The stories we write and repeat about real individuals from history have a profound and enduring cultural resonance. They can uphold or explode stereotypes, shape models and mythologies of selfhood and strengthen or resist norms of gender, race, class, age, nationality and sexuality. They also have a huge impact on the reputations of their subjects. Life writing, defined broadly here as any text that has one or more historical lives as its subject, flourished in the Romantic period, though at this time it had not yet been accepted as fully respectable either in literary or moral terms. This introductory chapter sets out the stakes, history and definition(s) of life writing and theorises the special link between life writing – as a site of affective, intellectual, and imaginative identification – and reputation. It discusses the rationale for the four case studies that comprise the body chapters of this book and outlines the book’s main argument: that life writing has significant, complex and often unexpected effects on the literary afterlives of its subjects.
Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays and the legacy of women’s life writing
This section draws together the analysis of the book’s four case studies by turning briefly to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader collections, published in 1925 and 1932. Like Samuel Johnson, whose ‘common reader’ becomes the central figure of these essays, Woolf envisaged reading as a conversation between reader and writer across the centuries. In these essays, Woolf’s dialogue with predecessors is often most prominent when she engages with authors of emerging genres, that is, life writing. Woolf’s fascination with life writing is twofold: It not only allows us to be transported to another time and place but it also encourages us to create this other world in our imagination. Offering both dissolution and affirmation of identity, life writing has an important place not only in the history of literature but also in the history of women’s writing. This chapter uses Woolf’s dialogic engagement with past writers to reflect on the importance of women’s life writing to an understanding of the interaction between gender, genre and reputation in the long nineteenth century.
Mary Hays and the struggle for self-representation
From the start, Mary Hays struggled with the problem of writing as a woman. In her early works, her pious, feminine authorial persona garnered praised even as its originality was questioned. The publication of her titillating autobiographical novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), rebranded her as a scandalous radical and positioned her as a target for the conservative backlash sweeping Britain. Her reputation suffered further after parodies of Hays swapped sexual allure for ridicule. Too womanly, too scandalous or too ridiculous, Hays seemed unable to find an authentic and acceptable voice. Scholars have suggested that Hays lost control of her reputation, abandoned her former radicalism and transitioned into didactic literature to support herself. However, the writing and reception of Hays’s ambitious Female Biography (1803), the first comprehensive English-language biographical dictionary written for and about women, suggest otherwise. With its innovative form and progressive content, Female Biography furthered Hays’s feminist and political ideals and accommodated an oblique self-defence as well. This chapter argues that Hays found an innovative mode of writing through which she defended her reputation; promoted long-held ideas about the representation, education and advancement of women; and shaped the genre of life writing for decades to come.
Reading the gaps in Mary Robinson’s Memoirs (1801)
The actress, poet and royal mistress Mary Darby Robinson spent her adult life transforming her public position from sex object to writing subject. Her Memoirs (1801), edited by her daughter and published the year after her death, has been read as an apology for her life. Yet the jarring shifts in tone, gaps in narration and structural inconsistencies have caused readers – contemporary and modern – to doubt its truthfulness and its literary integrity. However, this chapter suggests that the formal and rhetorical gaps in the Memoirs comprise a strategy of self-representation that allowed Robinson to straddle the contradictory identities of the victimised heroine of sensibility and the titillating actress. The Memoirs was reprinted ten times in the nineteenth century and spurred responses in journal articles, novels, poems and biographies. An examination of its varied nineteenth-century afterlife shows that it may be its so-called failures – its interruptions, omissions and contradictions – that made it so effective in evoking the sympathy and curiosity of readers for decades afterwards. Robinson could not obliterate the scandal of her youth, but she was able to influence reactions to it by taking control of her own story.
Revealing the unseen Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft rose to prominence with her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but she won over readers’ hearts with her confessional travelogue, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1797). This chapter traces Wollstonecraft’s reputation in her lifetime, examining her early reception and self-construction in her Vindications and Letters before considering her husband William Godwin’s Memoirs (1798) and its aftermath. Critics have traditionally seen this shocking biography as killing Wollstonecraft’s reputation and silencing discussion of her for nearly a century. However, closer examination of the Memoirs and reactions to it in the century that followed makes visible a complex affective response. This response, moreover, coexisted with ongoing engagement with Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman. Using a range of sources, including the writing of Wollstonecraft and Godwin as well as periodical essays, reviews, entries in biographical dictionaries and group biographies, full-length biographies, fiction, poetry, political tracts and information about print runs and publication history, this chapter sheds new light on Wollstonecraft’s posthumous legacy. It also argues for Godwin’s biography as an innovative contribution to Romantic life writing and a pivotal component in Wollstonecraft’s affective and intellectual appeal in the long nineteenth century.
Costume, performance and power in 1953
This chapter shows how the garments of ritual and conquest created gothic disruptions in place and time, and instantiated power and status even while they occluded the humanity of the person wearing them. Questions about power and resistance informed key cultural artefacts of the period, from Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 fairy tale The Red Shoes to Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954); and from the 1951 Ealing Comedy The Man in the White Suit to Benjamin Britten’s Coronation opera Gloriana (1953).
In Under the Net, Murdoch teases open fault-lines in the constructed persona of a woman who runs an avant-garde mime theatre, and finds herself literally buried under a deluge of theatrical props and costumes. In The Red Shoes, meanwhile, a dancer’s costume becomes impossible to take off, stitching her into a fatal encounter with the inhumanity of art and spectacle. These stories raise related questions about the materialization of power and presence at the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
This intimate imbrication of subject and object sheds light on Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana (1953), which depicts a queen who comes untethered from the material glamour of royalty. The chapter then traces how synthetic fabrics challenged class distinctions in The Man in the White Suit, and the British Everest expedition in 1953.
The threshold between abstraction and materiality
Modernism, with its enthusiasm for bricolage and fragment, might seem to have predicted the blitzed ruinscape of the 1940s; yet, arguably, it was modernism itself which was ruined by the cultural rupture, and this chapter traces the ways in which its aesthetic schemata collapsed under the sudden actualization of its metaphors.
The search for an aesthetic ratification of the suffering and destruction of the war is traced through six cultural responses. The Blitz stories of William Sansom (published between 1944 and 1948) are full of falling walls, fires and bombed buildings which become uncannily alive, haunted by a non-human agency. Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth (1944), meanwhile, is read as a troubling account of art’s destructive power. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), a neurotic nostalgia erupts from the ruins of an English country house, and this is placed into dialogue with the oneiric bombsite odyssey of Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness (1950).
The murals of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank, notably John Piper’s An Englishman’s Home (1951), are also considered, alongside Hugh Casson’s campaign to preserve and aestheticize the ruins of London’s bombed churches as monuments to the Blitz. A striking picture emerges of tumbling walls as an image of revolutionary remaking instigated by the uncanny power of art.
The trouble with gentrification
This chapter examines narratives about uncanny objects which disrupt private domestic space, focusing in detail on two novels: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953).
Both authors were interested in a domestic gothic in which lost, dazed and traumatized characters must negotiate with the things they chose – or chose not – to surround themselves. Bowen’s novel – and the short stories she wrote concurrently and published as The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) – depict the domestic spaces of wartime as stripped of personality and affect, while the people who haunt them are made spectral by the abolition of the present tense in a city under aerial bombardment, which leaves only ‘a grinding-together of past and future’.
The abolition of temporal order inspired narratives about superannuated objects which push insistently through the membrane of linear time in order to trouble the present. Eerie antiques become reservoirs of authenticity and value, and Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue is read as a critique of post-war gentrification, and the disruption of value and history that it entailed. The gentrified and haunted chaise longue weaponises its own narratological power, and the gothic intimacy it achieves attests to the change that took place in the relationship between women and things in the mid-century.
The uncanny objects of modernity in British literature and culture after World War II
Mid-Century Gothic defines a distinct post-war literary and cultural moment in Britain, lasting ten years from 1945 to 1955. This was a decade haunted by the trauma of fascism and war, but equally uneasy about the new norms of peacetime and the resurgence of commodity culture. As old assumptions about the primacy of the human subject became increasingly uneasy, culture responded with gothic narratives which reflected two troubling qualities of the newly assertive objects of modernity: their uncannily autonomous agency, and their disquieting intimacy with the reified human body.
This book offers original readings of novels, plays, essays and cinema of the period, unearthing neglected texts as well as reassessing canonical works. The post-war decade has often been defined either as the bathetic terminus of high modernism, or as the stiflingly hidebound context from which later countercultural and avant-garde movements erupted. Yet historically, this was an important and resonant cultural turning point, as still-fresh war trauma intersected with new paradigms of modernity. By looking beneath the surface of its literature and culture, it is possible to resurrect a sense of this decade as a moment of urgent cultural crisis, rife with repressed tensions which could only be expressed in a gothic mode.
By bringing these into dialogue with mid-century architecture, exhibitions, technology, and material culture, Mid-Century Gothic provides a new perspective on a notoriously neglected historical moment, and paints a picture of a decade roiling with intellectual and aesthetic upheaval.
The gothic potential of technology
This chapter presents a new reading of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and unearths its latent gothicism by examining it within the context of the mid-century philosophies of the mind, scientific experiments in neurology, and the technological applications of cathode-ray imaging.
The chapter begins with a discussion of how new types of telepresence began to disrupt spatial and temporal order in the mid-century, producing an uncanny effect that supercharged both material objects and abstract images with gothic possibility. Via an analysis of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as a meditation on the links between radio, spectrality and neurology, the chapter proffers a detailed examination of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a mid-century gothic text. It shows how the panoptical medium of the novel’s telescreens challenges the recursive historicism of old objects.
The mind control of the Thought Police is considered in the light of mid-century theories of mind, including the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s empiricist description of consciousness in The Concept of Mind (1949), and the work by the neurologist William Grey Walter, and the thought experiments of Jacques Lacan, and Alan Turing’s computing breakthroughs.
Finally, the chapter returns to the cathode-ray screen as a domestic object, tracing the way television invaded and disrupted private space, and critiqued its own uncanny technological agency.