Sara Wasson
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The ventriloquised corpse and the silent dead
Gothic of the British First and Second World Wars
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During both World Wars, the British government sought to minimise signs of civilian and combatant death. Yet the dead nonetheless had a vital presence within national discourse. Throughout both Wars, there was substantial popular and government appetite for the trope I have called the ‘ventriloquised corpse’, ‘in which, in the imagination of the living, the dead declare that their sacrifice was willing and worthwhile’. This chapter examines literary engagements with this problematic trope, then troubles this cultural narrative through texts using a Gothic mode to disconcert state-sanctioned narratives of national commemoration of war death. Existing criticism within Gothic studies has considered the soldier revenant who resents their sacrifice and bears malice toward the living. This present chapter, too, shows how Gothic representations may undercut national stories of war, but I explore this with a different emphasis, stemming from taking, as my focus, war graves and burial places – including of burial alive –and other sites where the dead were taken into the earth. The concept of interment becomes a fulcrum on which, in the writing of the time, trenches and bombed streets edge towards ‘grave’. Rather than the speaking spectre, this chapter concerns the silent corpse – rotting and speechless, it, too, cannot be recruited to narratives of national glory. Adapting Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de memoire and Nancy Wood’s concept of lieux d’oubli, I consider how these works examine sites of selective forgetting. More precisely, I suggest these works offer lieux d’oubliés, sites of the forgotten, insofar as they attend to the decay of particular bodies and refuse to elide the material impact of war. Texts explored include work by Frederic Manning, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Mervyn Peake, Rose Macaulay and John Piper.

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