Good morning everyone. My name is Laura. I majored in English and Screen Studies as part of my Bachelor of Arts and I'm an English Literature Honours student.
I'm centering my thesis around 19th Century Gothic Literature.
My first interest was not the Gothic so much as the 19th Century. I'm not entirely sure why but when doing the Victorian Literature course that was offered here during my Bachelor of Arts, I was immediately drawn to the time. Some authors from this time that you may be familiar with are Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Eliot.
It may have been because the Victorian Era was so very removed from our own, a different set of social systems, politics and theology and none of the current trendy technology. We do not see Oliver Twist dialing Pizza Hut on his Sony Ericsson P800 when he wants "some more". Or perhaps the most likely answer is that the Victorian age is indeed so very similar. Hypocrisy, uncertainly and change are distinguishing features of any era I suppose, but none more so than the Victorians', and I hazard to say, ours.
Sexuality came to the forefront of my mind when dealing with the 19th Century. It seems to me that we are obsessed with sex. I know I am. The Victorians were too. Whilst on the surface, there was a strict moral code on what was and was not done, the Victorian Era had a flourishing porn industry and, burlesque and brothel houses were frequently haunted (I do not mean literally) by the upper, middle and lower classes alike.
With sex being such a touchy and taboo subject how could the Victorians not be interested? The same applies today. I wonder how many times the footage of Janet Jackson's accidentally exposed breast was downloaded from the internet by concerned Christians and censor watchdogs. Just how many times did we have to see or hear about it? Sex is still a shocking issue, despite it being used in advertisements for every day products. It is still one of those things that is guaranteed to garner a response. Rampant hypocrisy and double standards abound.
Then, as I was reading and researching sexuality in Victorian Literature in general, I kept coming across the same texts, and each of them seemed to be within a similar genre, or drew from this genre at least. The Gothic. A literary mode that had been well established in the 18th Century was equally as popular in the Victorian Era. Most of our key horror movies and iconic characters stem from works written in the 19th Century incorporating themes and devices present within the Gothic genre. You're probably all painfully familiar with Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… each novel containing Gothic elements, and generally defined by the 20th and 21st century reader as this elusive term "Gothic".
The texts I chose to write about were ones with strong central characters and a strong representation of sexuality, whether covert or obvious. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stoker's Dracula became the three texts I was most interested in looking at closely. This is not to say that they are merely Gothic fiction, or only revolve around sexual issues, but then, that is why they are so interesting.
In the first place, the Gothic is a mode that has evolved as time has worn on. It has not only changed because of internal pressures, a new style of writing, but it has changed as an external perception. What a modern reader expects from a Gothic writer now is really quite different from what was expected of a Gothic writer from times previous.
In fact, this divide exists within the three texts I am examining. Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847 whereas The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published as a complete novel in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890 and subsequently went through a series of editing sessions. Dracula was first published in 1897. Already the concept of the Gothic had changed.
The Gothic started out as a representation of the old, the archaic, a depiction of the uncivilised, the unreasonable, the almost barbaric. A Gothic novel was most likely set in the medieval period and showed a place and time that was both other and reflective of the contemporary. There need not be a supernatural force. This quickly changed to incorporate a contemporary setting which still held this notion of mirroring an old system of values that was unprogressive. The landscape and setting was still an integral element of the Gothic. This evolved some more to give the supernatural elements more prominence. The genre became less about incest, familial relations and the church to be more about ghosts, demons and things that go bump in the night.
In stark contrast to the first Gothic novels written in the 18th Century, there need not be the dark sky devoid of the relief of starlight, nor the blustering winds over the harsh and rugged terrain. For a story to be called Gothic nowadays there need only be something recognisably macabre or supernaturally horrific. This change started within the 19th Century. What readers then expected was the supernatural as opposed to the archaic, but this still incorporated the other, a level of fantasy, and the similar, a reflection of real life. Of course, these days everything could occur on a space station and people would still label it Gothic. Just stick a Vampire or two in and you'll find someone somewhere will deem it so. I'm not saying that's necessarily wrong, I'm just demonstrating the broad aspect of the term.
But back to sex…
In all three novels the main sexual element is of a transgressive or perverse nature. Wuthering Heights has hints of necrophilia, The Picture of Dorian Gray has homosexual under and over tones, which the Victorians really did object to strongly, and Dracula is just one big orgy.
This is what my Thesis has come to be based upon, Sexual transgression in 19th Century Gothic Literature. I'll be looking at Victorian attitudes to sex and what they consider deviant sexual behaviour, the Gothic tradition, and just what it is about the Gothic that allows such a representation in an Era that was supposedly morally and sexually restrictive.
Mostly I'll be exploring the representation of sexual behaviour within the novels and making comparisons between how the novels use the Gothic. The three main characters, Heathcliff, Dorian and Dracula, are all embodiments of power and perversity. They are not entirely human, but they are not entirely demon either.
Luckily there is quite a bevy of information, because we're as much interested in the Victorian attitudes to sex as we are interested in sex itself. The supernatural, horror stories and the Gothic have all been written about extensively as well. Also, the three novels I have chosen are particularly well known, and much has been written about them, both online and in books and periodicals. The main problem is actually narrowing the field down and also, retaining an element of the original.
Already this has been a rewarding educational experience, I've gained knowledge that will be useful in my future writing endeavours, which is the main reason I have undertaken Honours at all. I have a better understanding now of genre, mode, literary influences and attitudes and the delicate balance between writing fiction and representing fact. Just what a writer accomplishes by using certain devices and themes has been made more clear to me. In order to know how to write, I believe you have to know what to read. I may not attempt to write a sexually charged and perverse piece of Gothic fiction, but in examining these, I have gained insight into other aspects of writing I had not previously given much thought to.
I've discovered that you can start out with one idea in your mind as to what you want to accomplish and come out at the other side with a completely different mindset. And I've discovered that excessive and laboured reading causes headaches and bloodshot eyes.