Narrative Voice and Gothic Otherness

Voice and Dispossession: A Comparative Poetics

Emily Rohrbach, 8 Nov 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

In the second paper of this year’s CEIR series, held in collaboration with the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar (CRECS), Dr Emily Rohrbach drew on her current research on voice and dispossession in ‘Gothic’ literature from Britain, Europe and America to examine its influence on the Romantic period. Rohrbach, in her usual critical style which as Dr Jamie Castell stated ‘pays attention to the small details when addressing the big questions’, analysed aspects of the narrative voice that dramatise self-reflexively its own otherness.


Rohrbach introduced her discussion by locating Gothic aesthetic displacement in John Keats’s The Eve of St Agnes (1820). She argued that the mixture of foreign and domestic objects in the lines ‘From Fez; and spice dainties, every one, / From Silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon’ suggest cultural dispossession. Rohrbach noted this sense of dispossession is enhanced by the tension between the near and the far (‘here’ and ‘there’). The Eve of St Agnes was also shown to depart from the tradition of Romantic authorship because its narrative voice counters William Wordsworth’s notion of poetry as the overflow of feelings.

       And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
       In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
       While he forth from the closet brought a heap
       Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
       With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
       And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
       Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
       From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

       These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
       On golden dishes and in baskets bright
       Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
       In the retired quiet of the night,
       Filling the chilly room with perfume light.—
       ‘And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
       Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
       Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes’ sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.’

The focus was then transferred to well-known Gothic novels by Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole to argue that Keats inherited his focus on dispossessed voices from the genre. Rohrbach demonstrated this by exploring the presence of unreliable narratives in Gothic literature. She looked at the underlying tension these dispossessed voices create by considering the ways in which characters and texts are inhabited by other voices. One example given was of Vincentio di Vivaldi from Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797). Although Vivaldi is unwilling to express his love for Ellena di Rosalba through the clichés of serenade, believing it to be an inadequate manifestation of his emotions, he eventually yields to traditional love-making conventions. Equally, in The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Walpole typographical features create the experience of mistaking one character for another so that any narrative stability is undermined. This is echoed in the novel’s positioning of itself as an original Italian manuscript. Rohrbach situated these anxieties about the origins of voice within the cultural context of the 19th century and the advent of recorded sound.

[A]ccording to the custom of the country, a serenade should be given. […] Vivaldi objected to this coarse and inadequate mode of expressing a love of sacred as his, and he had too lofty an opinion of Ellena’s mind and delicacy to believe that the trifling homage of a serenade would either flatter her self-love, or interest her in his favour.

— Ann Radcliffe, The Italian (1797)

Villain! monster! sorcerer! ’tis thou hast slain my son! The mob, who wanted some object within the scope of their capacitates on whom they might discharge their bewildered reasoning, caught the words from the mouth of their lord, and re-echoed, Ay, ay, ’tis he, ’tis he: he has stolen the helmet from good Alfonso’s tomb, and dashed out the brains of our young prince with it.

— Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Rohrbach concluded by turning her attention to the translated version of the lesser-known novel Póstumo: el envirginado (1882) by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera to examine the desire of people to have a political voice. She argued that the political voice is a highly mediated force which hinges on conventions and so can be linked to the dispossessed voice in Gothic literature. Rohrbach employed her prior analysis to introduce a new concern of her research by questioning whether there is a Latin American Gothic tradition, and if so, what the political implications of this are. Detailing the many ways in which Póstumo: el envirginado blurs the boundaries of individual identity, Rohrbach shows that, like the dispossessed voice in Gothic literature, having a voice in politics creates political empowerment whilst simultaneously erasing individuality.

— Katherine Mansfield



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