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God and the Gothic, by Alison Milbank

04 January 2019

Michael Wheeler sees a gap filled in criticism of Gothic literature

FIFTY years ago, the Gothic revival of the mid-18th century was regarded as a playful reaction to the Age of Reason, and Victorian Gothic novels were revisited in the light of the Hammer movies that had delighted audiences in the 1950s. In recent years, “the Gothic” has been taken much more seriously by the Eng. Lit. industry, becoming the focus of numerous publications and university courses. But the supernatural content of Gothic fiction — something of an embarrassment in our secular age — has generally been either ignored or written off as a convention, a mechanism for selling thrillers and titillating religious readers. Until now, that is.

Alison Milbank, Associate Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham, and Canon Theologian of Southwell Minster, is well known for her books on English fiction and on Dante, and as a commentator on modern Anglicanism. God and the Gothic, a remarkably ambitious and wide-ranging study, redraws the literary map by “theologizing the Gothic” and thus challenging the materialist hegemony of the academy. As in the engraving reproduced on the jacket, the reader of Gothic fiction “stares in towards a genre full of such convent scenes”, just as “the eighteenth-century Protestant was religiously and culturally separated from the Catholic world of the cloister”.

Milbank seeks to “enter imaginatively into the thought world of the writers of the Gothic genre, which frames this lost world”, and she argues that “it points, like the Gothic arch, upward, towards transcendence.” More radically, she demonstrates that “it is the loss of mediating religious practices and structures in the Protestant Reformation that the imaginative procedures of Gothic fiction seek to assuage.”

Part I, “Whig Gothic in the Long Reformation”, begins with analysis of Protestant Gothic and Gothic nostalgia in the Reformation (Spencer, Shakespeare, and Milton all figure here) before launching into new readings of writers ranging from Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley.

Part II, “Duality and Mediation in Scottish Gothic”, takes us from Christopher Marlowe to John Buchan before focusing on Scott and Hogg. Part III, “The Ambivalence of Blood in Irish Gothic”, considers writers who, apart from Bram Stoker, are less well known in Britain: Charles Maturin and J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

The chapter on Dracula is a tour de force. Only Alison Milbank could have written: “There is hardly a page without some invocation to the Divine, some prayer, or some use of religious objects, however bizarrely employed. And yet there is very little theological analysis of the novel among the hundreds of critical articles of which it is the subject. . . In what follows here we shall see . . . how biblical typology, Catholic piety and practice, and Protestant testimony unite to embody the possibility of a renewed and inclusive Church, ready to face the challenge of modern scepticism.”

The reach of God and Gothic is exemplified in Part IV, “Later Gothic: Re-Enchanting the Material”, where Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontës, Arthur Machen, Evelyn Underhill, Charles Williams, J. Meade Falkner, and M. R. James are all considered. Post-Milbank, “the Gothic” has not only become more difficult but also much more enjoyable.

In her epilogue, the author also has an implicit message for today’s Church, when she discusses some of the most recent practitioners: “Where these various novels concur is in their critique of organized religion, which is chided not for its adherence to doctrine so much as for stuffy respectability and a failure to believe in its own truth.”

Dr Wheeler is Chairman of Gladstone’s Library and a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.

God and the Gothic: Religion, romance, and reality in the English literary tradition
Alison Milbank
OUP £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

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