Gothic monster fiction and the 'novel-reading disease', 1860-1900

Foulds, Alexandra Laura (2018) Gothic monster fiction and the 'novel-reading disease', 1860-1900. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis scrutinises the complex ‘afterlife’ of sensation fiction in the wake of the 1860s and ‘70s, after the end of the period that critics have tended to view as the heyday of literary sensationalism. It identifies and explores the consistent framing of sensation fiction as a pathological ‘style of writing’ by middle-class critics in the periodical press, revealing how such responses were moulded by new and emerging medical research into the nervous system, the cellular structure of the body, and the role played by germs in the transmission of diseases. Envisioned as a disease characterised by its new immersive and affective reading process, sensation fiction was believed to be infecting its readers. It infiltrated their nervous systems, instigating a process of metamorphosis that gradually depleted their physical and mental integrity and reduced them to a weakened, ‘flabby’, ‘limp’ state. The physical boundaries of the body, however, were not the only limits that sensation fiction seemed to wilfully disregard. ‘[S]preading in all directions’, it contaminated other modes, other media, and other kinds of recreational entertainment, making them equally sensational and pathological. One of these modes was Gothic monster fiction at the end of the nineteenth century, which was repeatedly labelled ‘sensational’ and described as generating the same cardiovascular responses as works by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Mrs Henry Wood. This infection of fin de siècle Gothic fiction by literary sensationalism can be gauged in the plots and monsters that those texts portray. Gothic monster narratives at the end of the nineteenth century are shaped by the concerns at the heart of middle-class commentators’ responses to sensation fiction, and by the medical lexicon employed to vocalise these anxieties. Monstrosity is linked to contagion and stimulation, as the monster seems to pollute all those with whom it comes into contact. It triggers a process of degeneration and debilitation akin to that associated with the reading of sensation fiction, producing a host of ‘shocked’, nervous, or hysterical characters. Encounters with the monster are linked to recreational reading or other kinds of behaviour that such reading became associated with, such as thrill-seeking, substance abuse, and illicit sexual desire. The result is a group of texts in which the monster embodies the same threat to boundaries, as well as individual, and, at times, national health that middle-class reviewers associated with literary sensationalism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Gothic fiction, sensation fiction, monsters, nineteenth-century literature, fin de siècle, reading, medical humanities.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Maley, Professor Willy and Maslen, Dr. Rob
Date of Award: 2018
Embargo Date: 5 July 2021
Depositing User: Dr Alexandra Foulds
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30684
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 08 Aug 2018 14:24
Last Modified: 11 Aug 2022 10:12
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.30684

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