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Introducing the Gothic Reading Group at the University of Sheffield(11 Dec 2013)
By Mr Mark Bennett
Hello all, I’m Mark, a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield where I’m also involved in organising its Gothic Reading Group. Our group is currently in its second year and has already looked at a wide range of Gothic authors, texts and media ranging from eighteenth-century dramatisations of popular novels to twenty-first century horror cinema. Anyone interested in hearing more about our past meetings is welcome to check out our website which features some blog posts reflecting on recent meetings as well as a summary of last year’s activities. In this first post I’d really just like to talk a little about the background for the group and the approach we’ve taken. Along the way I’ll try and offer a little bit of advice for anyone currently thinking of setting up a reading group of their own. Subsequent posts will talk more about specific sessions we’re running this year and hopefully offer a chance for readers on the IGA Postgraduate Forum to follow and join in with our discussions.
To begin at the beginning then, the Sheffield Gothic Reading Group was formed by candlelight, on a dark and stormy night, in a picturesque ruin, during a candle-lit meeting of cowled figures, sat next to a giant helmet… Ok, it wasn’t. It was formed by a couple of PhD students, in a coffee-shop, opposite the Henderson’s Relish factory (it’s an awesome Yorkshire condiment – google it) at around 11 AM on a fairly sunny day in late-September 2012…
Sheffield has always had a strong research and teaching focus in the Gothic and related areas (at this point I hope the organisers will excuse me if I quickly plug the international conference on Anne Radcliffe we’ll be hosting next year. . .). The reading group was conceived as a new opportunity to build upon this shared experience and enthusiasm: bringing together staff and students interested in the Gothic. From the outset, we aimed to be as inclusive as possible and this is something that’s proved really rewarding. Our membership so far has included experienced researchers, PhD students, taught postgraduates and undergraduates, all taking part in the same informal, but critically engaged, roundtable discussions. Some of our members may be much newer to the Gothic than those of us who’ve been writing about it for years, but there’s a lot to be said for the advantages of a fresh-perspective, removed from the familiar ways of thinking that many of us have unknowingly internalised. There’s also something to be said for the juxtapositions and connections thrown up by members on taught programmes who are studying other texts and topics alongside their reading for the group – whilst it’s always interesting to think about new texts in relation to classic examples of the Gothic, a student currently taking a course on modernist poetry or early-modern drama might have some equally interesting (and unexpected) points of comparison. We’ve also developed a small community of scholars that’s grown with the group as some of our undergraduate and taught postgraduate members have gone on to further study at MA and PhD level. The obvious route to take with a group like this may be to pitch it at the postgraduate level, but I’d definitely recommend that anyone forming a new group considers inviting in undergraduates as well. The format offers a great way for students at different levels to meet and chat with each other and for students on taught programmes to get a sense of what further study and research in the Gothic (or in general) is actually like.
The breadth of our membership has also played a role in determining the kinds of texts we select and the way we organise our reading. Our members have a variety of research and study interests, ranging from the Gothic’s literary origins in the eighteenth-century to its current proliferation in new media forms. As a result, we haven’t taken any strictly chronological or periodised approach to text-selection and have tried to keep material reasonably short. Most of the texts in our first year of meetings were short stories or short dramas, though this year we’re planning on including a short novel as the basis for our final session in each term. We’ve tended to have between three and four meetings a term, striking a balance between looking at a good variety of material . . . and leaving time to actually read it between sessions! One of our key aims in starting the reading group was to look at some of the many Gothic texts that don’t tend to find their way onto as many module reading lists or into as many academic studies. This has several advantages: on an obvious level it gives us a chance to explore new material and broaden our knowledge of the Gothic, but it also works well for a group with such a varied membership. By avoiding looking at too many “classic” texts we can avoid turning the group into a re-run of some members’ existing course schedules (or dissertation research), but still have a chance to enhance those by looking at complimentary material. A great example of this took place last year when we included two different sessions on eighteenth-century Gothic dramas, covering James Boaden’s dramatization of The Monk as Aurelio and Miranda and Lewis’s own blockbuster Gothic drama, The Castle Spectre. As I’m sure most readers here will agree, eighteenth-century Gothic drama doesn’t tend to get quite as much attention as the novels it’s typically derived from. This is being remedied (as some great conference papers have demonstrated to me in recent years) but in the meantime it’s a boon to a reading group which can use texts like these as a new way into the eighteenth-century Gothic and something of a level playing field for members with different degrees of Gothic expertise (there’s a pun in there somewhere…). Our Boaden and Lewis sessions shed new light on the popularity and reception of classic novels like The Monk for students new to the Gothic’s “rise” in the 1790s and more experienced researchers who’d tended to focus on the Gothic in prose-fiction. I was one of the latter myself, despite working on a PhD that considers Gothic fiction in the context of other genres of writing (travel-writing, seeing as you ask). Looking at Boaden and Lewis’s plays opened up all sorts of interesting perspectives on a decade of Gothic writing that’s probably been worked over more extensively than any other. We were able to detect elements of different authors’ styles in the plays – raising questions about the “bankability” or “brand strength” of different writers for a theatre audience – and also ponder the implications of blockbuster dramas playing to packed theatres for a genre that’s often still associated with contemporary critical disdain. Again, if anyone reading this is getting ready to set up a Gothic reading group of their own, I’d definitely recommend using materials like these that offer new angles on familiar texts or authors.
We’ve always wanted to involve members as much as possible in the process of actually suggesting and selecting texts. In our first year we selected material on a session by session basis, using various systems to vote on different options and a central mailing list to inform people of the results. In practice this took too long and left little time between meetings to actually read the texts we picked. As a result we’ve switched to selecting texts in advance. Those for this Autumn term were picked by the organisers, but we’ve been taking suggestions from the group for next term’s texts. So far this feels like a good compromise, leaving plenty of time for reading and still involving the whole group in the process of selecting texts. Time will tell if this new process works, but it’s looking good so far with suggestions for future texts arising organically from discussions in our actual meetings.
Most of our texts so far have been in the public domain, which has made sourcing them online fairly easy using open repositories such as Project Gutenberg or Google Books as well as subscribed institutional resources such as the Eighteenth Century Collections Online archive. We’ve tried to avoid asking members to purchase too many materials, but are currently trialling a system of ending each term with one longer and more recent work. So, in December we’ll be looking at Jeanette Winterson’s 2012 novel about the Pendle Witch Trials, The Daylight Gate. Before selecting this novel we checked to make sure it was available at an affordable price from online retailers and found several second-hand copies on Amazon (please don’t go and buy them all until we’re done!). Personally, I’m excited to look at a recent work that none of the group have read before – you’ll have to wait for our next blog post here (or check our website) to see how this goes…
The Daylight Gate won’t, strictly speaking, be our first contemporary text, however. We’ve actually begun each of our three terms so far by screening a film. This is a nice way of easing into new terms that gets around the problem of notifying new and prospective members about the first session’s reading. It also lets us expand our discussion of the Gothic to include other media and I’d recommend other groups try something similar if they’re able to arrange facilities at their institution. As yet we haven’t arranged for a group video-gaming session or a musical symposium, but there’s always time…
So, that’s how we’ve gone about things in our first year at Sheffield. I hope it’s proved interesting and perhaps offered some guidance for new groups considering what to do (and what not to do!). Before I sign off, I’d like to mention (and plug) one last aspect of our group. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we run a small website and blog series covering and commenting on our activities. This is still in its infancy, but we’re hoping that it offers a way of keeping the conversation going between meetings. So far we’ve tended not to actively include critical material in our discussions. This may change, but at the moment it keeps the reading list manageable and accessible to members with different levels of experience (and different disciplinary backgrounds). Instead the website allows us to pick out interesting resources on the web, including background on authors as well as adaptations or re-mediations (we found some really interesting graphic novels based on Poe when preparing for a recent session). This is also something I’d recommend to other groups if they have time, particularly as it also offers another for members to be involved outside of meetings by providing a space to share interesting sources or resources.