Gothic Bible: The Theo-Aesthetics of the Early British Gothic

The following post by Holly Hirst is part of an ongoing ‘Gothic Bible Blog Series’ and part of the Gothic Bible project, a collaborative project run by Sheffield Gothic and SIIBS at the University of Sheffield, and also the University of Auckland. You can find out more about the project here, and if you want to contribute to the blog series you can email us at Gothic or tweet us at @GothicBible
It’s a dry title. I’m not selling out any arenas with a dry cough and reference to theo-aesthetic strategies. But its time to move away from sensation. The Gothic is all about shocking titles and over-exaggeration: affect and hyperbole. Not in my world! Quite literally. I have aphantasia,[i]which means I have no mind’s eye or very little ability to ‘picture’ anything. Some read about a looming forest and are gripped by ‘daemonic dread’[ii] or plain old fear. Some are infected by the sombre shadows, the creeping sense of claustrophobia or a soaring sense of nature’s power.  I, on the other hand, just think ‘oh, they’re walking through some trees.’ Zero emotional impact. Zero affect. The more detailed, the less I care. It gives me a somewhat unique perspective as a scholar of literary, and particularly gothic, aesthetics. I’m not distracted by the expectation of ‘gothic’ affect and take a more theoretical approach, that of theo-aesthetics – the point of intersection between theology and the aesthetic strategies of the gothic novel.
(A mist-steeped and terrifying forest hinting at the obscure mysteries of sublimity – or just some trees)
To make any steps in investigating theo-aesthetics, we need to get rid of some baggage. This baggage is Burke. Burke’s applicability to the gothic is obvious and his defence of ‘terror’ correctly considered key in the legitimisation of the gothic and its aesthetic. We can take the debt owed too far though and forget that Burke’s Enquiry was an interjection in a much longer debate which continued to swirl with abounding fury for decades after his work was published. Thomas Lauder’s 1842 review of aesthetic theory suggested that by 1794, and the publication of Uvedale Price’s work on the picturesque and Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Price’s rigorous adherence to Burkean delineations and theorisation was old-fashioned.[iii]It seems historically dubious to suggest that it was Burke’s theory alone which dominated the literary aesthetics of Gothic novelists while the wider world moved on.
The debate continued beyond Burke in the work of Joseph Priestley, Mary Schimmelpenninck, Lord Kames, Hugh Blair, Radcliffe herself and countless others (or so it seemed when researching the never diminishing pile of theories). The debate didn’t stop with Burke’s exclusive focus on the ‘terror’ sublime and his claim that:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.’[iv]
The suggestion that ‘terror’ and the sublime mix didn’t even start with Burke. We can turn back the clock over half a century to find the first references to the ‘delightful horror’ Burke would later claim was ‘the truest experience of the sublime.’[v] The idea springs from the work of John Dennis (1658-1734), who points to six whole sources of the sublime, of which terror is only one: admiration, terror, horror, joy, sadness, and desire.[vi]This is in keeping with a much wider tradition of the multiplicity of the sublime from Joseph Addison’s 1712 discussion of the pleasures of the imagination, which ambiguously mixes the ‘grand,’ the ‘uncommon’ and the ‘beautiful,’ to Mary Schimmelpenninck’s 1814 discourse on the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ or ‘contemplative’ sublimes.[vii]
Edmund Burke
Burke’s theory rides roughshod over these differentiations, leaving the bleeding victims of his singular focus watching him pass on with an interrogative eyebrow as his out of control horse heads towards future sublime theorists whom modern critics are all too happy to push off the road for him. For we have to admit, if Burke is all too happy to ignore other contemporary conceptions of the many ‘sorts’ of sublimity and all their implications, Gothic critics are eager to follow his lead. From David Morris’ article ‘Gothic Sublimity,’ which confounds a Burkean terror sublime with the Freudian uncanny as the Gothic sublimity, to Robert Geary’s exclusive emphasis on the terror sublime and the ‘daemonic dread’ of the numinous (divorced from Otto’s concept of the ‘holy’) – we are quick to turn to Burke because he fits our ideas of what the Gothic does and is particularly in terms of affect.[viii]
Unfortunately, the novels themselves get in the way of our neat critical packages. Radcliffe is the most obvious reference here. She comes in swinging with bold faced references to multiple forms of sublimity. Three examples are, I think, sufficient to illustrate this (my emphasis).
1)      St Aubert speaks of the ‘sublime pleasure’ of‘thought and contemplation’ in ‘the taste they create for the beautiful and the grand.’[ix]
2)      During the St Aubert’s travels, ‘the serenity and clearness of the air in these high regions were particularly delightful to the travellers; it seemed to inspire them with a finer spirit, and diffused an indescribable complacency over their minds. They had no words to express the sublime emotions they felt.’[x]
3)      At St Aubert’s death, Emily ‘heard those affecting and sublime words: “His body is buried in peace, and his soul returns to Him that gave it”’[xi]
The first example shows an almost Godwinian emphasis on the sublime nature of thought and reason[xii]and reflects Mary Schimmelpenninck’s ‘contemplative sublime.’[xiii]The second example emphasises ‘complacency’ and tranquillity, echoing Andrew Kippis’ emphasis on ‘sublime serenity’’[xiv]or Dennis’ and John Baillie’s emphasis on the sublime of ‘joy.’[xv] The third example, although it appears to be connected to Burke’s emphasis on death, focuses not on fear but on the ‘feeling’ of spiritual security and divine comfort reflected in Anna Barbauld’s discussion of aestheticised devotion.[xvi]Not a drop of terror or horror to be had. In Radcliffe’s work, we see far more clearly the hand of Dennis than that of Burke. The key to Dennis’ theory is sublime multiplicity, which is connected to his theory of divine multiplicity, unit and balance – the key to Radcliffe’s theo-aesthetics.
(William Blake’s illustration of Paradise Lost depicting only a wrathful God)
A concentration on the ‘terror sublime’ not only ignores other arguments on the sublime and other forms of sublimity – it is an act of theological perversity. Burke’s theory relies on a focus on God as a God of wrath. According to Burke, ‘in the scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, every thing terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the divine presence.’[xvii]As Natasha Duquette insightfully articulates, Burke’s exclusive division of the sublime and the beautiful and his emphasis on the connection of the sublime and the terrible ‘leads to extreme divisions between the Old Testament and the New Testament, law and grace, justice and love, death and generation.’[xviii]When any theorist, contemporary or modern, excludes the sense of sublime multiplicity, they exclude the sense of divine multiplicity. They divide the Old and New, the Father and the Christ and ultimately confound the atheistic and the theologically skewed. Novels like The Monk or Zofloya, in their almost exclusive focus on the terror and demonic sublime, don’t depict a world where ‘God does not truly exist but the devil does’ and where ‘providence, secularized out of existence, leaves only unappeasable terror.’ [xix]Rather, they represent novels in which terror has taken over – divine terror. They are novels in which the God has become unmoored from Christ and the devil acts as an avatar of a God of pure wrath, judgement and punishment.
If we attempt to read Radcliffe with a conception of the sublime as the Burkean sublime, we are ourselves going to slip into theological perversity and miss the theologised nuance of Radcliffe’s bildungsroman of spiritual growth. When we read Mysteries of Udolpho as a novel of clear cut aesthetic boundaries, with Emily moving from the pastoral/beautiful to the sublime and back again, we miss the fact that Emily’s journey isn’t about an adventure into the sublime; it’s a journey of discovery to re-understand the sublime. The natural world, and particularly the sublime, is shown to be a form of divine self-revelation, leading Emily to contemplate the deity. Thus, her journey is one in which she engages with a multitude of often aesthetically mixed landscapes, and learns to understand the multiplicity of the sublime and the divine.
Montoni and Udolpho represent a ‘deformed’ version of that sublimity, its terrifyingly similar opposite.  Emily (and the reader) must learn to discern the true sublime, reject its deformed twin, quash her own tendency towards a deforming relish for terror itself and, in the process, escape superstition and a wrong conception of the divine. She must learn to rejoice as she trembles, put aside her earlier preference for ‘the mountain’s stupendous recesses’[xx]at La Valleé and be refined by the journey towards a Dennisian balance of reason, passion, and sentiment. She must confront terror and learn to differentiate the ‘false’ (profane) from the ‘true’ (divine) sublime. Emily’s initial position is one of excessive emotional receptivity and a preference for the extreme emotional experiences of a Burkean sublime. This makes her susceptible to superstition, to experiencing ‘more terrors, than her reason could justify,’[xxi]and to being led into a Burkean theological error: a conception of a God of wrath but not of comfort, of justice but not of providence, terrifyingly powerful not powerfully loving, a God of despair.
(The Castle of Udolpho – Terror is in the eye of the beholder!)
Emily must learn to find the divine (and thus experience sublimity) in both ‘the ordinary and the extraordinary of the natural world’ for God is ‘wonderful in all his works.’[xxii]She must find the many faces of God in the ‘beautiful’, the ‘picturesque’ and in the sublimes of terror, admiration, joy, peace. She must encounter in the face of nature not only the ‘Great Creator’[xxiii]but also the ‘benevolent God’ who designed ‘innocent pleasures’ to be ‘the sun-shine of our lives,’[xxiv]a ‘present God’[xxv]and the ‘Being, who has protected and comforted us in every danger.’[xxvi]All of these last examples are spoken of by St. Aubert before his death, his ‘knowledge’ of them is personal and emotional and it will be the work of the novel for Emily to know the same God. Her return to La Valleé does not represent a return to her starting place. The new eyes with which she sees the scene, eyes that view it in its entirety and avoid a concentration on any one aesthetic aspect (especially the terror sublime), confirm the success of a long and exhausting theological journey.
When we move away from the Burkean sublime as the sublime, we become open to the aesthetic possibilities of the sublime and the theological implications of a literary (or even critical) emphasis on the terror sublime. The next time you read some early British Gothic, be it Radcliffe, Lewis, Godwin or Shelley, put down the Burke. Unless we accurately historicise the usage of the sublime, we deform it and, needless to say, we deform its theological implications with a blind-eyed and dismissive secularity. To read Radcliffe, or most of her contemporaries, we must re-theologise a debate inextricable from the theological in its contemporary manifestations. We must commit to the dry practice of theo-aesthetics and, who knows, find its more adventurous and illuminating than we imagined.
Holly Hirst is a PhD student at MMU researching the theology of the Early British Gothic. She has a healthy love-hate relationship with gothic theo-aesthetics but if she had one wish, it’d be to go back in time and convince Radcliffe not to include quite so many trees. She is a passionate advocate of the need to historically theologise our readings of the Gothic and you should probably not get her started on any such topic. Catch her at a variety of Gothic conferences or twitter stalk her @Holly_Hirst_MMU

[i]See the Exeter University website for further details on the study
[ii]See Rudolf Otto’s theory of the numinous in The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, translated by John W. Harvey, 6thImpression, (London: Oxford University Press, 1936)
[iii] Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, ‘On the Origin of Taste’ in Sir Uvedale Price on the Picturesque with an Essay on the Origin of Taste and Much Original Matter, edited by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, Bart. (Edinburgh: Caldwell, Lloyd, and Co., 1842), pp. 1-59
[iv]Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful edited with notes by Paul Guyer, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p33
[v]Burke, Enquiry, p60
[vi] John Dennis, ‘The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry’ in The Select Works of Mr. John Dennis, in two volumes: consisting of plays, poems, &c, (London: John Darby, 1721), p423
[vii]Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Theory of the Classification of Beauty and Deformity, (London: John and Arthur Arch, 1814)
[viii]David Morris, ‘Gothic Sublimity,’ New Literary History, 16.2 (1985), pp. 299-319 and Geary, Robert, The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction: Horror, Belief, and Literary Change, (Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992)
[ix]Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, (London, G. G. and J. Robinson, 1795), vol.1, pp17-18
[x] Ibid., p118
[xi] Ibid., p234
[xii] See William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, , (Philadelphia: Bioren and Madan, 1796) and also Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), A Vindication of the Rights of Men, (London: J. Johnson, 1790)
[xiii]Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Theory of the Classification of Beauty and Deformity, (London: John and Arthur Arch, 1814)
[xiv]Andrew Kippis, Sermons on Practical Subjects, (London: G. G. J. Robinson, 1791), p248
[xv] Dennis, Grounds of Criticism, p423. John Baillie, An Essay on the Sublime, (London: R. Dodesly, 1747), p32
[xvi]See Anna Laetitia Barbauld, ‘Thoughts on the Devotional Taste, and on Sects and Establishments’ in The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. With a Memoir by Lucy Aiken, Volume 1, (London: Longman and Co, 1825), pp232-259
[xvii] Burke, Enquiry, p57
[xviii] Natasha Duquette Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Hermeneutics, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016),, p20
[xix] Ibid., p63
[xx] Radcliffe, Mysteries, vol. 1, p5
[xxi] Ibid., p173
[xxii] Tamsworth Reresby, A Miscellany of Ingenious Thoughts and Reflections, in Verse and Prose, (London: H. Meere, 1721), p27
[xxiii] Radcliffe, Mysteries, vol. 1, p96
[xxiv] Ibid., p54
[xxv] Ibid., p74
[xxvi] Ibid., p202