Five Questions: Angela Wright on Britain, France and the Gothic

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 Angela Wright - Britain, France and the Gothic

We on the BARS Executive are still sad that Dr Angela Wright has recently left our number in order to become a Dark Empress (OK, co-President…) of the International Gothic Association.  When not reigning, she is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield and has published widely on Romantic and Gothic topics.  Below, we discuss her latest book, Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820: The Import of Terror, which was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year.

1) What was the genesis of Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820?

I have had a long-standing fascination with the relationship between Britain and France.  This fascination first started when I took my BA in English and French, and continued when I chose to do my doctorate between an English and a French department, with supervisors in both.  I have always enjoyed the best of both nations, and spent several extended periods of my twenties on and off working or studying in France.  When I spent a year in France at the age of 21, for example, I was intrigued by heated debates that I would get into with French students regarding the respective merits and shortcomings of Britain and France.  The persistence of Anglo/French rivalry surprised me, and I was also taken aback by how defensive I became during these debates.  These experiences fed into my later intellectual work.

Britain, France and the Gothic focuses upon the contexts of the Seven Years War when Britain and France were at war, Anglo-French hostilities and reciprocity, translation and the Gothic.  I began working upon these intersections in the Romantic period around 2005.  It has taken me roughly seven years to write this book.

2) Your book argues convincingly that ‘the Gothic is specifically indebted to a French tradition of writing, and is often either appropriated, translated or adapted from French authors in the long eighteenth century’. How does the return of this largely repressed heritage reconfigure our understanding of the particularity of British Gothic writing?

‘Gothic’, as Horace Walpole uses it, is a term of proud, British patriotism that is invoked in the wake of Voltaire’s attacks upon Shakespeare during the Seven Years War.  However, as I argue in the book, Walpole’s appendage of that title to the second edition of his The Castle of Otranto is pragmatic, as is his attack upon Voltaire.  There is considerable evidence of Horace Walpole’s Francophilia.  If you look more widely in the Gothic, this evidence persists in the strain of Gothic writing produced in the 1790s by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, but they too masked their literary admiration of France with great care.

The reasons for this lie in the contexts of the suspensions of habeas corpus during the Pitt government in the 1790s, and the escalation of anti-French propaganda.  It is clear, however, that British Gothic writing is considerably indebted to French literature, through the realms of adaptation and translation.  It has, however, masked this indebtedness due to the political climate in the Romantic period.

3) Your chapters proceed broadly chronologically, examining Horace Walpole; Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith and Sophia Lee; the complexities of terror in the 1790s; Ann Radcliffe; and Matthew Lewis. Was this your plan from an early stage, or were there alternative arrangements or subjects that were altered or cut as you shaped your arguments?

Broadly, this was my plan, although the chapter upon Horace Walpole originally formed part of my Introduction.  The material became too voluminous and unwieldy to be contained within the Introduction, so Walpole justifiably got a chapter to himself.  I became intrigued, and somewhat sidetracked, I must confess, by the identity of Horace Walpole’s fictional translator William Marshal in The Castle of Otranto

4) How has the process of researching and writing this book changed your approaches to teaching Gothic fictions?

If anything, it has made me love and admire the Gothic more, as I discovered how Gothic fiction during the Romantic period generally refused to capitulate to the anti-Jacobin francophobia of the time.  That is not to say that all of it resisted this atmosphere.  Recent and very valuable work has been undertaken upon Loyalist Gothic by James Watt, and Royalist Gothic by Dale Townshend, and their research points to a number of authors who embraced the possibilities of the Gothic for a range of other reasons.  These counter-examples demonstrate the sheer diversity of Gothic fiction during the Romantic period.  At this moment, a huge number of authors and Gothic works from the Romantic period remain to be researched in more detail, works which were read widely, sold widely, and that have fallen out of our contemporaneous conceptions of the Romantic period.

Recently, I have written an essay upon Translation and France for The Gothic World (eds. Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend), and I have begun to consider how the British Gothic genre was more widely embraced in France than French literature was in Britain.  This continues to be the case, in my view, with France stealing the march by filming and distributing a version of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk last year (dir. Dominik Moll).

5) What’s next for you?

I have just completed a co-edited collection of essays on Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic (eds. Dale Townshend and Angela Wright), and that will come out from Cambridge University Press in February 2014.  We’re holding a major conference upon Ann Radcliffe in June 2014 to launch the collection, and to celebrate Radcliffe’s 250th birthday (ED: CfP deadline coming up on November 30th for those of you interested in submitting…).  I am also putting the finishing touches to a single-author study upon Mary Shelley, which will come out from the University of Wales Press later in 2014.  After wrapping these projects up and taking a really good vacation this summer, I am going to begin researching for a project which carries the tentative title ‘Fostering Romanticism’.  I am just putting proposals in place for this at present, and am really exicted about its possibilities.  More upon this anon!  And always, I retain an ongoing love and fascination with Scottish Romanticism.