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Personal Devils and Ecclesiastical Institutions: Matthew Lewis, James Hogg and Otherness
According to David Punter, Gothic fiction reached the peak of its popularity in the mid-1790s when “it virtually dominated the novel market (Punter 2). The Napoleonic Wars which were raging between 1792 and 1825 form an interesting historical backdrop for the emergence of the Gothic novel which saw its heyday from the 1760s to the 1820s (Punter 7). However, the Napoleonic Wars are only one of several contexts within which the rise of Gothic fiction can be situated – as David Punter states:
The 1790s were chaotic years in which domestic unrest and fears of invasion from abroad shaped political and cultural life, and the literary market was flooded with a mass of fiction which rejected direct engagement with the activities of contemporary life in favour of geographically remote actions and setting; but these two facts must be positively connected (Punter 54).
There is, indeed, a positive, albeit indirect, connection between the aforementioned historical contexts and the emergence of Gothic texts. At this time of crisis when the stability of British society was both internally and externally threatened there was a need for what we would nowadays call a rallying around the flag. In his critical history of the horror genre Darryl Jones situates the emergence of the English Gothic novel in the second half of the eighteenth century in the context of “the formation of a British national identity” (Jones 8). Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s conception of the modern nation state as an “imagined community” Jones argues that the national unity of “disparate political, cultural and ethnic groupings” is forged and articulated “through acts of imagination” which find their expression in “narrative, myth and symbol” (Jones 8). Since identities in general and national identities in particular are mostly constructed in relation to what they are not, identities depend on difference, on constructions of the Other (Woodward 35; Jones 8). Identities are, thus, forged through the construction of symbolic boundaries excluding that which is represented as different. A crucial signifying practice through which these symbolic boundaries are created and maintained is what Sander Gilman refers to as “stereotyping” (Gilman 15-35). For Gilman stereotypical perceptions derive from that stage in the process of individual development at which we learn to differentiate between our inner life and the outer world. In the course of our individual development we create and internalise certain mental representations which are linked to a sense of order – “an unconscious sense of symbiosis with the world, a world under the control of the self” (Gilman 19):
When, however, the sense of order and control undergoes stress, when doubt is cast on the self’s ability to control the internalized world that it has created for itself, an anxiety appears which mirrors the earlier affective coloring of the period of individuation. We project that anxiety onto the Other, externalizing our loss of control. The Other is thus stereotyped, labeled with a set of signs paralleling (or mirroring) our loss of control (Gilman 20).
Moreover, the stereotypes which are attached to the Other are determined by “a set vocabulary of images” which a given group has at its disposal. This set vocabulary which is predicated on a “communal sense of control” provides the fundamental metaphors through which the notion of difference is articulated (Gilman 21). As Gilman puts it:
This mental representation of difference is but the projection of the tension between control and its loss present within each individual in every group. That tension produces an anxiety that is given shape as the Other. […]. Since all of the images of the Other derive from the same deep structure, various signs of difference can be linked without recognition of inappropriateness, contradictoriness, or even impossibility (Gilman 21).
Thus, our perception of the Other is both represented and shaped through certain categories which form an integral part of our conceptual maps. Since these conceptual maps also represent “models of the self” and centre around both an individual’s and a group’s sense of control, these categories must also have a direct bearing on how we define ourselves. Gilman identifies three basic categories “generated by our sense of our own mutability”: illness, sexuality, and race (Gilman 22). Consequently, we may consider these categories as metaphors through which the notion of difference is represented, symbolic boundaries are created and maintained, and by implication group identities are constructed and represented.
The fact that in the late eighteenth century Protestantism was an integral part of an emergent British national identity highlights the importance of Catholicism as a privileged locus of otherness (Jones 8-9). The Gothic novel, therefore, emerges as a site where the catholic other is imagined and constructed in order to shore up the British, Protestant identity of its readers (Jones 8):
Thus, by imaging forth the European Other as Catholic, superstitious, barbarous, irrational, chaotic, rooted in the past, the Gothic novel allowed a British audience conversely to identify itself as Protestant, rational, ordered, stable, and modern: Continental Europe is the domain of fantastic unreality, whereas England is rooted in contemporary realism (Jones 9).
One classic Gothic text in particular seems to stand out for its virulent anti-Catholicism. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk which was published in 1796 seems to enact what Steven Blakemore calls “a Protestant Black Mass” depicting “the orgiastic sexuality performed in unnatural monasteries and convents” – a deviant sexuality that originates from “Catholic sexual repression” (Blakemore 521-22). The Monk seems to construct a stereotype of Catholicism, especially in its portrayal of the main protagonist, Ambrosio, as a victim of the monastic institution and its ‘unnatural’ vow of chastity. As the story unfolds Ambrosio’s increasing loss of control over his self, brought about by the temptations of sexuality symbolized by the temptress/demon Rosario/Matilda, leads to his feminization – he becomes “the stereotypical fallen woman” (Blakemore 527).
This essay will read The Monk in juxtaposition to another, much later and maybe only arguably, Gothic text: James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is also concerned with loss of control and its concomitant feminization of the novel’s main protagonist, Robert Colwan. The Private Memoirs, which were published in 1824 shifts the focus from a classic Gothic’s concern with the Catholic Other to a preoccupation with “the native (Scottish) scene and vernacular religion” (Sedgwick 98). Hogg’s novel constructs the Other as intrinsic to both Protestant religion and ideas of Britishness. Thus, in The Private Memoirs the ecclesiastical instutions seems to be replaced by a personal devil taking the form of a double.
Steven Blakemore argues that “Catholicism, in The Monk, is the religion of perverse feminization”(Blakemore 528). Lewis’s protagonist, the monk Ambrosio, who was found at the door of the Capuchin monastery when he was an infant and who has risen to the position of abbot, is revered for his virtue, and especially his chastity, by the whole population of a mythical never-never land Madrid. Although at the beginning of the novel, when he is delivering his sermon, Ambrosio is portrayed in quite masculine terms – as being “a man of noble port and commanding presence ... [with a] glance of his eye, at once fiery and penetrating” – a gender inversion metaphorically casting him as a virtuous female sheltered from sexual knowledge by the monastic institution soon begins to take shape (Lewis 20). Even before Ambrosio enters the stage he is described in very feminine terms and closely linked to Antonia whom Ambrosio rapes later in the novel and who turns out to be his sister:
[A]nd he is reported to be so strict an observer of chastity, that he knows not in what consists the difference of man and woman. The common people therefore esteem him to be a saint.’ ‘Does that make you a saint?’ enquired Antonia. ‘Bless me! then am I one’ (Lewis 19).
Ambrosio’s ignorance of the world in general and of sexuality in particular is a direct effect of the sheltering influence of the monastic institution. The rules of the ecclesiastical institution make him susceptible to Matilda’s seduction in the first place. The narrator, who throughout the novel exposes the superstition of Catholicism, reveals that:
[h]ad his youth been passed in the world, he would have shown himself possessed of many brilliant and manly qualities. He was naturally enterprizing, firm, and fearless: he had a warrior’s heart, and he might have shone with splendour at the head of an army (Lewis 204).
But since he was raised in a monastery where “[h]is instructors carefully repressed those virtues” and where his life was always controlled by others Ambrosio was never able to develop the qualities associeted with masculinity and became increasingly feminized:
[T]he noble frankness of his temper was exchanged for servile humility; and in order to break his natural spirit, the monks terrified his young mind, by placing before him all the horrors with which superstition could furnish them (Lewis 204).
The ‘unnatural’ rules of monastic life pervert Ambrosio’s character and lead to a gender inversion which casts him as a passive victim of both the ecclesiastical institution and the devil incarnated by Rosario/Matilda to whose seduction he eventually succumbs.
In The Monk loss of control is closely associated with femininity – losing control means becoming-woman. Moreover, the main protagonist’s loss of control can only be seen as an effect of the tight control exerted by a monastic regime. Steven Blakemore writes:
[...] The Monk ’s historical significance is its place within a Protestant tradition in which sex and religion are blurred, virgins are violated, and Catholicism is dirtied as the corruptible feminine, homosexual Other. In this context, Lewis himself celebrates a Protestant Black Mass, conjuring up demonic powers and performing a double screw of the subverted, feminized con(texts) of his fallen Catholic world (Blakemore 537).
Lewis’s novel can be read as a stereotype of Catholicism and the pathological sexuality produced by its monastic institutions, as projecting anxieties centring around the loss of control onto Catholic Europe and thereby drawing a demarcation line between the Protestant self and the Catholic Other. David Punter’s aforementioned remarks about the 1790s as “chaotic years in which domestic unrest and fears of invasion from abroad shaped political and cultural life” appear quite pertinent in this respect (Punter 2).
In The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner the same events are related twice, first in “The Editor’s Narrative,” and then in The Confessions themselves. Doubling, however, is not only used as a structural device. “The Editor’s Narrative” centres on “the intense, persecutory relationship” between two brothers, George and Robert, who “may or may not have the same father” (Sedgwick 100, 98); while Robert’s own narrative, The Confessions proper, relates “his even more intense, persecuted relationship with a male character whom the narrator has hardly even mentioned – one Gil-Martin, apparently the Devil himself” (Sedgwick 100).
In “The Editor’s Narrative” the reader learns that George and Robert’s mother is “the sole heiress and reputed daughter of a Baillie Orde, of Glasgow” who is sent to marry the rich, and much older George Colwan, laird of Dalcastle (Hogg 1). The union between George Colwan who “was what his country neighbours called ‘a droll, careless chap,’ with a very limited proportion of the fear of God in his heart” and “his lady [who] was the most severe and gloomy of all bigots to the principles of the Reformation” is not a happy one (Hogg 2). This striking contrast and his wife’s persistent sexual refusal leads to a permanent division between the couple – the lady and later her ‘spiritual guide,’ Robert Wringhim, occupy the upper part of the house, whereas the laird and later his ‘housekeeper,’ Miss Logan occupy the lower part.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick states that “[t]he pairing of contrasted values implicit in the marriage, of the landed gentry with the urban bourgeoisie, becomes even more acute and discordant in the next generation” (Sedgwick 98). Each son is assigned to one realm of the house. George is protrayed in very masculine terms “that, in the Victorian novel, will come ever more overtly to denominate the British racial ideal” as being his brother’s “superior in personal prowess, form, feature, and all that constitutes gentility in the department and appearence” (Sedgwick 99; Hogg 19); whereas Robert, who is brought up according to Wringhim’s religious doctrines, is described in rather feminine terms – “[t]he editor’s favourite word for him is ‘demure’” (Sedgwick 99).
When the two brothers meet each other for the first time “Robert’s strategy towards his dashing, popular, athletic brother is a maddening literal version of the ‘feminine’ one that we would today call passive-aggressive” (Sedgwick 100). Robert deploys powerlessness and loss of control as a tool to exert power over his brother. As George is persecuted by Robert, Robert himself is persecuted by Gil-Martin, a shapechanger, who frequently takes on the appearence of both Robert and his brother. Gil-Martin, who can be seen as either the Devil or a figment of Robert’s own mind, seems to be one reason behind Robert’s loss of control and the feminization associated with it:
When I lay in bed, I deemed there were two of us in it; when I sat up, I always beheld another person, and always in the same position from the place where I sat or stood, which was about three paces off me towards my left side. [...] The most perverse part of it was, that I rarely conceived myself to be any of the two persons. I thought for the most part that my companion was one of them, and my brother the other (Hogg 154).
These are Robert’s reflections when he is confined to his room for one month because of a “strange distemper” (Hogg 153). It is precisely during this time that George feels haunted by somebody whom he deems to be his brother, but who is, in fact, Gil-Martin taking on Robert’s appearence. The persecution of George by his brother’s double, who always appears in the same position on his right parallels the persecution of Robert by Gil-Martin (Hogg 36; Sedgwick 105).
In The Private Memoirs the anxiety about a loss of control over the self is projected onto an Other, who happens to be within the same family and who, besides taking on the appearences of individual family members, assumes the form of a private devil. Gil-Martin, thus, becomes Robert’s own personal devil – a devil who is both within and without Robert’s body, but always within his family and community; whereas Robert himself becomes George’s own personal devil. The novel registers anxieties that centre around the loss of control over the self – anxieties that are, however, not projected onto a remote Catholic Other, but rather onto members of the same family or, to be more precise, onto Gil-Martin as a devil who takes on their appearances.
As in The Monk, loss of control and powerlessness, in The Private Memoirs, are represented in a gendered language and come to be closely associated with femininity. While The Monk, however, constructs a Catholic Other that can be clearly demarcated from a Protestant self, the boundary between self and Other and by implication the whole notion of both clearly demarcated individual and collective identities becomes blurred in The Private Memoirs. The reason for this seems to lie in the novel’s specifically Scottish context of English colonial domination. Interestingly, the events related in the novel “take place immediately before and after the 1707 Act of Union” (MacKenzie 25). In this context the boundaries between the self and the Other become problematic, for the Other occupies the same geographical and textual space as the self. This is borne out by the fact that, in The Private Memoirs, religious and class divisions run through the same family. Since the Other is too close to the self to establish a clear sense of identity, anxiety about the self arises. In The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner this anxiety is projected onto a personal devil who is both self and Other. In The Monk, on the other hand, the Other onto whom the anxiety about loss of control over the self is projected is a stereotype of Catholicism metonymically represented through the cruel regime of the monastic institution.
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Gilman, S. Difference and Pathology. Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Hogg, J. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Jones, D. Horror. A Thematic History in Fiction and Film. London: Arnold, 2002.
Lewis, M. The Monk. A Romance. London: Penguin, 1998.
MacKenzie, S-. "Confessions of a Gentrified Sinner: Secrets in Scott and Hogg." Studies in Romanticism 41.1 (2002): 3-32.
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Woodward, K. "Concepts of Identity and Difference." Identity and Difference. Ed. K. Woodward. London: Sage Publications, 1997. 7-61.