the American Frontier. After he graduates, he hopes to work in literary magazines whilst working up some of his ideas into a book.


“There was a ship”: Man, Witness and the Sea, or ‘sea change’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

Undergraduate Dissertation


There is a moment in Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Ariel sings of Alonso: ‘nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea change/Into something rich and strange.’[1] The human encounters the non-human, and is changed by the experience; the categories of man and sea are unsettled, boundaries have become fluid. This moment of uncanny flux is the crux of my dissertation as I examine how ‘sea change(s)’ have been approached in literature, and, in particular, in two seminal sea stories: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

I take ‘sea change’ to mean ‘an alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change’ (OED)[2], and also use Shakespeare’s evocative and eerie phrase to develop a new approach to these texts. Chapter one lays out the critical vocabulary of this approach with reference to Herman Melville’s notebooks, and Martin Heidegger’s ideas of landscape and dwelling. This chapter posits that it is the essential, and existential, rootlessness of the sailor that makes him uniquely vulnerable to ‘sea change’: he has none of the landmarks of home, family and kinship with which the landlocked soul navigates and builds identity. I read the surface of the sea as Heideggerean ‘space’: marked out with ‘locations’ of story and history, a landscape upon which the rootless sailor can find roots. However, I also see the deep of the sea as formless space utterly inimical to fragile human identity. It is at the meeting of these two spaces – one which shores up identity, one which dissolves it – that the process of ‘sea change’, as I define it, occurs.

Chapter two builds upon this argument by analysing a two page episode in Moby Dick. The section read may be small but I see it as emblematic not only of the characteristic concerns of the novel – the encounter of man and nature, the (futile?) search for meaning – but also of literary ‘sea change(s)’.  Through analysis of this passage I tease out the essential themes of ‘sea change’: the loss of identity, the witnessing of (inhuman) meaning, and the return to the surface compelled to narrate that witnessing. I end by gesturing towards how these themes are present in, but also complicated by, Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

I begin Chapter three by delineating the pattern of isolation, engulfment and prophesy – the movement of ‘sea change’ – in the Mariner’s narrative. I signal that this process is not as clear or easy as it was in Moby Dick, the dense poetic energies of the Coleridge’s text often obscuring or resisting the application of one convenient narrative, or summative reading. I argue that this obscuring is due in part to the importance Coleridge places on the imagination in the poem; not only the author’s, and the reader’s, but the Mariner’s himself. I read the Mariner as a conscious, and creative, presence within the text, not simply a signifier of meaning but its origin: both subject and author of the eponymous ‘The Rime’. By giving human voice to his poem of ‘sea change’ I argue that Coleridge differs from Melville. The scale of this encounter of man and the sea is no longer cosmic and inhuman, but gentle and deeply human.

In a summative coda, I briefly examine the work of the artist Jason deCaires Taylor whose underwater sculptures serve almost as material enactments of the literary ‘sea change(s)’ with which this dissertation is concerned. I argue that the ecological awareness that these sculptures seek to promote is not at odds with the texts dealt with here, but rather at their heart. For fundamental to the conception of literary ‘sea change’ is an awareness of the deep (in both senses) strangeness of the ocean, and a knowledge of its profound vitality and its profound fragility.





Chapter 1 – Loomings                                                                           5


Chapter 2 – Soundings                                                                        12


Chapter 3 – Breachings                                                                       18


Coda – Findings                                                                                   23


Bibliography                                                                                        26



Chapter One – Loomings:


Step down into the sea, into another knowledge, wild and cold…

 Thomas A. Clarke, The Hundred Thousand Places[3]


The sea is origin; both biologically of life on earth and frequently in the cosmologies of primitive cultures. In Genesis life, light and humanity come from ‘a formless void’, and the ‘waters of the deep’[4]; in Cherokee creation myth a water beetle, an earth diver, descends to the bottom of the primordial waters and brings to the surface river mud which becomes the earth[5]; in Greek mythology – as related by Hesiod in his Theogony – Gaia, the earth, and other divines emerge from Chaos, the void, the sea.[6] Marine biologist Sylvia Earle argues of the sea that ‘our origins are there, reflected in the briny solution coursing through veins, and in the underlying chemistry that links us to all other life’.[7] The sea as beginning, as originator, and ‘sea change(s)’ as a return to that prime are thus a theme that transcends boundaries of language, time and culture: an idea that informs Melville’s and Coleridge’s treatments of ‘sea changes’ in Moby Dick and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ respectively. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sea-change’ as ‘an alteration or metamorphosis, a radical change’ but I wish to deploy it in this essay in a specific way[8]; that is, as a transformation, or more accurately a transmutation – for it is a change of substance – of the human by the sea. These kinds of ‘sea changes’ have a long afterlife in literature. For instance, in the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. And in the Celtic folklore of the Selkie which, as David Thomson argues, is haunted by the trope of the slippage of man into seal, and vice versa.[9] Intriguing as these folkloric ‘sea changes’ are, they are outside the compass of this study. For the ‘sea change(s)’ of Melville and Coleridge are stranger and more elusive than the fantastical tropes of man becoming, or being consumed by, a sea creature.

The phrase ‘sea-change’ as I employ it comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest when Ariel beguiles Ferdinand with a song of his father’s drowning and subsequent change:

Full fathom five thy father lies/ His bones are of coral made/Those were pearls that were his eyes/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.[10]

The process Ariel eerily hymns here is that of bodily, physical change; Alonso’s body has been transmuted into something unperishable and incorruptible.  This presentation is a radical departure from the majority of Renaissance portrayals of the sea. Often it was figured as something vast, terrifying and swallowing. In parallel with these fearful presentations ran accounts of exploration and conquest. The sea was, as Deloughery argues, an ‘umarked, atemporal and feminised void […] aqua nullus[11] for the early colonial explores, an easy subject for refashioning as a male, European space. Shakespeare unsettles these contemporary constructs of the sea. Alonso’s sea change is beautiful, eerie and feminised. The imagery shuttles between male disgust and fear at the despoiling of Alonso’s body by the sea – ‘his bones are coral made’ – and a celebration of the feminised beauty these changes have wrought – ‘those were pearls that were his eyes’.  Though neither Coleridge or Melville were as alive as Shakespeare was to the tension of gendering in their portrayals ‘sea-change(s)’, both writer’s works are fired with the uncanny power of Shakespeare’s prototype. Both Pip, the drowned cabin boy of the Pequod, and the Ancient Mariner are burdened by – but also ‘rich’ in – forbidden, fatal knowledge. And both are, after their ‘sea changes’ profoundly, unnervingly ‘strange’. The Wedding guest shudders away from the Mariner crying ‘I fear thee Mariner!’[12], and Ishmael wonders at the deep-addled mind of Pip that seems ‘luridly illumined by strange wild fires’.[13] Both characters, returned from an element that usually destroys the human – having ‘suffered a sea change’ – burn with an otherworldly glamour. James Hamilton-Patterson records how superstitious fisherman and sailors would not learn to swim, a seemingly foolish oversight that ‘stems from a dark belief that once you have fallen into the sea’s grasp you are done for by right’.[14] Those that return from drowning, that suffer a ‘sea-change’, are thus marked by it. They cheat not only death, but the sea itself.

What makes the sea unique in its ability to change the human? Why do we not speak of ‘earth-changes’ or ‘air-changes’? For answer we must look to Melville’s notebooks and his description of the Great pyramid of Giza. ‘It is the sense of immensity that is stirred […] its simplicity confounds. Finding it in vain to take in the sea’s vastness man has taken to sounding its depth or measuring its density; so it is with the pyramids [but] it refuses to be adequately studied or comprehended [….] Man seems to have had as little to do with it as Nature’.[15] Melville articulates here the same emotions that course through any literature of the sea. The same images recur again and again: ‘the sense of immensity’; an appalling ‘simplicity’ that ‘confounds’, that repels, man’s attempts to measure it, to own it; and, as always, the mind baulks at its sheer size, its horrid vastness: ‘man has as little to do it with as Nature’. The sea is infinite, a stage fit for gods, or God, not man. As Deloughery argues the ‘vastness of the sea’, ‘challenges our limited concepts of space, so the ocean is at once our origin and our liquid future, destabilising our notions of linear human time’.[16] In the literature of ‘sea change’, ‘linear human time’ is a fragile concept. In Moby Dick time becomes a deep well, the strata of human and geologic existence are laid bare; in Shakespeare ‘human time’ is irrelevant, the decay of man is suspended, he becomes subject to other laws, other measurings of existence; Coleridge presents a eerie co-mingling of these two presentations. His frenzied flight of the imagination is not, in R.S Thomas’ phrase, ‘a world in servitude to time’[17] but neither is human time entirely absent. Time is just one force among the many – like fate, judgement or narrative itself – that compel the poem’s fierce motion. In the realm of ‘sea change(s)’ time and man are upset, destabilised; they teeter on the edge of oblivion. The sea provides an experience of immensity more immediate, more fatal, and more haunting, than any other available to us. That is why it has such power to shape the human.

What makes the sailor so uniquely vulnerable to ‘sea-change’? It is not, as one might expect, his proximity to the ocean, but rather his fundamental rootlessness.  Consider what a ship wreck means to a sailor. A ship wreck is a home wreck. It is a deracination of an intensity that few on land will ever experience. For, at sea, a ship becomes all to a sailor: home, workplace, and, in its predominately male environment, surrogate mother and (oedipally) surrogate lover. And yet how fragile it all is. One freak wave, one heavy storm, one careless watchman, and all is lost, all is ‘sea swallowed’. For those on land, identity is inextricably bound up with landscape. As Robert MacFarlane argues landscape is ‘a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging’.[18]  Landscape and identity are mutually dependent and supporting. The physical actuality of the earth would not be landscape without the human subject populating it with story and valency; the human subject would not have identity unless it could draw from the deep well of meaning inherent in the landscape around. For those on land, the roots of identity can go deep, sometimes back thousands of years. For those at sea those roots can only go down to the bilges. Their world becomes the wooden walls of the ship, the people with whom they share their home, and the stories that are told about the ship and its crew. Ship wreck thus becomes home wreck, and because home, the ship, is all the sailors have to define themselves by, home wreck becomes self-wreck. Those that suffer sea change, those that have returned from the deep, not only have the tremor of the undead about them, but also carry with them the fear of anonymity. They have lost all: home, landscape, identity. Washed of selfhood and severed from the ship, the last ties of the ocean going man, they are speak of, as Hamilton Patterson puts it, that ‘fat blank which squats beneath all happiness flicking out its tongue’. Those returned from the blank of the deep reek of it, and they ‘reset the poles of existence’ for who remain on the surface.[19]

Martin Heidegger formulated that one of the central ‘poles of existence’ for humans is wunian or dwelling, and that ‘to be a human being means to dwell’.[20] The ship, for a sailor, is a dwelling place; it is a ‘home’ in all the polyvalences of that word.  Sailors draw comfort, security, and identity from the ship in the same way that landlocked souls draw them from their houses and communities rooted in landscape. The mobile ship provides a paradoxical stability to the lives of her sailors who are, as Deloughery proposes, ‘beings in flux’.[21] Heidegger uses the example of a ‘bridge’ that ‘gathers the earth as landscape around a stream’. A ship on the vastness of the sea does the same thing. Heidegger goes on ‘the bridge does not first come into a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge’.[22] It is ostensibly the same with sailors and ships. For an ocean going vessel of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries of the kind Melville would have sailed in, (and Coleridge would have seen in Bristol docks), what was beyond the horizon in front was as irrelevant as what is beyond the horizon behind. All else would have receded, all else would have disappeared. This though is a dangerous fallacy. The ship may seem to make the space, the location, the waters around only having value by virtue of the ship being in them, but the anthropocentrism of this view blissfully ignores the sea that slaps and growls at the ship all around.  The ocean predates the stories men tell about it, the language they use to describe it, it even predates the land sailors have abandoned for it. The sea is a constant, a prime, a first. And a sea change is sudden realisation of, in Melville’s words, the ‘pre-adamite’[23] reality of the sea. It existed before us and it will, in all likelihood, exist after us; the sea circumscribes the lifecycle of humanity.[24] A sea change is thus not only a wrenching, a divorcing, of sailor from their dwelling place but also from their stable ontology. It is a much a transformation of perspective as it is one of the body or the spirit.

Populated with locations, peoples and ports, the sea has become the definition of a ‘space’ as formulated by Heidegger. He argues that ‘we always go through spaces in such a way that we already experience them by staying constantly with near or remote locations and things.’[25] An admirable description of the surface of the sea. But flip your perspective downwards. See the gulf that threatens just below the waves; see the deep below. And understand that even now when, as Melville predicted, we have ‘plumbed its depths and calculated its density’ we can never experience it as ‘space’ as Heidegger formulated it. It can never be marked out with ‘locations’, other ships and ports, as the surface of the sea can. The deep, the medium of the ‘sea-change’, can only be understood as a gulf, a void, an anti-space, in that it dissolves and changes the familiar locations upon which the human subject depends. Consider in light of this the miracle of a ‘sea change’. The human, at least in part, has been come back from this erasure, has returned fired with knowledge, rather than dissolved by the experience. The surface of the sea may have been delineated, and can thus be considered a Heideggerean ‘space’ but the deep, the realm of the ‘sea-change’, resists such classifications and remains fuzzy, undecidable and in flux.

It was then, inevitable, that Melville chose the sea as the central metaphor in his description of the Great pyramid of Giza. For no other element exists on earth that has the presence, to compel the mind as the sea does. And though images of the sea are common currency in English literature (what else would we expect from an island nation), it is ‘sea-change’ as first described by Shakespeare, and which quickens in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime’ and Moby Dick, that burns in the imagination. The surface of the ocean may appear to sailors to be akin to a Heideggerean ‘space’, marked by sea-roads of story and superstition, lines of conquest and trade, fixed and locatable, but what concerned Melville and Coleridge was the deep that lies beneath. The deep both as metaphor for the buried: time, history and the unconscious, and the deep actual: a crushing void, an absolute darkness inimitable to human life. They saw ‘sea-change(s)’ – the encounter of the seafarer, a being already precarious in their identity, with the void of the deep – as an expression of the meeting of the human and the absolute, the time bound with the infinite. And in the uncanny return from the sea of Pip and the Ancient Mariner they see the mortal treading on the hems of the divine.


Chapter two – Soundings:

The sea is the Alpha of existence, the symbol of potentiality.

W.H Auden, The Enchafed Flood, or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea[26]


Moby Dick is a foregrounding of the act of reading, an education in the dangers and elevations of interpretation, and an investigation into what Foucault termed the ‘discrepancy’ between language and actuality.[27] Melville may have ‘swum through libraries’[28] when writing the book, but its narrative presents a struggle to keep afloat in a sea of fact and fiction, the ‘pasteboard masks’ of images and the ‘naught’ (104) that lies behind. Central to this struggle for definition in the novel, for the ‘ultimate condition of things’, is the motive of the ‘sea change’: for ‘sea change’ is an attempt to define the indefinable. It is a meeting of human with the absolute, a crisis of the time bound with the timeless. As Delougery states ‘geologically and symbolically speaking the earth’s surface cannot represent its deep history [man] must plumb the subterranean and subaquatic layers of human and planetary change’.[29] The Heideggerean ‘space’ of the surface of the sea cannot ‘represent’ the ‘deep history’ of the earth, to experience this depth one must go into the deep. Melville’s presentation of the ‘sea change’ of the cabin boy Pip figures this ‘plumb[ing]’ of the deep, and in doing so encapsulates the fundamental drama of the novel: a search not for a white whale but for meaning itself.

By the logic of ‘sea change’ Pip must endure a separation. He accompanies the whale boats out on a chase and, unnoticed, falls overboard and is abandoned. ‘Out in the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling black head to the sun, another lonely castaway though the loftiest and the brightest […] the awful aloneness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such heartless immensity, my God! Who can tell it?’ (343)  Central to this description is the image of Pip’s head, marooned in the middle of the sea, as it is marooned in the middle of the pitching breakers of the sentences’ sub clauses. The assossantic snap of ‘crisp’ and ‘curling’ foregrounds Pip’s isolation; seen against the blank of the open ocean the sailor’s identity is shown to be precarious and conditional. In losing the Pequod and her crew Pip loses his landscape of home and heart. He is stripped of Heidegger’s ‘locations’, the orientating landmarks of story and place; he finds his selfhood flickering and unsubstantial, and thus he falls down into the deep, ripe for ‘sea change’.

This isolation is echoed in Melville’s bold figuring of the sun as ‘another lonely castaway’: the personal has shifted to – is mirrored in – the cosmic. This destabilising, vertiginous shift is characteristic of Moby Dick. As Maxwell argues, the metaphysical aspects ‘emerge from and are integrated into scene itself [thus] there is no discontinuity between concrete scene and abstract ideas’.[30]  There is an appropriate fluidity to Melville’s prose; his gaze is at once particular and pelagic. Description washes into philosophical digression: the personal dives into – and out of – the metaphysical. This dizzying shift is akin to the process of sea change itself, in which the human scope by which we measure the world is suddenly, startlingly, expanded. As Olson states ‘to MAGNIFY is the mark of Moby Dick’.[31] In his language Melville ‘MAGNIFY(s)’ the comfortable anthropocentrism of both character and reader, expanding and shattering it; by forcing our gaze down to the blank deep beneath our feet the world is revealed anew.

Pip’s ‘sea change’ is an encounter with first things, a return to a primordial world. Time is experienced not in a linear fashion, but as a sink hole. It is shown to have space and depth. ‘Sea change’ is staged as an encounter of jolting immediacy with first things. Not only the beginning of human (Biblical) history, ‘I can shake hands with Shem’ (377), but also a much more venerable, pre-Adamite, geologic sense of time. We are told that the sea rather than outright drowning Pip ‘carried his soul down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes’ (343). The miraculous survival of Pip’s soul, the unmeasured – and unmeasurable – depths to which it descends, and the gallery of ‘strange shapes’ he is privy to, figure his ‘sea change’ as mystical revelation. Jenny Franchot has argued that in his prose and poetry Melville sought ‘to rival scripture, in investing [his writing] with his own innovative, post-scriptural voice that uses Biblical sublimity against itself’.[32] Melville, however, does not seek to rival scripture, but rather to write his own. The sonorous beat of his adjectives, ‘wondrous depths’, ‘strange shapes’, and ‘primal world’, is not mimicry of scripture but scripture itself: scripture of the ‘sea change’. Olson argued that ‘Melville wanted a God. Space was the first, before time, earth and man.’[33] This perspective creates a post-Christian, or rather pre-Christian, ontology for Moby Dick; however space and time are not mutually exclusive in the novel, but rather, as modern physics, really one and same. A movement through space, a journey into the deep, is a movement backwards through time. Melville’s deep predates (human) history; it is the realm of the ‘antimosiac, unsourced existence […] of the whale’. Indeed, Melville claims that contemplation of the whale’s skeleton bears him back ‘to that wondrous period, ere time itself can really be said to have begun; for time began with man’. (497) Pip’s human ‘sea change’ is thus an experience of an inhuman time scale, a ‘wondrous period’ before man and his measures – history, geology, Time itself – ‘can really said to have begun’.

If Pip’s sea change is an experience of the sea as a temporal black hole it is equally a description of the difficulty of reading that experience. ‘Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects that out of the firmament waters heaved colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad’ (343). What are we to make of this blurred rush of images? It recalls the surrealism of Dali: cohesive images are evoked, ‘coral insects’, ‘colossal orbs’, but in its accumulation the description becomes fantastic and engulfing. The dissolution of identity and emphasis placed on gaze in Pip’s ‘sea change’ echoes aspects of Emerson’s ‘eye ball’ passage in Nature. ‘I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of universal being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.’ Pip has ‘become a transparent eyeball’.[34] His identity effaced, he has become a conduit for the readerly gaze, we see with him and through him. Sight, and the immediacy of the aesthetic, are emphasised by the repetition of ‘he saw’. Pip is a passive witness, sights flow past him and through him. Melville, though, does not entirely make Emerson’s pantheistic leap: Pip does not become part of the universal all. Such an affirmation would collapse the novel’s narrative of a search for, and a wondering after, meaning. Instead, Robert Lee discusses how ‘the world [is] turned upside down in Pip’s holy dementia’, seeing his ‘sea change’ as a ‘vision in which “looking” and “seeing” have become unstuck’.[35] This is the shift of perception that is central to ‘sea change’; the anthropocentric ontology of the sailor is displaced, replaced by a sudden awareness of the non-human presence of the sea. The authority of ‘I’ has ‘become unstuck’, usurped by the authority of the eye – the authority of the deep.

Pip is lost. The black cabin boy, indentured even on the democracy of the Pequod by Stubb to Ahab, has discovered freedom. But it comes at the cost of his humanity and his sanity. Pip is granted freedom from his identity as a slave only to have his selfhood recast against his will as a prophet, a mouthpiece of ‘sea change’. In the chapter ‘The Cabin’ there is a passage of sudden emotion when Pip fantasises about ‘play[ing] host to white men with gold lace upon their coats […] rows of captains and admirals’ (436). And he asks them ‘have ye seen one Pip? A little Negro lad […] jumped from a whale boat once;-seen him? No? […] he’s missing’. The broken, staccato questioning and Pip’s strange vision of a dinner party trembles with madness and terror. He has been lost; his identity dramatized, projected and shattered. He has been emancipated ten years before his terrestrial brethren only to be re-enslaved as a seer of ‘sea change’ and the madman’s knowledge it reveals. The compulsion of narration, the return from the deep fired with meaning and determined to relate it is a characteristic feature of ‘sea change’. Pip returns to the surface and is ‘called mad’ by his shipmates because his speech touches upon ‘the axis of reality’ (376); Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is burdened by a ‘strange power of speech’ which holds his audience attentive as a ‘three years child’[36]. Both are haunted by the imposition of narration: they must confess what they have seen. Auden reads the ‘The Cabin’ chapter as ‘Pip having lost himself […] can only exist through the self of another’[37]. The other Auden figures is Ahab. I propose another approach. The other into which Pip is displaced is the reader. We become the identity Pip constructs; he, and indeed the Ancient Mariner, having experienced a sea change, can only exist through narrative, through relating that transformative experience to an audience. We are that audience. ‘Sea change’ elides identity and situates it in narration.

In the ‘ocean’s utmost bones’ (38) man is changed. Pip experiences an isolation utterly destabilising; he encounters time not as linear progression but as depthless chaos where Heideggerean ‘locations’ have little ability to orientate; and, as Lawrence Buell argues of the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: ‘the link between poesy and prophecy is constant.’[38] The ‘sea change(d)’ man becomes prophet, eloquent of the meaning revealed to him. Franchot argues that ‘volubility and mystery are re-enacted in the tension of Ishmael’s reach into the empty space of the unseen world […] an urge for the unseen motivates the urge towards authorship’.[39] This ‘urge’, this ‘volubility’ and ‘mystery’, is not confined to Ishmael, rather these tensions fire the entire narrative, and they are manifested most powerfully in the ‘sea change’ of Pip. Indeed, this ‘urge towards authorship’ is a defining feature of the literary sea change. And is, as I will go on to demonstrate, most evocatively portrayed in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Moby Dick may the grand narrative of the failed quest for meaning, but Pip’s ‘sea change’ – described roughly halfway through novel – provides an aperture through which a genuine connection to meaning is possible. The world may be choked with confused alarms of sign and signifier, where all are ‘pasteboard masks [with] naught behind’ (220). But in the ‘sea change’ of Moby Dick there is a paradoxical rootedness in narrative, in Time’s beginning, and in meaning itself.



Chapter 3 – Breachings:

You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything.

                                                                                                            Coleridge, Biographica Literaria[40]


‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is like its subject the sea: irrational, uncontainable, resisting or eliding attempts at measurement or organisation. Indeed, the poem’s textual history foregrounds its uncanny instability. Coleridge revised the poem throughout his career, its last edition appearing in 1817. It is a text concerned with, and defined by, flux: in image, form and meaning. ‘The Rime’ is never stable, and thus attempting to impose an overarching vision, a comprehensive reading, on the text is a futile task. As Auden argues, reading the poem is a visceral rather than cerebral experience, for its ‘symbol(s) are felt before any possible meaning is consciously recognised [and] the symbolic correspondence is never one to one but always multiple.’[41] In reading the text as a poem of ‘sea change’, this dissertation puts aside the symbolist baggage that Auden warns against, seeing the poem for what it is: an encounter of man and the sea, and the compulsive, haunting burden to narrate that encounter. The Mariner’s blessing of the water snakes is the moment of the ‘sea change’ in the text, the crux upon which the poem revolves. And the tropes of ‘sea change’ – isolation, witness, narration – are built around that moment: earlier in the poem the Mariner is isolated from his crew by his shooting of the albatross, and, like Pip fallen from the whaling boat, he becomes vulnerable to ‘sea change’; after part four the poem becomes a recording of the Mariner’s possession by the encounter he has witnessed. He becomes voice of, and witness to, his ‘sea change’.

The Mariner laments in part four that he is ‘alone, alone all alone/ alone on a wide, wide sea’.[42] He has lost the ties of crew, family and community: the landscape of the heart the sea faring man needs to sustain his himself. As Anne Williams argues, during part four the poem becomes a text of ‘I-solation’[43]. The change of usual pronoun from ‘we’ to ‘I’, and its insistent repetition in this part (it appears over 15 times) signals the Mariner’s retreat from community through narration: the moment that the ‘sea change’ of the Mariner can truly be said to begin. This distancing, the separation of the self from the other through language, is further enacted in part five. The Mariner tells how ‘the body of my brother’s son/Stood by me […] the body and I pulled at one rope, but he said nought to me’ (345-350). John Beer takes this as evidence that the Mariner is distanced from the cosmos by his unique position as property of Life-in-Death: ‘universally lonely he can neither communicate with the living or the dead.’[44] This reading, though, ignores the true tragedy of this account; the nephew does not immediately recall some grand abstraction like death, rather he evokes family, home and community. The Mariner’s grief comes not from his existential position, but because he cannot speak to one who he knew and loved. Coleridge said of the Mariner that ‘he was in my mind the ever wandering Jew – had told his story ten thousand times since the voyage’.[45] Coleridge here identifies two of the defining aspects of the ‘sea change(ed)’ subject in relation to the Mariner: separation, a wandering divorced from the ties of home and landscape, and a compulsion to narrate the experience that isolated him. Like Ishmael, the Mariner is distanced from society, and like Melville’s protagonist he proves a loquacious, irrepressible narrator of his story. This congruency reveals the organic, almost unconscious associations that define the literature of ‘sea change’. A severing of the bonds of community, home and landscape, a loss of Heidegger’s ‘locations’, the lodestones with which we situate ourselves in the world, appears ineluctably to inspire storytelling. The self is displaced and instead situates itself in narration. Selfhood is replaced by storyhood.

A repeated motif tells how the Wedding Guest tries to halt the flow of the story, ‘yet he can not chuse but hear; and thus spake on that ancient man’ (18-19).  Narration is possessed, and possessing, both Mariner and Wedding Guest are cast as mere witnesses to this act of unquenchable ventriloquism. This recalls the pathos of Pip’s search for a lost self when he asks ‘Have you seen one Pip? No? […] He’s missing.’[46] Pip, like the Mariner and the Wedding Guest, has lost selfhood and agency. He is now only an audience to the ‘sea change’ that endlessly narrates through him. David Ward sees the ‘The Rime’ as conditioned by a ‘dream logic’ that ‘does not divide – it assimilates, merges, confuses, consubstantiates’[47]; similarly, Edward Bostetter reads the poem as a voyage into a dream, or rather nightmare world.[48] Although useful in their reclaiming of the poem from Robert Warren Penn’s allegory of redemption paradigm, these interpretations misplace their emphasis.[49] For the poem appears less of a departure into the dream world, than an irruption of the dream world into the ordered, daylight world. The Mariner’s ‘strange power of speech’ (591) shakes and unsettles the ontology of the Wedding guest, who after being audience to the Mariner’s account of ‘sea change’ is left ‘a sadder and a wiser man’ (627). The Mariner’s account appears irrational, dreamlike, because he himself is irrational and dreamlike. His narration is borne of a ‘sea change’, and a defining characteristic of the sea is its ability to elide classification, to resist rationality. As Melville recounted in his notebooks: it is ‘in vain’ that ‘man has taken to sounding [the sea’s] depths or measuring its density’, for no human compass can be brought to bear on its ‘vastness’[50]. It is this oceanic ‘vastness’ that has seized the Mariner, and prompted his compulsive confessions.

Crucial to these confessions is the role played by the imagination. As in the account of Pip’s submersion, the poem foregrounds the immediacy of sight and the primacy of image. Pip witnessed first things, the fundamentals of the hidden universe: ‘great coral insects’, ‘God’s foot on the loom’[51]. By contrast, the Mariner’s sight is seared with a vision hellish and apocalyptic. ‘I looked upon the rotting sea/ And drew my eyes away […] but where the ship’s huge shadow lay/ The charmed water burnt away/ A still and awful red’ (244-246). ‘I looked’ foregrounds sight and the ‘eye’; what the Mariner witnesses is so uncanny he seeks to turn away, but he cannot wrench away his gaze. He is possessed, transfixed (and thus, transformed) by what he sees. A.M Buchan argues of the poem that it dramatizes ‘a smothering of the Mariner by the sheer excess of the sense impressions to which he is susceptible.’[52] ‘Smothering’ is a useful phrase to bring to bear on the text for, as in the language Melville used to describe Pip’s experiences, the imagery of ‘The Rime’ enacts the wider ‘sea change’ it describes. The description is dense, vibrant and overwhelming. We are smothered, submerged and changed, by language and by the imagination. The imagination plays a role because, as Buchan neglects to examine, what it presented is a second hand account. It is not the anonymous narrator who conjures these impressions but the Mariner. As Paul Magnuson astutely recognises ‘whatever we see of the Mariner’s world, we see through the Mariner’s eyes’[53]. This is impression mediated by imagination. Which is an innovation in the presentation of ‘sea change’ that Melville neglected when he came to write his novel 34 years later.  In Moby Dick Pip is mostly denied direct speech, his ‘sea change’ is reported. In ‘The Rime’, by contrast, the Mariner mediates the tale. The poem is a direct recounting of his ‘sea change’ in his own voluble voice.

‘Sea change’ may possess the Mariner, forcing him to tell and re-tell his experience, but it does not stifle his perception, nor strip him of imagination. Rather ‘The Rime’ has an immediacy because it is mediated through the imagination.  The imagination was a totemic presence in Coleridge’s thought. He wrote in his Biographia Literaria that it is the ‘repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of the creation in the infinite I AM’[54]. This is imagination as creation, creation as divinity, and thus imagination as divinity. He further argued for the poet as akin to God the creator when he stated that the genius of ‘fine art’ makes ‘the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature.’[55] If this is the process of the creative act, then it is also the process of ‘sea change’. The individual human ‘I am’ is sublimated into the ‘universal I AM’ of the sea; the ‘internal’ is made ‘external’ and vice versa; and ‘thought’ transmutes into ‘nature’ just as ‘nature’ transmutes into ‘thought’. All Coleridge is missing in his unintentional description of ‘sea change’ is an acknowledgment of the compulsion of narration that it sparks. That oversight is, of course, corrected in ‘The Rime’ and its presentation of the Mariner’s ‘strange power of speech’. ‘The Rime’ is then an exploration of the imagination as the sea, and the sea as imagination. Not in a clumsy symbolic sense (be it Christian or Pantheist), but rather in the sense that as much as ‘The Rime’ is about the sea, it is also about the imagination. And as much as it is about the events the Mariner experienced, it is also about his re-telling, his imaginative reconstruction, of those events. Seen in this light the poem appears not a narrative of ‘sea change’, but rather a ‘sea chang(ed)’ narrative. The voice of ‘sea change’ may speak through the Mariner and his compulsive narration, but it speaks in a human voice mediated, as in the ‘genius of fine art’, by the imagination.

To read ‘The Rime’ as poem of ‘sea change’ means the poem’s symbols can be reduced to the most powerful, and the most basic: the sea and humanity, nature and man, isolation and engulfment. The Mariner is just a man who encounters something greater than himself, and is shattered by the experience, and is able to form a coherent self only by telling and re-telling that encounter. That is the pathos and the drama of the piece, therein lies its message and its allegory. Melville’s approach differs to Coleridge’s. Melville’s description of the ‘sea change’ of Pip is vast and monumental. The forces of ‘sea change’ are invoked, but they remain only concepts. He lacks a human scale. Coleridge, by contrast, gives humanity to the voice of the Mariner. The Mariner is anguished, worried about appearances, unnerved by his ‘strange power of speech’ almost as much as the Wedding Guest. Through the Mariner’s narration, his poetry and imagination, the trauma of ‘sea change’ is given full voice. Through the poem’s cacophony of voices, its repetitions and re-echoes, its interruptions and irruptions, we are presented with a being – the Mariner, a subject – the sea, and a text that is constantly and continually in flux. Thus the Mariner, the poem and its audience(s) are ‘sea chang(ed)’ alike.



The underwater sculptures of the artist Jason DeCaires Taylor present a vision of a drowned, ‘sea chang(ed)’, humanity (See Appendix 1). Coral, sand, and sea life warp and blur the human outline of these concrete figures; the ocean slowly erodes and erases their marks of craftsmanship. As Jonathan Jones argues ‘maybe [Taylor] dreams of a time where humans have been left behind, a nature that has survived us. We might be the forgotten ones.’[56] If this is the case then it is a dream that Taylor shares with Coleridge and Melville, a sight of a post-human, and indeed a pre-human, world. For in the works of both writers, ‘sea change’ is figured as an encounter with a presence that resists, that pre-dates, mankind. We are no longer ‘the measure of all things’. And yet, how this inhuman presence inspires human creativity: Taylor’s sculptures, Melville’s compendious novel, Coleridge’s uncanny poem. It is as though faced with the blank of the deep, the landscape-less void of the ocean, humanity intuitively responds by narrating that experience, by singing that encounter. To speak out is to risk scorn or even hatred: Pip is ‘called mad’ by his shipmates, the Ancient Mariner is driven out to wander. However, given the precarious state of the world’s oceans and the growing possibility that such an encounter may be denied future generations, perhaps it is madness to remain silent. ‘Sea change’ thus becomes not merely an approach to literature, but a moral imperative.





Primary Texts:


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ed. Paul H. Fry (London: Bedford/ St Martin’s, 1999)

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2003)


Secondary Texts:


  1. Clarke, Thomas, The Hundred Thousand Places (Edinburgh: Carcanet Press, 2009)

Auden, W.H, The Enchafed Flood, or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (London: Faber, 1951)

Beer, John, Coleridge the Visionary(London: Chatto, 1959)

Buell, Lawrence, ‘Moby Dick as Sacred Text’ in New Essays on Moby Dick ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge: CUP, 1986)

Bostetter, Edward, ‘The Nightmare world of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Romanticism 1-3 (1962): 61-72

Buchan, A.M, ‘The Sad Wisdom of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Philology 61 (1964), 31-45

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographica Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2vols.  (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957)

Curtain, Jeremiah, The Creation Myths of Primitive America (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009)

Deloughery, Elizabeth, Roots and Routes: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures                                                                       (Hawaii: UH press, 2007)

Earle, Sylvia A., The Oceans (London: McGraw Hill, 2001)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature and the Conduct of Life, and Other Essays (London: Everyman’s Library, 1963)

Franchot, Jenny, ‘Melville’s travelling God’, in Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville ed. Robert S. Levine, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998)

Foucault, Michel, Foucault Reader ed. John D. Faubion (Cambridge: CUP, 2014)

Hamilton-Patterson, James, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds (London: Faber and Faber, 2007)

Hesiod, Theogony: Works and Days (Oxford: OUP, 1999)

The King James Bible, Standard ed. (Collins Bible Translations, 2011)

Thomas, R.S, ‘A Marriage’, Collected Poems (London: Phoenix, 2001)

Thomson, David, The People of the Sea: Celtic tales of the Seal folk (London: Canongate Books, 1996)

Heidegger, Martin, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought (London: Harper and      Row, 2001)

Lee, Robert, ‘Moby Dick as anatomy’, in Herman Melville: Reassessments ed. Robert Lee (London: Vision Press 1998)

MacFarlane, Robert, The Wild Places (London: Granta, 2008)

Magunson, Paul, Coleridge and Wordsworth: A lyrical dialogue (Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1988)

Maxwell, M.D, Herman Melville, Profiles in Literature (London: Routledge, 1968)

Herman Melville, Journal of a visit to Europe and the Levant: October 11, 1856-May 6, 1857 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1955)

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, ed. David Lindley (Cambridge: CUP, 2013)

Olson, Charles, Call me Ishmael: A study of Melville (Cape, 1967)

Walcott, Derek, Omeros (London: Faber, 1990)

Ward, David, Coleridge and the Nature of the Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Warren, Robert Penn, ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading’ New and Selected Essays (New York: Random, 1989)

Williams, Anne, ‘An I for an Eye: “Spectral Persecution” in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in Art of Darkness: a poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)


Internet Resources:

OED online, available at: (Accessed: 05/05/16)

Smillie, Susan, ‘Drowned World: welcome to Europe’s first undersea sculpture museum’ Guardian Online, available at:, (Accessed: 09/04/2016)


Works of Art:

Jason deCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution, (2013), Lanzarote.

Appendix 1: Jason deCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution, (2013), Lanzarote.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. David Lindley, (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), I.ii.399-400

[2] OED online, available at: (Accessed: 05/05/16)

[3] Thomas A. Clarke, The Hundred Thousand Places¸ (Edinburgh: Carcanet Press, 2009), p. 79

[4] ‘Genesis’ in The King James Bible, Standard ed. (Collins Bible Translations, 2011) p. 11

[5] Jeremiah Curtain, The Creation Myths of Primitive America, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009), p. 47

[6] Hesiod, Theogony: Works and Days, (Oxford: OUP, 1999) p. 52

[7] Sylvia A. Earle, The Oceans (London: McGraw Hill, 2001) p. 74

[8] OED online, available at: (Accessed: 05/05/16)

[9] David Thomson, The People of the Sea: Celtic tales of the Seal folk, (London: Canongate Books, 1996), p. 1

[10] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. David Lindley, (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), I.ii.395-401

[11] Elizabeth Deloughery, Roots and Routes: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures, (Hawaii: UH press, 2007), p. 21

[12] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ed. Paul H. Fry (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s Press, 1999) l. 227, p. 47

[13] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, (London: Penguin Classics, 2003) p. 454

[14] James Hamilton-Patterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 83

[15] Herman Melville, Journal of a visit to Europe and the Levant : October 11, 1856-May 6, 1857 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1955) p. 158

[16] Deloughery, Roots and Routes, p. 57

[17] R.S Thomas, ‘A Marriage’, Collected Poems (London: Phoenix, 2001) p. 338

[18] Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places, (London: Granta, 2008) p. 150

[19] James Hamilton Patterson, Seven-Tenths, p. 127

[20] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought (London: Harper and Row, 2001) p. 64

[21] Deloughery, Routes, p. 73

[22] Heidegger, ‘Building’, p. 68

[23] Melville, Moby Dick, p. 501

[24] It is telling that Derek Walcott ends his 325 page poetic re-telling of The Odyssey, Omeros, with the lines ‘and as he walked away from the beach the sea was still going on.’ A sea change is a recognition, sharp and startling, of the continuous presence and movement, ‘the going on’-ness, of the sea. [Derek Walcott, Omeros, (London: Faber, 1990), p. 325]

[25] Heidegger, ‘Building’, p. 70

[26] W.H Auden, The Enchafed Flood, or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (London: Faber, 1951), p. 12

[27] Foucault Reader ed. John D. Faubion, (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), p. 38

[28] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), p. 111 All subsequent quotes come from this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[29] Deloughery, Routes¸ p. 13

[30] M.D Maxwell, Herman Melville, Profiles in Literature (London: Routledge, 1968) p. 36

[31] Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael: A study of Melville (Boston: Cape, 1967) p. 4

[32] Jenny Franchot, ‘Melville’s travelling God’, in Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville ed. Robert S. Levine, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998) p. 83

[33] Olson, Call me Ishmael, p. 15

[34] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and the Conduct of Life, and Other Essays, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1963) p. 4

[35] Robert Lee, ‘Moby Dick as anatomy’, in Herman Melville: Reassessments ed. Robert Lee (London: Vision Press 1998) p. 93

[36] Coleridge, ‘The Rime’, p. 31, l.37

[37] Auden, The Enchafed Flood, p. 8

[38] Lawrence Buell, ‘Moby Dick as Sacred Text’ in New Essays on Moby Dick ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge: CUP, 1986)  p. 41

[39] Jenny Franchot, ‘Travelling God’, p. 84

[40] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2vols (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983), p. 162

[41] Auden, Enchafed Flood, p. 140

[42] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ed. Paul H. Fry (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s Press, 1999) p. 47, l.236, All subsequent quotations come from this edition unless otherwise stated, and are given parenthetically in the text.

[43] Anne Williams, ‘An I for an Eye: “Spectral Persecution” in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in Art of Darkness: a poetics of Gothic, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 62

[44] John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary, (London: Chatto, 1959) p. 62

[45] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957) p. 79

[46] Melville, Moby Dick, p. 436

[47] David Ward, Coleridge and the Nature of the Imagination, (Bristol: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) p. 27

[48] Edward Bostetter, ‘The Nightmare world of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Romanticism 1-3 (1962) p. 241

[49] Penn Warren laid out his argument for ‘The Rime’ as a symbolist allegory for Christian redemption in his seminal essay ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading’, in New and Selected Essays (New York: Random, 1989) pp. 335-423

[50] Herman Melville, Journal of a visit to Europe and the Levant : October 11, 1856-May 6, 1857, p. 158

[51] Melville, Moby Dick, p. 343

[52] A.M Buchan, ‘The Sad Wisdom of the Ancient Mariner’, Studies in Philology 61 (1964): p. 668

[53] Paul Magunson, Coleridge and Wordsworth: A lyrical dialogue, (Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1988) p. 54

[54] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2vols (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) p. 274

[55] Coleridge, Biographica Literaria p.257

[56] Jonathan Jones quoted in Susan Smillie, ‘Drowned World: welcome to Europe’s first undersea sculpture museum’ Guardian Online, available at:, (Accessed: 09/04/2016)

Gender in Gothic Fiction, by Ella Moseley


 We are delighted to be able to publish the first of the winning essays from our CRECS Essay Prize 2015/16: ‘Gender in Gothic Fiction’, by Ella Moseley, which was the winner in our Second-Year BA category.

Ella Moseley is a third-year English Literature undergraduate at Cardiff University. She is particularly interested in Romantic and Victorian literature, as well as modern crime fiction. She hopes to pursue a career in either journalism or law. 


Gender in Gothic Fiction


In the 1790s, due to the French Revolution, the debate concerning the nature, capacity, and role of women ‘acquired a new urgency’.[1] In France civil marriage and divorce were now permitted by law; some women even asked that they be granted the same political rights as men. Male anti-Jacobin writers sought to establish ‘progressive ideas’ about women with regard to ‘revolutionary terror and social breakdown’ – perhaps because they believed that the ‘fear of women stepping out of their traditional sphere’ made for effective propaganda.[2] In light of this statement, it appears that crosscurrents of sex and gender, biology and genre, are ‘crucial to an understanding of gothic writing’.[3] For example, Female Gothic and Male Gothic are arguably two distinct types that correspond to the categories of ‘terror gothic’ and ‘horror gothic’. Such categories are epitomised in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) respectively.[4]  Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1798), however, parodies Radcliffe’s use of gothic conventions ‘whilst relying on them for her novel’s shape’.[5] Each text, regardless of the gender of the author, has the potential to challenge or subvert the patriarchal authority inherent within eighteenth-century society.[6]


Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho arguably disrupts ‘unquestioning acceptance of an upper-middle-class patriarchal order’.[7] Radcliffe introduces Montoni as ‘a man […] with features manly and expressive, but whose countenance exhibited […] a haughtiness of command’.[8] He possesses ‘an aggressive masculinity’ that renders him hostile towards women whom he deems as a form of ‘disposable property’.[9] Unlike Lewis’s Ambrosio, Montoni does not indulge in emotions of high passion as in doing so he risks indulging in aspects of male sentimentality. His characterisation is rather contradictory: as a gothic villain, he needs to be cruel; but as an example of non-sentimental masculinity, he must embody values of reason and moderation.[10] The manliness that Montoni manifests belongs to an older tradition of masculinity that presents emotionality as feminine, shameful and a deviation from self-control.[11] He sees femininity as a lamentable excess to be contained. This perception becomes apparent when he endeavours to give Emily a conventional lecture on female deportment:

You should learn and practise the virtues, which are indispensable to a woman – sincerity, uniformity of conduct and obedience. (p.270)

Montoni’s use of language could be seen to stress ‘the duty of a woman’s submission to paternal regulations’[12]; however, it is worth remembering that the author was a female and so could be mocking the strict regulations that women were subject to. Interestingly the idea of female submission is subverted in an exchange between Montoni and Count Morano. Montoni cannot comprehend Morano’s reluctance to use force on Emily. Montoni exclaims to Morano: ‘this submission is childish! – speak as becomes a man, not as the slave of a pretty tyrant’ (p.200). Here it is Morano that is portrayed as the submissive individual, at the mercy of Emily the ‘pretty tyrant’. Radcliffe’s subversion of traditional power dynamics questions eighteenth-century patriarchal authority.

Despite Montoni’s oppressive nature, Emily is awestruck by a display of ‘Italian music and Italian expression’ set beneath ‘the enchantments of the Venetian moonlight’ (p.177). Emily begins to wonder what life would be like as a ‘sea-nymph’: Emily is no longer the ‘pensive, sorrowing wanderer’; instead that role is given to a male, subject to her enchantment, in what is a clear subversion of conventional gender roles.[13] Emily writes a poem of her imaginings called ‘The Sea-Nymph’, allowing her to take ‘control of her own fate or story’.[14] In this poem, Emily speaks of ‘prov[ing] [her] charmful pow’r’ (p.179). Emily recognises her need to ‘prove’ her abilities highlighting the fact that she is aware of the speculation of female inferiority. However, the poem ends with Emily-as-sea-nymph appropriating her femininity to ‘hush the sailor’s fearful groan’ (p.181), subverting the stereotype of the silenced female. Emily’s imaginings could be read as an ‘escape from the tyranny of patriarchal authority’ to another mode of being that ‘gives her control of her own sexuality’ excluding both marriage ‘and all forms of pecuniary advantage’.[15] Emily’s envisioned ‘escape’ thus highlights her wishes to defy the patriarchal authority that she is subject to.

In the ‘Sea-Nymph’, Radcliffe parallels Emily’s sensibility with freedom, assertiveness and transgression of propriety; however Emily’s transgressive behaviour in the poem is undermined by her moral perfection.[16] On his deathbed, St Aubert (Emily’s father), asks that she burn some papers hid at La Valée without reading them. However on doing so, Emily is distracted by a vision of ‘the countenance of her dead father’ (p.103) and thus unintentionally disobeys her father’s instructions. Emily, ‘reanimated with a sense of her duty’, goes on to say:

I have given a solemn promise […] to observe a solemn injunction, and it is not my business to argue but to obey. Let me hasten to remove the temptation that would destroy my innocence. (p.103)

The lexis of submission evoked through the terms ‘obey’ and ‘injunction’ parallels that of the many conduct-books that were around at the time. For example, Dr John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters speaks of the importance of the ‘consciousness of doing your duty’.[17] Emily’s sense of morality overrides her desire to transgress her father’s wishes and read the papers, highlighting that although Emily may want to break free from patriarchal restraints, her sense of duty as a daughter prevents her from doing so.

By the end of the novel however, as if to reverse the ‘cumulative tendency’ of gothic plots concerning domestic violence (encapsulated when Annette voices to Madame Montoni ‘I suppose the Signor has been beating my lady’ (p.306)), the novel ultimately legitimises such discipline of women by presenting it as justified.[18] It attempts to eradicate all the stories of suffering women and to refigure them about men instead. The ‘brief history of LAURENTINI DI UDOLPHO’ (p.655) arguably rationalises the patriarchal discipline of women by presenting it as ‘deserved’.[19] Whilst on her deathbed ‘Sister Agnes’ revealed herself to be Laurentini; but through this ‘history’ the reader discovers the crime that drove her to insanity was murder. The ‘brief history’ dramatically re-genders ‘almost all the guilt and suffering’ in the novel.[20] For example, no longer a victim of Montoni’s greed, Laurentini is now a murderess who ‘conducted her scheme with deep dissimulation’, hoping to estrange ‘the affectations of the Marquis from his wife’ (p.658). While the Marquis, who actually committed the murder, is presented as sympathetic: subject to ‘a deep dejection’ that ‘hung over him ever after’ (p.659). In deflating Montoni, and faulting Emily for believing in ‘the power of men when it is actually women who have the power and tendency to harm’, Radcliffe has arguably dealt ‘a pro-feminist blow’.[21] However, far from liberating, this criminalisation of women and collapse of masculine power merely conceals the male to female violence throughout the novel and thus reaffirms notions of patriarchy.


In Northanger Abbey, under the cover of parodying Gothic fiction (in particular Radcliffe’s Udolpho) and so appearing to be ‘inoffensive’, Jane Austen could arguably be taking a satiric swipe at the ‘the literary and social patriarchy’ of the time.[22] At the age of ten, Northanger Abbey’s heroine Catherine Morland, was ‘noisy and wild’ and ‘hated confinement and cleanliness’.[23] As Mary Wollstonecraft approved in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Catherine had been brought up to be ‘fond of all boys’ plays’ (p.15).[24] However from fifteen to seventeen ‘almost pretty’ Catherine was ‘in training for a heroine’ (p.17). Catherine becomes aware of the importance of sensibility for women and a ‘new feminine but superficial awareness governs her reading’[25]:

she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives. (p.17)

The repeated use of the term ‘so’ not only mocks the ‘conventions of the Sentimental novel’, but also Dr Johnson’s popular concept that novels and other literary works should serve as ‘lectures of conduct’, as well as the expectation that women should ‘conform to a didactic paradigm’.[26] Here Northanger Abbey could be seen as a challenge and reply to those that would belittle women’s intelligence, underestimate their reading, restrict their education and seek to impose stereotyped expectations and responses.[27]

There are multiple passages throughout the novel that ‘satirize dominant assumptions by men about women’s intellectual powers and education’.[28] Chapter fourteen sees the narrator give a mock approval of Catherine’s ignorance in the practice of drawing:

She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. (p.106)

Austen parodies with satiric intent the sort of conduct-book discourse that publicised such moralistic and sexist beliefs seriously. For example in Dr Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters he tells women that ‘if [they] happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men’.[29] Austen could also arguably be parodying Emily’s moral perfection mentioned previously (of which also parallels A Father’s Legacy): Emily ‘hastens to remove the temptation that would destroy [her] innocence’ (p.103) behaving as one of the ‘sensible’ people mentioned by Austen’s narrator. Both Radcliffe and Austen appropriate familiar eighteenth-century discourses, through their allusion to conduct-book literature, in ways which question and challenge ‘official’ patriarchal values.[30]

Following Henry Tilney’s ‘lecture on the picturesque’, Catherine goes on to predict that ‘something very shocking indeed, will soon come out of London’ (p.107). Henry’s sister (Eleanor) is mistaken and assumes that Catherine is referring to the possibility of riots and rebellion in London. Henry then goes on to correct his ‘stupid sister’ by saying to her:

My dear Eleanor, the riot is only in your own brain. The confusion there is scandalous. Miss Morland is talking of nothing more dreadful than a new publication which is shortly to come out, in three duodecimo volumes, two hundred and seventy-six pages in each, with a frontispiece to the first, of two tombstones and lantern – do you understand? (p.108)

Henry’s use of phrases such as ‘my dear Eleanor’ and ‘- do you understand?’ suggest a very patronising tone, one that wouldn’t be ill-suited if used to address a young child. The nature of Henry’s response alludes to Mary Wollstonecraft’s point about the ‘false system of education’ which was perpetuating in women what she called a ‘barren blooming’.[31] The juxtaposition of the term ‘barren’ with ‘blooming’ shows Wollstonecraft insinuating the redundancy of women’s supposed ‘education’ due to its lack of quality. Despite Henry’s obvious playfulness in clearing up his sister’s ‘confusion’, shown through Henry’s fictionalisation of the ‘riot’ in a mock-historical report, Henry is made to speak from the position of male superiority which ‘his education, profession, broader experience and relative independence […] have bestowed’.[32] He expects and does in fact gain amusement at Catherine and Eleanor’s expense. Thus the power is shifted into ‘the camp of the male preceptor’ meaning that Austen’s ‘feminism’ is uncertain.[33]

Henry responds to Catherine in a similar manner after realising the outcome of her overindulgence in the realm of Gothic fiction. Upon first meeting Henry’s father, General Tilney, Catherine attributes his ‘air and attitude’ (p.176) to that of Montoni; thus presenting him as a verified version of Radcliffe’s villain: ‘different, but also disturbingly similar’.[34] After discovering the absurd conceptions entertained by Catherine concerning the sincerity of his father, Henry protests:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions that you have entertained. […] Remember the country and age in which we live. […] – Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? […] Could they be perpetuated […] in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting? (p.186)

Henry’s response is arguably a ‘transformed repetition of his mock rebuke’ to Eleanor about the ‘riot’ in her mind (p.108).[35] The pleasure Henry takes in feeling superior to Catherine undercuts his perceptions; while Catherine’s presumptions are slightly bizarre, it is not irrational to assume that a concealed murder could occur in Christian England, or to assume that women are always safe. [36] Both of Henry’s responses to the two girls are ironic. Each depends largely on the reader’s ideological knowledge regarding the late eighteenth- century riots in the English Midlands and elsewhere, and to the ‘repressive practices’ circulated in response to fear of domestic Jacobinism.[37] However Catherine soon realises that, ‘in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty’ (p.230). As in Udolpho, after all the misapprehensions have been cleared, Catherine (like Emily) still has something to fear: ‘patriarchal tyranny’.[38] Rather than an exaggeration of the father’s familial role, Northanger Abbey provides ‘a sober reconsideration’ – the father may be able to dampen the spirits of his family, may ‘interfere in their marital plans’ due to ‘snobbish ambition’, but the children can always ‘assert their rationality’; they are not his passive victims.[39]


The Monk arguably defines itself against Udolpho: the positive visionary aspects of sensibility that are so prominent in Radcliffe’s text are almost absent. Cynical statements made by the narrator ‘place women in inferior and passive roles as objects of male desire’; thus making it difficult to argue that The Monk is ‘potentially subversive of patriarchal roles governing women’s sexuality’.[40] The opening scene of The Monk is that of a church ‘thronged with auditors’ in which ‘the Women came to show themselves, the Men to see the Women’.[41] Due to the full capacity of the church Leonella and her niece Antonia struggle to find a seat. Upon expressing her wish to return home, Antonia’s ‘tone of unexampled sweetness’ (p.9) is heard by two cavaliers: Don Christoval and Don Lorenzo. They longed to behold the face to which the voice belonged however ‘this satisfaction was denied them’:

Her features were hidden by a thick veil; but struggling through the crowd had deranged it sufficiently to discover a neck which for symmetry and beauty might have vied with the Medicean Venus. (p.9)

The veil epitomises Lewis’s use of the Male Gothic; a genre that: presupposes ‘a masculine subject dazzled by actual, or self-produced stimuli with a tendency to an eroticisation figured through the female body’.[42] Both Christoval and Lorenzo are the masculine subjects, dazzled by actual stimuli (Antonia). Their objectification of Antonia through the allusion to the ‘Medicean Venus’ not only subjects her to an ‘active male gaze’[43] but eroticises her through reference to the statue (commonly depicted as having one hand covering her genitalia). The apparent focus on Antonia’s physical ‘beauty’, aligned with that of a statue, assigns her to the inferior role as an object of male desire.

The inset narrative of the ‘Bleeding Nun’ provides us with Antonia’s antithesis:

Beatrice de las Cisternas took the veil at an early age […] But no sooner did her warm and voluptuous character begin to develop, than She abandoned herself freely to the impulse of her passions. (p.173)

It culminates with Otto von Lindenberg, Beatrice’s lover, plunging the dagger ‘still reeking of his Brother’s blood’ (p.175) into Beatrice’s bosom after she has used it to kill her former lover The Baron (Otto’s brother). The narrative portrays Beatrice as a passionate and ‘uncontrollable female’ – everything that Antonia is not.[44] The juxtaposition between Antonia and Beatrice provides a ‘double image of the veil’: while Beatrice appears penetrated and bloody, Antonia ‘remains fixed within the discourse of modesty’.[45] Thus, once dead, Beatrice becomes the female principle that haunts the patriarchal symbolic order. The antithesis present between Beatrice and Antonia recalls one seen between Emily and Laurentini in Udolpho, also by means of a ‘veil’. Toward the end of Udolpho the reader discovers that ‘had [Emily] dared to look again’ she would have discovered that the figure beneath the veil ‘was not human, but formed of wax’ (p.662). The image is actually ‘a wax memento mori of indeterminate sex’; it is Emily ‘who engenders it through projection’.[46] However as Emily ‘explicitly identifies her situation with Laurentini’s’, she finds herself in the ‘object’ position that the veil creates ‘for those who wear it’.[47] This is a classic example of Radcliffe’s endorsement of the Female Gothic, a genre that: presupposes a female subject position disciplined through a male presence; however whereas in Lewis’s use of the Male Gothic the subjects (Christoval and Lorenzo) adopted the gaze, here the subject (Emily) is also the object of that gaze. Both cases present the endorsement of patriarchy by presenting the female characters as objects of the gaze.

The concept of uncertain, indeterminate sex manifests itself in the character of Rosario/Matilda. In the ‘Abbey-Garden’ Rosario reveals her ‘true’ identity to Ambrosio, exclaiming ‘’I am a Woman! […] I am Matilda’’ (p.50/1). Matilda’s masking of her supposed ‘true’ identity could allude to the chapter epigraph in Radcliffe’s Udolpho (p.670): a quotation from Milton’s Comus. Comus was a popular masquerade figure during the eighteenth-century and by the 1770’s it was ‘common practice for women to appear in male attire at masquerades’, perhaps demonstrating where Lewis found his inspiration for Matilda.[48] Whilst in the garden Matilda asks Ambrosio to pick her a flower as ‘a token of [his] regard’ (p.71); however on doing so he utters ‘ a piercing cry’ having been bitten by ‘A Serpent’ that was ‘concealed among the roses’ (p.71). Lewis’s ‘Serpent’ parallels that of the Garden of Eden, presenting Ambrosio as an Eve figure in what is a clear subversion of traditional gender roles and thus partriarchy. This subversion is arguably more poignant as it occurs in the Monastery garden – one that possesses context of patriarchal education (a monastery being one definition of fatherly austerity).[49]

The danger of female power and unpredictability that unsettles the patriarchal order is personified through Matilda. She ‘exploits Ambrosio’s weakness for the feminine through his own “feminine” side, his inherent carnality’.[50] At this point Matilda appears as dominant stating that she ‘shall seize every opportunity to excite [Ambrosio’s] desires’ (p.89). However Matilda does refer to herself as ‘prey’, presenting herself as a victim as well as a seductress: she must conform to the conventions of sensibility in order to tempt Ambrosio into sleeping with her.[51] After ‘satisfying his desires’ (p.84) by sleeping with Matilda, Ambrosio’s response to her sexual and intellectual dominance is ‘to pursue a “feminine” ideal of chastity and submissiveness’ in the form of Antonia.[52] Although Ambrosio’s encounter with Matilda initially appears to be subverting traditional gender power dynamics, he then undermines this, reaffirming male dominance by pursuing and raping Antonia, an endorsement of the feminine ideal.


Feminist writers claim that ‘Gothic fantasy has been appropriated differentially by men and women’.[53] Yet while male and female authors may appear to deal with matters differently, the outcome seems to be the same. For example, although at times Radcliffe and Austen appear to challenge ‘official’ patriarchal codes, they are still ultimately confined by the restrictions of their sex as both The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey endorse the reaffirmation of patriarchal structures. However, The Monk is predominately concerned with the fear of female sexuality, and Lewis deals with this anxiety in a manner typical of a male of the era: he presents women as weaker in the binary opposition of Male/Female, thus asserting patriarchal authority. In each text, traditional patriarchal values are questioned at some point; however ultimately, the restrictions and attitudes of eighteenth-century society prevent these texts from fully proclaiming the subversion of patriarchal values.


Primary Texts

Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003)

Lewis, Matthew, The Monk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)


Secondary Sources

Castle, Terry, Watch Out! Boss Ladies: Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing (New York: Routledge, 2002)

Gregory, John, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (London: W Strahan, T Cadell, 1774)

Howard, Jacqueline, Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Johnson, C.L., Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790’s – Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (London: University of Chicago Press Ltd, 1995)

Miles, Robert, Gothic Writing, 1750-1820: A Genealogy (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002)

Stafford, William, English Feminists and Their Opponents in the 1790’s: Unsex’d and Proper Females (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)

Watt, James, Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre, and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Williams, Anne, The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (London: The University of Chicago Press Ltd, 1995)

Internet Sources and Websites

Bondhus, Charlie, ‘Sublime Patriarchs and the Problems of the New Middle Class in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian’, Gothic Studies, 12.1 (2010), 13-32. Available at [accessed 2 April 2016].




[1] William Stafford, English Feminists and Their Opponents in the 1790’s: Unsex’d and Proper Females (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p.1.

[2] Stafford, English Feminists, p.2.

[3] Robert Miles, Gothic Writing, 1750-1820: A Genealogy (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002), p.7.

[4] Jacqueline Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.57.

[5] Linda Hutcheon,A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms’, quoted in Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.147.

[6] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.105.

[7] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.7.

[8] Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.23. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[9] Claudia L Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790’s – Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (London: University of Chicago Press Ltd, 1995), p.103.

[10] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.103.

[11] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.103.

[12] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.103.

[13] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p. 136.

[14] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p. 136.

[15] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p. 136.

[16] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.138.

[17] John Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (London: W Strahan, T Cadell, 1774), p.22.

[18] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.113.

[19] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.113.

[20] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.114.

[21] Johnson, Equivocal Beings, p.115.

[22] Hutcheon, ‘A Theory of Parody’, quoted in Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.147.

[23] Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), p.16. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[24] Mary Wollstonecraft, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, quoted in Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.163.

[25] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.163.

[26] Samuel Johnson, ‘Johnson: Prose and Poetry’, quoted in Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.163.

[27] Howard, Reading Gothic, p.174.

[28] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.168.

[29] Gregory, A Father’s Legacy, p.26.

[30] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.170.

[31] Wollstonecraft, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, quoted in Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.177.

[32] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.177.

[33] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.138.

[34] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.142.

[35] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.167.

[36] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.167.

[37] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.167.

[38] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.166.

[39] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.144.

[40] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.8.

[41] Matthew Lewis, The Monk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.7. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[42] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.47.

[43] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.47.

[44] Anne Williams, The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (London: The University of Chicago Press Ltd, 1995), p.119.

[45] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.158.

[46] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.72.

[47] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.72.

[48] Aileen Ribeiro, ‘Dress Worn at Masquerades in England’, quoted in Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.140.

[49] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.153.

[50] Williams, The Art of Darkness, p.117.

[51] Miles, Gothic Writing: A Genealogy, p.159.

[52] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction, p.201.

[53] Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction,

CRECS Essay Prize Winners

In 2015/16, we established the CRECS Essay Prize, an annual award open to undergraduate and MA students registered in Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. The prizes are intended to reward the most impressive student essays addressing English Literature of the eighteenth century and Romantic period over the academic year. They are also intended to facilitate engagement with the field of eighteenth-century and Romantic studies, and to encourage the winners to consider further study in this area.

We are delighted to be able to announce the winners for 2015/16: Ella Moseley (second-year BA), Alexander Diggins (third-year BA), and Charlotte Pruce (MA). Congratulations to all three of our winners! We are also delighted to be able to publish Ella and Alexander’s essays on this blog, with their permission. Please see the following blog posts.

We will be running the prize again in the 2016/17 academic year, and we hope that all English Literature students taking modules in our period will be inspired to take part. There is no need to enter your work, as all eligible essays will automatically be entered for the prize. Good luck!




‘[T]his beautiful city’: ‘Narrative and Nation’’s Field Trip to Bath


Blog post by Jannat Ahmed (@PemberleyParade). Photo credits to Caitlin Coxon (@CoxonCaitlin), Jo Daniel (@JFDMID), Anthony Mandal (@CardiffBookHistory) and Sophie Coulombeau (@SMCoulombeau). We are very grateful to the School of English, Communication and Philosophy’s Teaching Enhancement Fund for meeting the costs of this trip and ensuring an accessible learning experience for all students on the module.

This year, the MA Narrative and Nation cohort, led by Dr Sophie Coulombeau and Professor Anthony Mandal, had the wonderful opportunity and pleasure to go on a field trip to Bath. Our psychogeographic exploration of the town sought to consolidate the project of the module: to understand the relationship between narrative and nationhood. But, as it happens, we managed to achieve much more!

After passing multiple heritage plaques within minutes of arriving, our exploration proper began at South Parade, on the River Avon, where we were treated to a reading by Sophie of Frances Burney’s letter describing the very house we were stood beside.


15319185_10211391688936288_3505660210449507354_nThe house, occupied by the Thrales, was home to Burney for her time there. We learnt that Burney occupied one of the rooms overlooking the river and, in the surreal manner that psychogeography anticipates, we could see her very view across the water. Of the writers we considered, she was one of the most sympathetic towards and most enchanted by Bath, especially in contrast to Horace Walpole. However, we also learnt her trip was cut short due to the Gordon riots, which was intriguing because it gives a lively, political history to a now more statically preserved town.

Next, we were guided to the resting place of Frances Burney. Her grave, and a memorial commemorating Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, share a graveyard at Walcot Church. Situated in the middle of a busy intersection, the sobering knowledge that Burney’s memorial had been moved so that her body was lost under our feet led to a fruitful conversation about the bodies and resting places of other long eighteenth-century writers, namely Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley.



We then soldiered on to the Museum of Bath Architecture whose administrator extraordinaire had kindly opened the museum for us. The museum was also the Countess of Huntington’s chapel. This chapel, we learnt, was a site where abolitionists and freed slaves spoke to congregations. Unsurprisingly, in terms of architecture, the museum itself was abundantly useful! To see the amount of skill and craft that went into the construction of a typical Bath house, its exteriors and its interiors, was invaluable. The choices of finish and style, the wallpaper, the plasterwork, and even the doors, were ample. Learning of the stress put on the nature of furnishings and function in the long eighteenth century helped make Elizabeth Elliot’s anxiety about refraining ‘from new-furnishing the drawing-room’ in Austen’s Persuasion more understandable, if not any less amusing.


Following this, we made our way to a coffee shop where, pertinently for Cardiff University’s eighteenth-century enthusiasts, we talked politics and power and learnt that we would briefly be meeting Dr Stephen Gregg from Bath Spa University. This meeting was my personal highlight of the trip because, in true literature-student fashion, we had an impromptu reading of Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Stephen outside the Assembly Rooms. He later pointed out the location of the easily-missed circulating library on Milsom Street, which is also the street where Anne encounters Admiral Croft.



After a quick view of the situation of Westgate Buildings, the home of Anne Elliot’s friend, Mrs Smith, and an education on the lay of the land suggesting rank, (because the higher parts of Bath were furthest away from the river where there really was ‘foul air’ as Sir Walter Elliot puts it) we made our way to Bath Street and the site of what was once White Hart Inn. Bath Street, the place where William Elliot is seen with Mrs Clay, was notorious for unseemly liaisons and would have been recognised by Austen’s readership as such. We then paused at Hall & Woodhouse for lunch.


After lunch, we spent an hour or so seeing Bath on our own. In this time, Caitlin and I visited Bath Abbey, Sally Lunn’s, the Christmas Markets (unavoidable, of course, as they were right beside the Abbey), and bookshops. We then all made our way to The Crescent to see a candlelit and festive No. 1 Royal Crescent which was absolutely fascinating. In fact, we might have stayed longer there if we could. Our interest was focused on the day-to-day lives of a Georgian household, and it was rather eye-opening. We learnt about Georgian custom and convention in the dining room: the Georgians used nutmeg graters at the table; while in the parlour, we learnt about the luxury of carpets; and in the bedrooms, the changing fashion of its inhabitants due to the hair powder tax. Our final stop No. 1 Royal Crescent’s kitchen which was perhaps the most delightful, refreshing part of the trip because we learnt that maggot-ridden, stale and otherwise decaying food was the norm, hence the need for nutmeg graters to disguise the taste. Our trip ended here with a group photo.


Our walking tour through the town of Bath exemplified the rich materiality, the politics and the broad nature of eighteenth-century notions of nation. In all the bustle of Bath, the field trip asserted the importance and uniqueness of place in constructions of nation in narrative and above all, its physical reality. Bath’s preservation is best experienced in person, because as Burney says, Bath holds ‘more luxury for the Eye’ than I could hope to illustrate.








SNACKS & SOCIABILITY: A CRECS MIXER (Monday 21 November, 5.30pm)

*An evening of chit-chat*
Monday 21 November
Room 0.43, John Percival Building, Cardiff University
Please join us for a CRECS social mixer, designed to generate communication and foster collaboration across different disciplines and levels of study at Cardiff University and beyond. We welcome staff and students – at any level – who  have an interest in literature, history, philosophy, politics or music of the period 1680-1840. We also welcome staff and students from other higher education institutions who are interested in working closely with the CRECS community on projects of any kind. Over wine, soft drinks and snacks we will facilitate informal discussions about the work we are currently undertaking, and consider how we might work together over coming years to strengthen our research and teaching community. No preparation is necessary.

If you are intending to attend, we would be grateful if you could register at

Chick Lit and Cosy Crime: The Problem of Genre in Eighteenth-Century and Contemporary Fiction

This blog post is from Jannat Ahmed (@PemberleyParade), a Masters student in English Literature at Cardiff University. Her research interests include the authorship and readership of the eighteenth-century novel, the popular novel of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, fanfiction culture, and postcolonial and feminist theory. She hopes to pursue a doctorate investigating the relationship between the girl reader, the woman writer and the male critic in British literature.

The journalist Caitlin Moran believes that culture precedes politics in motivating change in society, and I agree. Yet it seems to me that the importance of ‘low’ culture, particularly in terms of genre fiction, is often overlooked. Despite its prevalence, critics and reviewers sometimes engage in an unfortunately token relationship with genres such as romance and crime fiction. Rightfully so, perhaps, one might say, when much of these fictions are reproduced, predictable texts that follow a traditional plot-line. However, much as critics may tire of them, cultural phenomena such as film and television franchises, sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes all operate on a mass level of reproduction. Why is this? What lies behind this money-making machine? What does it mean for the audience? And when and how did the traditional plot-line come into being? I think it is worth interrogating the construction of literary genre against these cyclical, recognisable narratives.

Since I am focusing on the novel tradition, let us first consider the beginnings of the novel. The novel in Britain, as we know it today, has traditionally been thought to originate with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, which, with its focus on resourcefulness and investigation, we might see as a predecessor of the crime fiction novel. Equally, the amatory fiction (novels or novellas, as we might see them today) written before and contemporary with Robinson Crusoe, by authors like Eliza Haywood, also set the stage for future fictional prose writing. Haywood’s amatory fiction can be seen here as a predecessor to modern romantic fiction. Both these narratives have set a precedent for genres to come. These narrative types came to fruition later in the long eighteenth century with novels like Frances Burney’s Evelina, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams. These novels are now read as romantic and crime narratives whose characteristics would later become well-worn tropes. Their authors produced, created and emboldened the grand narratives that both crime and romantic fiction embody today.

‘Literary’ fiction – the type found on university reading lists today –  is often focused on the unusual, the new, and the original; sometimes it explores the act of finding the terror in the mundane (see Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy), or the mundane in the terror (see Don DeLillo’s Falling Man). Not all contemporary literature does or should fit under this description, but postmodernist and modernist influences persist in our approach to appreciating literature at the cost of genre fiction. We savour “difficult” realist texts, taboo topics and the extreme. And yet, these same themes do appear in cosy crime and chick lit. While lauded modernist texts of the twentieth and postmodernist texts into the twenty-first century explore taboo and its extremes, crime fiction and romantic fiction do the same – with little critical recognition. The only difference is that a taboo is no longer taboo because it fits the context. The murderous instincts and perverted crimes of a serial killer are to be expected in crime genre fiction.

But what exactly does genre expectation mean? In one respect, fiction can be measured on a scale of familiarity. We might read fiction to discover something new, different and unfamiliar (as with many modernist texts), or to satisfy a pre-existing familiar interest (such as rereading crime and romantic fiction). Postmodern literature is sensitive to its use of cliché as well as aware of its own literary forerunners, which it works to undermine and rework. Crime fiction and romantic narratives are aware of tropes in a different manner; their authors often work towards expectation rather than against it. The anomalies of genre fiction, such as The End of the Affair as a crossover between romantic and crime fictions, are those which may find their way onto literature courses. The idea of a natural evolution of novel content in terms of crossover and reworking must be taken into consideration, but it is still the case that crime and romantic fiction have persisted as distinct genres to this day, with resounding success.

While genre is often difficult to pin down in literary fiction because of an unfamiliar amalgamation of tropes, types and themes, in genre fiction the unfamiliar lies within the text,  rather than outside it. In other words, the characters within genre fictions are unaware of the plotline they will inevitably follow, but the reader is not. I make this differentiation because it places centre stage the reader’s desire for affirmation. A dramatic irony is often at play when we read these types of novels, or consume these types of narratives. Why do we place our expectations in these fictions in this way? Perhaps now, more than ever, it relates to a nostalgic desire to believe in a grand narrative, even if this is confined to the expectation of executing justice (in crime fiction) or finding a life-partner (in romance). We might read the culture of reboots, remakes and sequels in this vein. We replace our own grand narratives with fictional ones, which brings us to a whole other topic. Is the grand narrative in chick lit and cosy crime a residue of T.E. Hulme’s reading of Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’? Why is it these specific genres that persist?

It is no coincidence that these  “trashy” chick lit or cosy crime novels are often referred to, in their adherence to expectations, as “guilty pleasures”. (This reasoning also applies to popular music and chick flicks.) These texts are guilty pleasures because they reveal a naïve, unrealistic, idealised version of life. And idealism provides the perfect relief from the “difficult” texts of contemporary fiction. These fictions are difficult precisely because they seem closer to reality, in that they often do away with a grand narrative. But this doesn’t mean that genre fiction therefore has no literary importance. The ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’, as narrative constructs, both have value. Indeed, this is where the novel tradition began, with Robinson Crusoe’s desire to execute justice in a faraway land, and Haywood’s (sometimes surreal) explorations of love and partnership. Love and justice, it seems, are our inherited and enduring grand narratives, and literature finds multiple ways to explore and interrogate them.

2016/17 CRECS Programme now available

We are delighted to announce our programme for the forthcoming academic year, 2016-2017. Events are usually held on Mondays, begin at 5.15pm, take place in Cardiff University’s Special Collections or the John Percival building and are followed by a drinks reception. Information about each event will be publicized on the CRECS blog in advance. All are welcome, but we warmly encourage undergraduates and MA students to attend in order to learn more about our research into the eighteenth century and Romantic period .

Founding members of CRECS are Dr Melanie Bigold, Dr James Castell, Dr Sophie Coulombeau, Alison HarveyProf. Anthony Mandal, Dr Jane Moore and Prof. Garthine Walker. You can contact any of us with questions about the programme.

We are currently looking for under- and postgraduate students from Cardiff University to join the CRECS team, assist with organising events and help us to manage our blog and social media. Please get in touch with one of us if you would like to be involved! Continue reading

Report on ‘Valentines CRECS: How romantic were the Romantics?’, 8 Feb 2016

In the week of Valentine’s Day, the CRECS audience assembled to hear husband-and-wife team Professor John Strachan (Romantic scholar and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Bath Spa University) and Dr Jane Moore (Reader in Romanticism at Cardiff University) address some burning questions about romance in the Romantic era. What can literary men and women of the period teach us about courtship, marriage, sex and love?  Can they tell us how to be a good husband or a good wife?  Or offer examples of how not to be? And what of same-sex partnerships?  Jane represented the views of women writers of the period, including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon; while John sifted the love lives of Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. Continue reading