Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal by Marie Mulvey-Roberts is one of the best books on Gothic literature that I have read in many years. Mulvey-Roberts previously published Gothic Immortals, which I loved and was a major source for my own book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, so I was honored when she agreed to write the foreword for my book. I am delighted that she has now published Dangerous Bodies, which explores how the human body as well as monsters’ bodies are treated in Gothic literature, although it explores far more than just that.
The book is divided into five chapters, and I can honestly say any one of these chapters, each a fine essay in its own right, is alone worth the price of the book. I will provide a few highlights from each chapter here with the hope you will read the book and explore in its entirety the wonderful discussion Mulvey-Roberts provides of some of the greatest Gothic texts.
“Chapter 1: Catholicism, the Gothic and the bleeding body” discusses both the role of Catholicism in Gothic literature as well as how bodies are treated, often by Catholics in the Gothic. Think of the scenes of the Inquisition in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), for example. Mulvey-Roberts provides historical context for the backgrounds to Gothic texts, including pointing out that in reality Protestants committed far more bloodshed and torture to bodies than Catholics in the broad Renaissance error. Furthermore, during the heyday of the Gothic novel, English Protestants were not really as anti-Catholic as often thought, but sympathetic to the French clergy fleeing the French Revolution. However, for me, the highlight of the chapter was the discussion of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), considered the first Gothic novel. I have to admit I always thought it a rather silly novel, but Mulvey-Roberts discusses how it is really a satire of the English Reformation, offering commentary on Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. I won’t go into the details, but I feel the argument is very convincing and it shows that this very first Gothic novel was far from anti-Catholic and even in this early period, the Gothic was offering social commentary and a way to express the fears of the time, which would be more obvious in the 1790s when Gothic novels were largely fueled by the French Revolution. Mulvey-Roberts points out that The Castle of Otranto was itself written right after the conclusion of the Seven Years War and was doubtless influenced by that conflict.
“Chapter 2: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and Slavery” was frankly rather mind-blowing for me. In the past, I have often thought I could just not possibly read one more article about Frankenstein (1818), but I am so glad I read this chapter. I have never heard the argument that Frankenstein is largely a commentary on slavery or at least influenced by the horrors of that institution. Mulvey-Roberts argues that Mary Shelley was not an abolitionist, but rather believed in an ameliorist position to make the transition to an end of slavery easier. Immediate emancipation would have been detrimental to slaves who would not know how to survive without assistance—think of how the Monster feels abandoned by Victor Frankenstein. Mulvey-Roberts offers evidence that Mary Shelley would have been aware of the plight of slaves, especially in the West Indies. Shelley had a friend, Frances Wright, who bought a plantation in Tennessee and bought slaves to educate and prepare them for their labor, with Shelley’s support. Furthermore, Gilbert Imlay, Mary Shelley’s mother’s lover, was involved in the slave trade, and in 1816 while working on Frankenstein, Shelley read Charlotte Smith’s The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (1800), a novel set in Jamaica concerning slavery. She also read Bryan Edwards’ history of the West Indies. One passage, in particular, is significant because it describes rebels, called “monsters,” who decapitated a husband, then dissected his pregnant wife and threw her unborn baby to the hogs. The rebels then put her husband’s head into her belly and sewed it up, all while the wife was still alive. Mulvey-Roberts notes that similarly Frankenstein’s Monster is created by suturing of different body parts. In addition, in the chapter Mulvey-Roberts discusses Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk (1795), as a slaveowner.
“Chapter 3: Death by orgasm: sexual surgery and Dracula” continued to exceed my expectations. Here Mulvey-Roberts showed how aware the author of Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker, was of medical information. Three of his four brothers were doctors, and the eldest, Sir William Thornley Stoker, was likely a model for Abraham Van Helsing and Dr. Seward. Thornley’s gynaecological operations have never before been considered in relation to Stoker’s novel, but Mulvey-Roberts has filled a huge gap in Stoker studies by outlining them here. She discusses in detail the role of female sexuality in the novel and especially the way Lucy is depicted as sexually licentious in the novel and how she is punished through surgeries meant to destroy her sexuality and reproductive parts. Mulvey-Roberts goes on to discuss surgery, masturbation, hysteria, and the vagina. Mulvey-Roberts concludes that Thornley was a major source of medical information for the novel and that Stoker’s notes for the novel confirm it. I was fully convinced by her argument.
These first three chapters were the ones that interested me most because they explored major Gothic works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although the remaining chapters were also interesting. “Chapter 4: Nazis, Jews and Nosferatu” discussed how Hitler used negative stereotypes of Jews to turn the German people against them. Mulvey-Roberts admits there is no evidence that Hitler ever saw the film Nosferatu but it is likely he did, and it may have added to his ideas for the negative caricatures of the Jews that he promoted. She discusses this famous silent film, the first film version of Dracula, in depth. She also goes into detail about the myth of the Wandering Jew and how it was used to demonize Jews, although at times some writers were sympathetic to the Jew. She then discusses how vampires have been linked to the Wandering Jew. And ultimately, how the true vampires were not the Jews, as the Nazis tried to convince people, but the Nazis themselves.
The final chapter, “Chapter 5: The vampire of war,” discusses how war has frequently been depicted as being like a vampire, especially a female one. The discussion involves the Crimean War, as well as the World Wars. Mulvey-Roberts also discusses several twentieth century films about vampires created during times of war, plus the novels of Kim Newman, which are written to illustrate what would have happened if Dracula had not been defeated—he would have taken over England, and that would have interesting repercussions for World War I.
In the conclusion, Mulvey-Roberts discusses how “the Gothic arises out of conflict.” The examples of Gothic depictions of slavery, physical abuse, and war throughout the book all attest to the truth of this statement.
Overall, Dangerous Bodies brings fresh blood to Gothic studies, reinvigorating it with new perspectives that enrich our understanding of it and help us to see what has always been there but perhaps hiding in the shadows, waiting to be illuminated.
I highly recommend Dangerous Bodies and hope Mulvey-Roberts will write many more books on the Gothic. The book won the IGA Allan Lloyd Smith Memorial Prize in 2017, which only proves how frightfully good it is.
In the United States, the book is available at Amazon.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.