Haunted Tomes, Haunted Canvases: Supernatural Realism in Nineteenth-Century Novels and Paintings
by Cameron Dodworth
[page 73] Traditionally, the relationship between Realism and the supernatural has been a complicated one. However, through an exploration of selected Realist works of visual art as well as Realist novels, it becomes apparent that Realism, in its insistent focus on the real, cannot escape the unreal and the supernatural, despite that insistence. The Realist novel and visual art–as represented in this article by the works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Collins, John Everett Millais, John Atkinson Grimshaw, Anna Blunden, and Frank Holl–continually express a dark, supernatural mode of Gothicism, combined with a social agenda, through a negative aesthetic of ugliness that is reminiscent of the Gothic monster. Furthermore, it is Mary Shelley’s Gothic monster novel Frankenstein (1818) that sets the stage for the Realist novels of the mid-nineteenth century that typically used the Gothic–and, by extension, the supernatural–as a mode of expression or as an enhancement of their more realistic elements and social agenda. As a Gothic novel that focuses on the real, Frankenstein is a key text that signals a marked reduction in the 1820s and 1830s of the publication of Gothic novels in the vein of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis, who used typical Gothic devices such as haunted houses, hidden passages, ancestral curses, and dark familial secrets. It is Frankenstein–through its simultaneous exploration of scientific realism, spiritualism, and a Gothic aesthetic of ugliness–that establishes a link between realism and the Gothic supernatural that becomes a common trait in works of Realism in art and literature later in the nineteenth century. Therefore, Realism is inevitably haunted by supernaturalism, and not just in the fashion of cheap thrills and scare tactics reminiscent of the Gothic novels that enjoyed immense popularity during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Realism’s natural focus on the real certainly seems, at first, incompatible with the questionable reality of the supernatural and its concern with the spiritual, the fantastic, the unreal, the unnatural, the uncanny, and other challenges to the human perception of reality. Such a complicated relationship is clearly evident in Frankenstein, a novel that can be identified as a work of Gothicism, Romanticism, science fiction, and also–as George Levine has often argued–of nascent Realism (“Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism,” “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein,” “The Pattern: Frankenstein and Austen to Conrad”). Frankenstein reveals science as a potential symbol of a Gothic and supernatural sense of fear, in much in the same way as earlier Gothic novelists used the supernatural. Frankenstein, in its efforts at scientific realism, still maintains a sense of the [page 74] supernatural–or at least the spiritual–in its expression of the Gothic, despite the inherent element of secularization that exists within science and realism. As Frederick S. Frank argues, the “non-traditional Gothic of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus […] pointed ominously ahead to the terrors of the scientific future rather than back to the horrors of an imaginary middle ages” (xxviii). Consistent with the role of science in Frankenstein, Levine observes that the “old myths enter nineteenth-century fiction, but they do so in the mode of realism” (“Ambiguous Heritage” 7). Kim Hammond also argues that, as “the first novel in the genre of science fiction stories, Frankenstein marked a departure from traditional ghost stories or tales of the supernatural to stories about the potential horrors of science and technological development” (184). Likewise, David Ketterer argues that “Frankenstein is unlike the gothic romance in that the supernatural is apparently excluded as a causal factor. The pseudo-scientific explanation for the monster’s existence goes beyond the ‘explained gothic’” (9).
Consistent with these readings, Frankenstein is often interpreted as a novel that shuns religious doctrine in favor of scientific materialism–an interpretation suggested by David S. Hogsette, and also consistent with interpretations by George Levine, Paul Cantor, Alan Rauch, and many others. This is certainly the case early on in the story. Likely in an acknowledgement of her father and well-known atheist William Godwin, Mary Shelley makes it clear that young Victor Frankenstein was raised as an atheist–or at least as an agnostic–by his own father:
In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. (52)
This form of education would prepare Victor well for a profession in the sciences, especially in medicine, and it would also help him to develop a view of the creation of human life as having nothing to do with something so apparently unscientific as the soul. Despite this theme of atheism/agnosticism that is established early in the novel–and early in Victor’s life as a character–biblical references, and particularly the language of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) indeed do play a strong role in Frankenstein, as Milton’s text was one of the first that the monster is able to decipher, read, and understand. Also, though it would be a stretch to claim that Victor experiences a religious epiphany in the novel, he at least gains a sense of spirituality that is contradictory to his decidedly anti-supernatural belief system in the early sections of the novel. The [page 75] beginnings of this transition to a sense of spirituality can be seen when Victor is traversing the Alps near his home, as he joyfully exclaims “‘Wandering spirits, if indeed ye wander, and do not rest in your narrow beds, allow me this faint happiness, or take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life’” (101). This growing sense of spirituality becomes even more apparent toward the end of the novel when Victor visits the graveyard containing the remains of William, Elizabeth, and his father. While witnessing a fellow visitor in the graveyard, Victor claims that the “spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but not seen, around the head of the mourner” (206). The scene even prompts Victor to make an emotional appeal to these unseen spirits: “‘I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on you, wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work. Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me’” (206). Furthermore, while in pursuit of the monster at the end of the novel, Victor claims that “‘I was cursed by some devil, and carried about with me my eternal hell; yet still a spirit of good followed and directed my steps and, when I most murmured, would suddenly extricate me from seemingly insurmountable difficulties’” (207). Also during the pursuit, Victor claims that sometimes, “‘when nature, overcome by hunger, sunk under the exhaustion, a repast was prepared for me in the desert, that restored and inspirited me. The fare was, indeed, course, such as the peasants of the country ate; but I will not doubt that it was set there by the spirits that I had invoked to aid me’” (207). But of course, if those provisions were set there by anyone, it most likely would have been the monster, seeking to string Victor along even further in his hopeless pursuit of the monster’s destruction. Even at the moment of his death, Victor expresses his sense of spirituality to Robert Walton, as “‘[t]he forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms’” (220).
Such a spiritual reading of Frankenstein is contrary to the manner in which the novel has typically been cast as concerned with the more earthly and ethical pitfalls of scientific materialism. David S. Hogsette observes:
Frankenstein is a philosophical nightmare revealing the horrific consequences of methodological naturalism taken to its logical conclusion. Frankenstein explores the ideological vacuum engendered by scientific materialism and examines the spiritual bankruptcy of replacing theism with secular humanism. Victor Frankenstein’s transgressive autonomy, grounded in scientific materialism, results in a reductionism that ultimately leads to existential despair, individual crisis, and communal disintegration. (533)
But one must also add that such despair, crisis, and disintegration apparently lead Victor towards a more spiritual belief system rather than [page 76] nihilism, as evidenced by the above passage. The fact that Victor finally arrives at such a belief system at the end of the novel is consistent with Hogsette’s claim that Shelley “was a theistic vitalist (one who believed in the existence of a created animating spirit or immaterial soul that is different in nature from the material body yet related to it), as evidenced by a cumulative consideration of various journal entries” (537). Hogsette also argues that Shelley “believed in the existence of immaterial reality and spiritual entities” (538).
While the phenomenon of the monster was typically a supernatural being in the early Gothic novel–although exceptions exist with the “explained supernatural” used by Radcliffe–Shelley provides a more humanistic view of the monster through the lens of realism, as rather than depicting her monster as something supernatural or magical, Shelley’s monster is discussed in real, human terms. In a very human manner of representation, Frankenstein depicts a monster that is forced to navigate the social implications of his ugliness. From the moment that the monster first views his own reflection, he becomes fully aware not only of his ugliness but also of its effect of evoking fear and repulsion from the rest of society, as the monster himself “started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification” (Shelley 116-117). While the monster is indeed a Gothic symbol to be feared in the novel, he is also a character with human depth that must deal with his own fears of loneliness, social ostracization and isolation, abandonment, and the constant threat of physical harm to his well-being that he soon discovers in the angry and likewise frightened reactions of the people whom he encounters.
Frankenstein is a Gothic novel, but it is also a novel of ideas, steeped in realism, and while it is certainly not a Realist novel in itself, it indeed signals an evolution in the Gothic novel that would continue a few years later in the Victorian Realist novel. Speaking to this evolution, Levine claims that Frankenstein is “representative of certain attitudes and techniques that become central to the realist tradition itself” (“Tradition of Realism” 14), and it therefore “provides both a pattern and a metaphor for the very different realist literature that followed” (“The Pattern” 13). Nineteenth-century Realism keeps the Gothic tradition alive, but in an exertion of its own power, expresses Gothicism merely as a mode, kept in a secondary role as Realism’s own Gothic double. The Gothic in Realism illustrates that, in the interest of finding new and more interesting places to cause fear, it becomes clear that the Gothic can exist anywhere, and is therefore all the more frightening in its unpredictability. One of the primary Gothic elements established in Frankenstein that extends to the Realist novel expressing Gothicism as a mode is the humanist take on the [page 77] Gothic double that Shelley’s novel explores. Victor is questioned in terms of his monstrosity, while the monster is questioned in terms of his humanity. Likewise, Victor, as the creator, enjoys an implied level of control and power in that doubled relationship, while the monster soon wrests much of that power away from him. However, the monster cannot bring himself to actively destroy his creator, and Victor was always the monster’s only potential link to humanity, despite their dysfunctional relationship.
Such a construct of a mutual Gothicization, a dysfunctionality, a struggle for power, and yet an inherently symbiotic relationship is reiterated time after time in the Realist novels that express Gothicism as a mode, particularly through the Gothic doubling of the relationship between the upper classes and the poor and working class. Within the environment of the Gothic darkness of industry, the Gothic Other becomes the social Other, as Realism connects social and class issues directly to the Gothic. Such a view of class relations is also consistent with Ketterer’s discussion of the doppelgänger relationship between Victor and the monster, as the “monster is both a psychological double and an independent character leading a realistic existence” (56). For Ketterer, the “dilemma exists in the context of the relationship between egotistic perversion and communal affection. From one point of view, the monster is different from Frankenstein, from another, he is the same person. From one point of view, egotistic perversion is very different from communal affection, from another, it amounts to the same thing” (56-57). Consistent with Ketterer’s reading of Victor and the monster, class relations in the middle of the nineteenth century, in particular, are dependent upon point of view, as the Gothic othering between the classes is rooted in a subjective, egotistical perversion of the perceived opposing class, but is also simultaneously complicated by an objective, human, communal affection (or at least connection), oftentimes facilitated by a sense of social conscience. As the monster in Frankenstein is simultaneously human and inhuman, the poor and the working class are often viewed in a similar manner in the Realist novel and Realist works of visual art. They are often feared in a monstrous, supernatural, Gothic sense in these works, but are also oftentimes depicted as human, which, as a result of the social agenda in Realism, forces one to come to terms with one’s own reflected monstrosity as a result of the plight of the poor and working class.
The use of ugliness in Gothic Realism creates an emotional appeal on the basis of that social agenda, and it also confronts society’s inherent fear of that which is ugly. The ugliness of Gothic Realism calls upon the upper classes to confront their fears related to a perceived ugliness in the poor and working class. Therefore, the Gothic is used not just as an entertainment device, but as a way to essentially scare society into a social epiphany, as they are confronted with a reflection of their social [page 78] monstrosity in the novels and paintings of Gothic Realism, and it is a social monster or haunting specter of their own creation. But of course, that reflection is one that is warped, like a Hall of Mirrors, enhanced and manipulated to accentuate a reflected image of monstrosity. This enhancement, or manipulation, is therefore a trait common to Gothicism as well as to Realism. While Glen Cavaliero argues that the supernatural in Gothicism can be used to enhance “the ordinary exchanges and individual experience of human life” (242), and might also, as Levine argues, “focus on recognizable people in recognizable situations and then intrude something monstrous upon them” (Darwin and the Novelists 135), Realism typically enhances or manipulates its depiction of reality with a social and/or ethical agenda in mind.
For example, an enhancement of the visual on the basis of a socio-ethical agenda is at stake in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), in its study and exposition of the oftentimes dark and Gothic nature of the lives of the London poor and working class. Mayhew observes of street art, specifically composed for purchase on the street and often depicting rather sensationalized subject matter (figs. 1 and 2), that “it is not often that illustrations are prepared expressly for anything but what I have described as ‘Gallows literature’” (301). Mayhew also observes that the “artist who works especially for the street trade–as in the case of the man who paints the patterers’ boards–must address his art plainly to the eye of the spectator. He must use the most striking colors, be profuse in the application of scarlet, light blue, orange–not yellow I was told, it ain’t a good candlelight colour–and must leave nothing to the imagination. Perspective and back-grounds are things of but minor consideration. Everything must be sacrificed for effect” (301). As the street artist must cater to the aesthetic taste of potential customers, as well as to a sufficient level of functionality in relation to how the purchased pieces might be viewed, such street art geared more towards the language and program for perception of the poor and working-class. This perception was as manipulated by the sensational as many Realist novels and works of art were manipulated by the sentimental and even the supernatural. [page 79]
Figure 1: Unknown, 1851, from “Illustrations of Street Art” No. I. Tufts Digital Library.
Figure 2: Unknown, 1851, from “Illustrations of Street Art” No. II. Tufts Digital Library.
[page 80] Realism uses Gothicism’s supernatural as a mode to enhance or promote an awareness of social issues based on a class-divided social structure. As Frank argues, “all of the inward and outward trappings of the standard Gothic novel of the 1790’s are present as if to assert that there really is no difference between the irrational violence of Gothic fantasy and the gruesome social realities of the age or ‘Things As They Are’” (xxv). According to Levine, Charles Dickens intends to focus on the “true” or “Things As They Are” in much of his work, and he does so in an active and acknowledged pursuit of Realism; as Levine points out, “[f]or however much Dickens is to be regarded as a great entertainer or as a metaphysical novelist, he claimed that he was a realist. Perhaps the earliest claim is in the preface to Oliver Twist, in which he attacks those who cannot stand the unhappy truths he has revealed” (Darwin and the Novelists 133). As Dickens writes in his preface, “there are people of so refined and delicate a nature, that they cannot bear the contemplations of such horrors” (Oliver Twist 5). Dickens uses the term “horrors” facetiously, but when it is paired with Levine’s terminology of “attack,” a consistency with the Gothic is indeed revealed in Dickens’s claim of his character depiction in Oliver Twist that “IT IS TRUE” (6). Furthermore, as Levine makes clear while quoting from the preface, Dickens “bases this claim on his own experience of watching ‘these melancholy shades of life’” (133).
Dickens’s focus on these “shades” is not just symptomatic of his pursuit of Realism, but also of his pursuit of a social agenda that might actively confront those “that cannot bear the contemplations of such horrors” (Oliver Twist 5). Dickens’s social agenda can therefore be read as a social enhancement, and even manipulation, of the real that he chooses to focus on, essentially creating a moral-optical illusion of, and allusion to, the “true.” As Dickens claims in his preface, he is attempting to depict in Oliver Twist “the best and worst shades of our common nature; much of its ugliest hues, and something of its most beautiful; it is a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility, but it is a truth” (7). Dale Townshend’s argument that “the truth in Gothic ‘will always out’” (36) is particularly appropriate here, because it is mostly through the dark Gothic “shades” and the “ugliest hues” of human nature that Dickens seeks to express his “truth.” Furthermore, Dickens’s use of the term “shades” of course connotes supernatural apparitions, phantoms, or spirits. Dickens also claims that, in Oliver Twist, “there is not one word exaggerated or over-wrought” (7). However much they might not be exaggerated, in Dickens’s perception and presentation of them in his novels, they are indeed words that denote poverty, crime, and many of the dark and Gothic aspects of human nature and social culture. By focusing on social problems such as these, it is that focus that is a manipulation, if not an exaggeration, of reflected “truth.” Also using Dickens as a representative example of Realism, Mary-Catherine Harrison observes: [page 81]
[Dickens’s] vivid portraits of fictional suffering were coupled with epistemological claims of their accurate and faithful relationship to modern society. Together with modern psychological research on reading, these “metaphors of realism” offer a solution to the non-interventionism inherent to the paradox of fiction: readers might not be able to intervene in characters’ lives, but they can intervene on behalf of someone “like” them. (262)
Harrison essentially claims of Dickens that “if middle- and upper-class readers could vividly imagine the suffering they did not themselves experience, he believed, then they would be moved enough to intervene” (263). While in William Collins’s Rustic Civility (fig. 3), the gentleman on horseback passes by the poor, “rustic” children as nothing more than a dark, and even Gothic shadow or supernatural shade haunting the foreground, Realism quite often calls on the upper classes to be less shadowy and passive, and to rather be moved to intervention.
Figure 3: William Collins, Rustic Civility, 1833, oil on panel, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
[page 82] Like Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell expresses a similar social agenda through the Gothic supernatural in North and South (1855) and Mary Barton (1848). In North and South it is the massive Gothic mob on strike that turns riotous and even bloodthirsty in its desperation. Even the sound of the mob is enhanced with the supernatural, as “the wind seemed to bear the distant multitudinous sound nearer; and yet there was no wind! It died away into profound stillness between whiles” (North and South 172). It is also the very sound of the voice of the factory owner, Mr. Thornton, which was “like the taste of blood to the infuriated multitude” (173). The working-class mob is a thing to be feared due to its power in numbers, and “[a]s soon as they saw Mr Thornton, they set up a yell,–to call it not human is nothing,–it was as the demoniac desire of some terrible wild beast” (175). In Mary Barton, Gaskell enhances the working conditions of the factory works with the Gothic, creating a workplace of demons and hellfire reminiscent of the representations of Coalbrookdale around the turn of the century by Joseph Mallord William Turner (fig. 4) and Philip James de Loutherbourg (fig. 5):
Dark, black were the walls, the ground, the faces around them, as they crossed the yard. But, in the furnace-house, a deep and lurid red glared over all; the furnace roared with mighty flame. The men, like demons, in their fire-and-soot colouring, stood swart around, awaiting the moment when the tons of solid iron should have melted down into fiery liquid, fit to be poured, with still, heavy sound, into the delicate moulding of fine black sand, prepared to receive it. The heat was intense, and the red glare every instant more fierce. (Mary Barton 222)
It makes sense that such a hellish environment is capable of producing dark, glaring, livid, potentially murderous working-class characters as Gaskell describes them in the passage above, as if they were a collection of some of Satan’s low-level demons, sent from hell with a mission of evil. As Sheila M. Smith argues, “[f]rom the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the eighteenth century, artists and writers had used the image of Hell to express its impact on the landscape and on society, especially that of the key industries in the new technology, coal, iron, and steel” (15). Even more specifically, Gaskell renders the working-class murderer of Harry Carson, John Barton, with supernatural enhancement in order to emphasize the evil of his crime and to intensify his poor living conditions which are riddled with hunger and opium addiction. Of John Barton, Gaskell writes: “[n]o haunting ghost could have had less of the energy of life in its involuntary motions than he” (Mary Barton 346). He is also described as a ghostly Gothic double of himself: “that phantom likeness of John Barton–himself, yet not himself” (347), with “his spectral look” (356). [page 83]
Figure 4: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Limekiln of Coalbrookdale, c. 1797, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT.
Figure 5: Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801, oil on canvas, Science Museum, London.
[page 84] Focusing more on the visual art of Realism, Julian Treuherz argues that “seeing social problems represented in art evoked in the wealthy classes similar reactions to those associated with charitable giving; a mixture of horror, guilt and sometimes ostentatious self-satisfaction at being able to help and being seen to help” (12). Treuherz’s use of the term “horror” reveals that this call to action is indeed a result of a Gothic subtext to the sentimentalism of Realism. For example, John Everett Millais’s The Woodman’s Daughter (fig. 6) at first appears to be a typically luminous and colorful Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painting. However, despite the predominance of bright colors, blue sky, and a forest well-lit by the sun, the painting contains a Gothic subtext, perhaps reminiscent of the Gothic haunting of the gentleman’s shadow in the otherwise bright and colorful rurality of Collins’s Rustic Civility. Millais depicts the budding romance of Coventry Patmore’s “The Woodman’s Daughter” (1844)–a poem in which, when the children grow older, the woodman’s daughter ultimately drowns her illegitimate child fathered by the wealthy boy in the foreground. The final stanza of the poem reads: “The night blackens the pool, but Maud / Is constant at her post, / Sunk in a dread, unnatural sleep. / Beneath the skiey host / Of drifting mists, throu’ which the moon / Is riding like a ghost” (lines 107-112).
Figure 6: John Everett Millais, The Woodman’s Daughter, 1850-1851, oil on canvas, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
[page 85] As if that poetic context was not Gothic enough, the painting itself reveals a social agenda based on Gothic fear and an allusion to the Gothic double. Even on the surface, a sense of duality is at stake, as the painting provides a contrast between two figures of obvious social disparity. The woodman’s daughter is no less than a Gothic double of the aristocratic boy, as she seems to appear as a monochromatic, almost supernatural specter in contrast to the lush greenery of the woods and the bright red of the aristocratic boy’s tunic. The contrast indeed renders her otherworldly, as if she does not belong, since her dingy and monochromatic representation not only appeals to the viewer on a sentimental level–as she is obviously poor in contrast to the aristocratic boy–but it also reveals that she and her father are very likely working the land owned by the boy’s father. She is therefore completely under the boy’s power in this situation. Her act of supplication in receiving the boy’s offering might appear innocent enough, but she knows full well the dark look of power and condescension that appears on the boy’s face. Likewise, the boy knows that her father is wielding an axe, so his position of power is by no means limitless. But his world is bright, cheery, and colorful, while hers is dark, dull, and monochromatic. Furthermore, the fact that Millais quite obviously repainted the girl’s head, hands, and feet, gives her a no less than ghostly aura, as if she were a specter of the supernatural, haunting the painting and the viewer with her Gothic imagery of economic and social desolation.
As an artist strongly influenced by Pre-Raphaelites like Millais, John Atkinson Grimshaw provides a less colorful but still consistent point of comparison with Millais. While Grimshaw concentrates far more on landscape and cityscape representations in his oeuvre, his depiction of human figures in those representations varies greatly in terms of social class. Furthermore, his use of intricate, almost photographic detail in his landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes contrasts starkly with his depictions of human figures in those same works, which rarely amount to more than shadowy figures or silhouettes in the vast majority of his night settings. In daytime settings, his human figures still receive little detail and are almost always facing away from the viewer. Liverpool from Wapping (fig. 7) typifies the shadowy, class-variant human figures of Grimshaw, in contrast with the intricate detail of their surroundings. But when a more specific focus on the poor and working class in human figure representation occurs in his paintings, the effect indeed does tend toward the Gothic, as seen in Under the Moonbeams, Knostrop Hall (fig. 8), which is again typical of several works by Atkinson depicting a solitary figure–often of apparent working class status and dressed in a similar style as a female house servant carrying a basket. Overshadowed by the grand house, and rendered shadowy by the night and the moonlight, the working-class figure–like the [page 86]
Figure 7: John Atkinson Grimshaw, Liverpool from Wapping, 1875, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Figure 8: John Atkinson Grimshaw, Under the Moonbeams, Knostrop Hall, 1882, oil on board, Private Collection.
[page 87] woodman’s daughter–exists as an isolated, haunting, almost supernatural presence in the painting, while surrounded by Atkinson’s detailed, realistic focus on the figure’s surroundings. Under similar moonlight, Atkinson depicts multiple, shadowy, presumably working-class figures in In Peril (fig. 9), combining the night, the moonlight, and the light from the harbor flare with the drama of the waves, the wind, and the sentimental danger of a ship in peril. All of this renders the figures in the painting a fiery collection of supernatural realism, reminiscent of Turner and de de Loutherbourg’s depictions of Coalbrookdale and Gaskell’s working-class demons in Mary Barton.
Figure 9: John Atkinson Grimshaw, In Peril, 1879, oil on canvas, Private Collection.
Similar imagery of Realism’s sentimental appeal with a Gothic, supernatural subtext can be seen in the archetype of the seamstress, a recognizable and oft-repeated image. As Deborah Cherry remarks:
[T]he discursive category of the seamstress was formed and incessantly repeated. In novels, short stories, poems, parliamentary commissions, investigative journalism, newspaper articles, magistrates’ and police reports as much as cartoons, magazine illustrations and oil paintings, the seamstress was persistently imaged as young, pale, haggard and gaunt. (153-154)
Such imagery, as Cherry observes, was a result of the seamstress typically working “long hours with few breaks for rest or meals in a crowded workroom or miserable attic. She was physically ill and mentally exhausted” (154) and “most reports on the seamstress’s pale and haggard [page 88] features connoted bodily disorder” (154). As evident in Anna Blunden’s For Only One Short Hour (fig. 10)–a title taken from a line in Thomas Hood’s poem “Song of the Shirt” (1843)–the seamstress appears to be not much more than a reanimated corpse, living such a socially and economically tortured existence that her very appearance alludes to a supernatural characterization of the undead. Likewise, the seamstresses in Frank Holl’s The Song of the Shirt (fig. 11) are similarly pale and gaunt (and one of them is even apparently unconscious), with the redness of irritation painted into their weary and needle-pricked fingers. Blunden’s and Holl’s seamstresses can be viewed–in image and in the paintings’ titles–as symbols of the Realist social agenda; an agenda that is Gothic in its expression of the darker social, economic, and health-related implications of the seamstress image.
Figure 10: Anna Blunden, ‘For Only One Short Hour’, 1854, oil on canvas, Society of British Artists, London. [page 89]
Figure 11: Frank Holl, The Song of the Shirt, 1875, oil on canvas, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, UK.
This theme of sentimentalism in Realism paired with a supernatural subtext on the basis of the Gothic double and its reflective implications, as well as the imagery of monstrosity, is again evident in the Realist novel as represented by Dickens. Dickens’s use of spirits in A Christmas Carol (1843) to scare Scrooge back into his former self is consistent with Gothicism in terms of its use of the supernatural, and is also consistent with the use of a dark and Gothic sense of fear to promote a social agenda. A Christmas Carol is typical of other mid-nineteenth century works of Realism that use Gothicism as a mode of expression rather than presenting themselves as thorough expressions of the Gothic. However, Scrooge, in the early sections of the story, is as Gothicized as any spirit in A Christmas Carol. He answers to the name of both Scrooge and Marley, essentially existing as his own doppelgänger or Gothic double, as “it was all the same to him” (2). Dickens takes great care to Gothicize Scrooge in the opening of A Christmas Carol, cloaking him in the pall of death in relation to his former partner, Marley, and also making it clear that “he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” (2). Scrooge is as cold as death, carrying the physiognomy of a corpse, not dissimilar to the monster from Frankenstein that Victor describes as having “watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips” (Shelley [page 90] 58). Scrooge’s “cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice” (2)–the last quality in partial contrast to the monster whose “voice, although harsh, had nothing terrible in it” (Shelley 134). Scrooge also appears to have an innate, unnatural presence, bordering on a supernatural uncanny as evidenced by his disturbing and overpowering effect on animals and nature: “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him” (2). Scrooge also is reminiscent of the title character from William Beckford’s Gothic novel, Vathek (1786): when Vathek “was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired” (151), whereas, with Scrooge, “Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘no eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!’” (2). In a Gothic sense, Scrooge is feared by all who know him–save, perhaps, by Mrs. Cratchit–and is especially feared by all who know him the most–save, perhaps, by his nephew, Fred.
Although A Christmas Carol is far more a Realist and sentimentalist text than a Gothic text, it is indeed a Gothic sense of fear that motivates Scrooge’s change of heart in the story, particularly in terms of his having to witness the morbid, Gothic self-doubling of his own grave as his ultimate motivation. While a supernatural fear motivates Scrooge to change his ways, it is likewise a confrontation with one’s own social reflection in Realist works of literature and visual art that displays an enhancement of Gothic elements in those works in order to reinforce a social agenda and even a call to social action in Realism. Rather than pass by as a dark and fearful Gothic shade, as in Rustic Civility, the upper-class audience of Realism is meant not only to fear the fate of the poor and working class, but to also fear their own refusal to do something about it rather than remain in the shadows. Essentially, Realism acts as a reflection of the consequences of social inaction, even though that reflection is admittedly manipulated, enhanced, and even warped to a social purpose.
While A Christmas Carol, as a Christmas ghost story, blatantly embraces the supernatural along with its Realism, such an all-out immersion in the supernatural is indeed not typical of the Realist novel. More often, the Realist novel is consistent with the Realist works of visual art discussed in this article in relation to the use of the Gothic and the supernatural as an enhancement of a Realist social agenda. Hunger, addiction, crime, poor working conditions, labor disputes, miserliness and [page 91] social isolation, and also scientific materialism: these are thoroughly earthly, human concerns, but the nineteenth-century Realists often used the unearthly and the supernatural in order to enhance or even exaggerate the realism of their Realism on the basis of a social agenda. These more earthly, human factors are indeed the main focus of Realism, but they are not necessarily contradictory to Realism’s participation in the supernatural as an enhancing mode of Gothic expression with a social agenda in mind. While Frankenstein is typically read as a novel primarily concerned with scientific materialism and the ethical issues that must be confronted with the advancement of science and technology, the supernatural and the Gothic still play an important role in that expression, enhancing the novel’s scientific and socio-ethical message with a haunting, spiritual presence. Therefore, the phenomenon of a Gothic, supernatural fear in nineteenth-century art and literature is used not merely for its entertainment value. As such Gothic supernaturalism is essential to Realism in its expression of a social agenda. While nineteenth-century works of Realism in novels and paintings are inherently concerned with the real, they cannot escape the haunting presence of a supernatural realism.
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MLA citation (print):
Dodworth, Cameron. "Haunted Tomes, Haunted Canvases: Supernatural Realism in Nineteenth-Century Novels and Paintings." Supernatural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 73-92.