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Rereading early Gothic servants: Or how I learned to stop skimming and love the digression (Part One)(09 Dec 2013)
By Ms Kathleen Hudson
What is one to do with the Annettes of this world? The frustratingly loquacious, irredeemably superstitious, foolish, impertinent, endlessly interjecting servant of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is just one of many such servants in early Gothic literature, and like her sisters and brothers she is both a product of Gothic formula and a unique creation that embodies the chaotic and constructive in early Gothic texts. Gothic servants are so often the recognizable figures of delayed gratification, of digression and excess: Bianca, Jaquez, and Diego in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), who drive Manfred to near distraction with their fumbling slowness; Lewis’s Theodore from The Monk (1796), who writes sentimental poetry and has to engage in clownish extremes just to get within the vicinity of relevant information; Schedoni’s travel guide in Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), a figure who just doesn’t know anything about anything and takes for forever getting there; even poor Justine from Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), who’s entire presence is defined by a failure to say the right thing at the right time. The Gothic servant is pretty much everyone’s least favorite part of the story…her dialogue is the part you skim through because, really, you just want to get to the good part and she does nothing but drivel and digress and pile on the obscurity.
And yet she’s always there. It’s hardly an early Gothic novel without her, her insistent storytelling gumming up the works and bringing you back to the realization that you are reading a Gothic formula. Yet I would argue that despite their marginalized place in critical theory and in the broader narrative of many late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century Gothic texts, Gothic servants actually function as a conscious and complex method of literary design by exerting a very high level of control over their narrative selves. Digression becomes a technique that alerts you to the ‘Gothic’ as gothic, and the servant narrative can and should be read as something that complicates not only the flow of the plot but also basic literary concepts of identity and storytelling.
In Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto the servant Bianca, like many other such servants, actively incorporates a defense of her impertinence, excess, and digression in her dialogue: “there was no harm in what I said: it is no sin to talk” and “a bystander often sees more of the game than those that play.” Servants do see quite a lot more than they are given credit for, and their narrative always has the potential to harm and help. This inherent power in speaking and narrating is something the Gothic servant frequently recognizes even if few others do, and when servants in early Gothic texts are interrupted or dismissed they react in an outraged and assertive manner. “‘Thou ravest,’ said Manfred, in a rage; ‘be gone, and keep these fooleries to frighten thy companions.’ – ‘What! my lord,’ cried Bianca, ‘do you think I have seen nothing? go to the foot of the stair yourself – as I live, I saw it.’” Bianca perhaps appears hysterical to Manfred and the reader in this instance but in reality she is equating the validity of her existence with the validity of her narrative, an idea both literally and figuratively true – her concept of identity hinges on what she experiences with her senses and how she expresses those experiences in a personal narrative, and her role as a character in the larger text similarly depends on what information she gives to the protagonists and to the reader.
“I have not come to that yet” Annette tells her mistress Emily in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho when Emily interrupts Annette and tries to push her to “tell me the substance of your tale” rather than engaging in digression. “All in good time,” Annette replies. The servant narrative is highly subjective and prone to digression and interjection (to quote a servant from Radcliffe, “as if a story could be told in two words, Signor!” ), and servants in Gothic fiction frequently color the actions of their narratives with personal interpretations and interject asides only loosely related to the story, such as the characterization of the relatively minor character of ‘old Marco’ in the exchange between the devilish monk Schedoni and his guide in The Italian. This type of discourse tends to frustrate both reader and protagonist (ironically, since much of the digression occurs because the protagonist interrupts) but it is essentially not unlike the normal structure of the Gothic novel, which is itself a subjective form prone to layered characterization and description, the insertion of ostensibly unrelated stories for anecdotal reasons or to heighten suspense, or asides and subplots which add relatively little to the overall narrative. It seems somewhat redundant to characterize a Gothic novel as a ‘novel’ but given the early Gothic genre’s historical placement it is important to understand that some of the literary techniques which, to us, perhaps seem unsophisticated were still being developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When a Gothic servant stresses the individuality of the storyteller and employs specific literary devices, then, it can be read as a self-aware examination of the genre.
Beyond a direct structural defense of the Gothic genre, servants in the Gothic narrative are the figures who, because of their specific social and familial positions, can best and most comprehensively transcend cultural, historical, political and spiritual boundaries and in fact even restructure fundamental aspects of self and identity therein. As such, their defense of individual viewpoints and perceptions is a potent expression of alternative narrative privilege, a pseudo-self aware justification of their place in the story independent of social marginalization. They are very often the keepers of illicit knowledge critical to the development of the plot and a reflection of the broader socio-cultural and socio-political preoccupations of the text – for example, the old servant Joseph in Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777-1778), an early novelistic response to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, is tasked with revealing the secret of the protagonist’s noble birth, which realigns historical uniformity and enables an injustice to be corrected. Similarly, Dorothee in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Beatrice in The Italian are figures who positively restructure the family to include formerly marginalized members. This kind of role as the guardian of history and family makes the servant central figure, and bespeaks a Gothic preoccupation with identity and narrative and movement in both material and existential systems.
Servant narrative clearly provides something, overtly and covertly, critical to Gothic identity. Obviously the servant stories further the plot, but on a deeper level they also illustrate broader themes… they hint at trauma, at the real nature of situations, at the validity of things such as imagination or spirituality or practicality or virtue.
Consider Manfred’s discourse with his servants in Walpole’s Otranto –
“‘Have you found the princess?’ ‘We thought we had, my lord,’ said the fellow, looking terrified, ‘but’ – ‘But what?’ cried the prince; ‘has she escaped?’ ‘Jaquez, and I, my lord’ – ‘Yes, I and Diego,’ interrupted the second, who came up in still greater consternation – ‘Speak one of you at a time!’ said Manfred; ‘I ask you where is the princess?’ ‘We do not know,’ said they together, ‘but we are frightened out of our wits!’”
Manfred eagerly attempts to preemptively reach positive or negative conclusions, but is prevented by the servants’ focus on a completely different issue, namely the supernatural occurrences terrorizing the staff. The delay of information heightens sublime tension but also becomes almost incidental when the servants ‘accidentally/on purpose’ give us details vital to the broader story, information arising from the aesthetic preoccupation of their narrative – Jaquez and Diego eventually give their names (and by extension their identities), insight into the attitudes of the other servants (“not one of us has dared set foot around the castle, but two together”), and hints about the spiritual upheaval resulting from Conrad’s death and the fact that he has “not received a Christian burial,” indicating a historical, mental, and moral disparity within the family. These details, while delaying the information which Manfred desires, nevertheless both create Gothic sublimity and tension and give insight into the emotional and psychological impact events and surroundings have had on individual characters, especially Manfred. Manfred’s desire is secondary to the fact that there is, as illustrated by Diego and Jaquez, historical, psychological, emotional and supernatural conflict in the castle.
A Gothic servant’s verbal expression and their engagement with the spoken and written word emphasize their positions as storytellers, and indeed many of them are meta-Gothic authors who reinvent aesthetic to serve their own goals. Consider Annette’s response in Udolpho to Emily’s troubling domestic situation. Annette cheerfully creates a scene in which the terrors of Udolpho castle are put into a idealized, if rustically supernatural, context: "’I can almost believe in giants again, and such like, for this is just like one of their castles; and, some night or other, I suppose I shall see fairies too, hopping about in that great old hall, that looks more like a church, with its huge pillars, than any thing else.'” Emily herself is not unresponsive and engages in the imaginative servant narrative with pleasure, as an escape from her family grief. "'Yes,' said Emily, smiling, and glad to escape more serious thought, 'if we come to the corridor, about midnight, and look down into the hall, we shall certainly see it illuminated with a thousand lamps, and the fairies tripping in gay circles to the sound of delicious music." Annette has effectively replaced Emily’s problems with a benevolent aesthetic of her own creation, born of a type of imaginative sensibility which removes the reality of family dissolution and returns the reader to the images of ghosts, fairies, and magic which constitute the underlying aesthetic preoccupation of Udolpho in spite of its place as an ‘explained’ Gothic novel. By creating such a benign vision Annette implies that the terrors of the aesthetic, both fanciful and real, are subject to an individual construction of identity, where one chooses how to interpret one’s surroundings based on one’s personal narrative.
Emily then hits on the more serious implication of this kind of narrative creativity: "But I am afraid, Annette, you will not be able to pay the necessary penance for such a sight: and, if once they hear your voice, the whole scene will vanish in an instant." Such a comment could be read as a self-aware hint at the power of narrative, in which telling a story can not only create an aesthetic (and by extension the identity function within and reacting to that aesthetic), like Annette does with her invocation of fairies, but also dismiss it, reshape it, or replace it completely, through the mere use of one's narrative voice, as Emily suggests.
In early Gothic texts there the possibility of a character becoming the author is frequently examined by the servant figure, reflecting the creative potential of narrative control. This narrative control indicates a personal power which redefines the structures surrounding the characters, and enables them to work out bad situations in a way which draws from various aspects of personal and social identity. Gothic servants redefine social, historical, and literary boundaries in their texts, and although they seem to slow down the flow of the plot they often reveal a complex interwoven system of alternative expression in their dialogues and digression. Rereading their narratives as a more complex examination of Gothicism is important to understanding early Gothic texts, and arguably a refocus on this area of literary development can be applied to many different areas of study. Even if our first instinct is to skim, we should try to appreciate early Gothic servants as in-text and meta-text figures of Gothic identity.
1] Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto, (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1966), p. 46
 Walpole, p. 50
 Walpole, p. 96
 Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 236
 Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 237
 Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 237
 Radcliffe, Ann, The Italian; or the Confessional of the Black Penitents, (London: Penguin Books, 2000), p. 323
 Radcliffe, The Italian, p. 324
 Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966) p. 40
 Walpole, p. 41
 Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho, edited by Bonamy Dobree, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 231
 Radcliffe, p. 231
 Radcliffe, p. 231