The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution

The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution

by Matthew Gibson


View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Thursday, October 25?   Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Shipping at checkout.


The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution by Matthew Gibson

This fascinating study examines the rise of fantastic and frénétique literature in Europe during the nineteenth century, introducing readers to lesser-known writers like Paul Féval and Charles Nodier, whose vampires, ghouls, and doppelgängers were every bit as convincing as those of the more famous Bram Stoker and Ann Radcliffe, but whose political motivations were far more serious. Matthew Gibson demonstrates how these writers used the conventions of the Gothic to attack both the French Revolution and the rise of materialism and positivism during the Enlightenment. At the same time, Gibson challenges current understandings of the fantastic and the literature of terror as promulgated by critics like Tzvetan Todorov, David Punter, and Fred Botting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708325728
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 04/15/2013
Series: University of Wales Press - Gothic Literary Studies Series
Pages: 243
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Matthew Gibson is associate professor of English literature at the University of Macau, China.

Read an Excerpt

The Fantastic and European Gothic

History, Literature and the French Revolution

By Matthew Gibson

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2013 Matthew Gibson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2691-6


Fantasy and Counter-Revolution in the Theory and Fiction of Charles Nodier

* * *

While Charles Nodier (1780–1844) may not be as well-known as either Hugo or Lamartine, his role in shaping, naming and directing both Romanticism and the rise of the Fantastic in France is too important to ignore. As regular contributor to Journal des débats and Revue de Paris, and as librarian at L'Arsenal in the Restoration period, where he held a small salon that included Hugo and Delacroix, he did much to define and defend the new literary trends which became popular in France after the fall of the Voltairean-minded Napoleon. He popularized the works of Byron in his stage-play co-authored with Albert Jouffroy, Le Vampire (1819) (not realizing that he was really working from Polidori's text), and published Cyprien Bérard's novel based on the same tale a year later. Nodier wrote in defence of the Fantastic, seeing it as the literature of a third age in which men began to rely upon sensation once again and to forget the abstractions of organized religion and science. Above all, however, he also wrote many Fantastic tales, including 'Smarra' (1821), a reworking of Apuleius's The Golden Ass based on his time spent in Dalmatia, 'La Fée aux miettes' ('The Crumb Fairy') (1832), in which he blends Celtic mystery with plots similar to the Arabian Nights, and 'Inès de las Sierras' (1838): a work inspired by Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor, where, in more classically Gothic style, he prolongs the reader's hesitation between an uncanny and marvellous ending.

Like many of his generation, Nodier found himself afloat upon the tide of an ever-changing political situation, whose futility, as Laurence Porter once noted, disposed him and other members of his generation towards the supernatural and non-natural as a method for divining truth when reason had failed in explaining the world. Born to a petty-bourgeois family of masons, Nodier's father Antoine was an extremist Jacobin magistrate in Besançon, who presided over the local tribunal during the Reign of Terror until the fall of Robespierre in 1794, on several occasions forcing his son to watch executions. Nodier senior was then reappointed to the tribunal after Napoleon's Brumaire Coup of 1799.4 Despite being introduced to the local Jacobin club as a twelve-year-old, Charles formed his own club called the Philadelphes in 1797, with his friends Charles Weiss and Gabriel-Joseph Oudet. According to Marguérite Henry-Rosier the club was quasi-mystical and quasi-political (p. 49), and once staged a satirical play against the Jacobins, indicating a political distancing from his father on Nodier's part (p. 63). In 1800, after Napoleon had become First Consul, Nodier was asked by the local prefect Marsan to help edit Bulletin Politique et Littéraire du Doubs, which paper execrated the earlier Jacobin administration and was loyal to the Consulate. Bored by provincial life, Nodier set out for Paris, where he began a literary career, and mingled with both Bonapartists and Chouans. In 1804 he wrote and published a ballad called Napoléone, which criticized the first consul just as he was about to declare himself Emperor (p. 105). Imprisoned for some few weeks and then pardoned due to his father's intercession, Nodier returned to Franche-Comté and spent time in Amiens until 1812 (where he was librarian and factotum to the English scholar Sir Henry Croft), after which he was sent to the new Illyrian Republic and was charged with taking care of the library at Laybach in Carniola (modern Slovenia), and with editing the Télégraphe Illyrien: a period which formed the inspiration for his later works, Jean Sbogar (1818) and 'Smarra' (1821).

After the second Restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in 1815, Nodier quickly regretted having been a 'lackey' of the Empire under the dreaded Bonaparte, and published a work which, although initially anonymous, did much to rehabilitate him. In The History of the Secret Societies of the Army and of the Military Conspiracies which had for Object the Destruction of Bonaparte's Government, Nodier literally changed his reality, as Rogers demonstrates, by creating a false past (p. 45), a feature he would continue in many other 'Souvenirs' (which were often written in article form for journals before being published in volumes). Hélène Lowe-Dupas argues that Nodier uses the language of theatricalization in many of these 'souvenirs' in order to distance himself from his real-life traumatic experiences, which simultaneously allows him to recall some of the violent events as part of an unconscious wish-fulfillment. However, according to Brian Rogers, Nodier's deviations from the truth served a genuinely heartfelt need. Rather than being a simple, expedient obfuscation, these 'souvenirs sycophantes' were a means of redressing the wrongs of his life, and of creating a parallel reality which expresses a truth superior to lived experience by being a part of an ideally transformed reality.

Rogers goes so far as to show the technical parallels between Nodier's memoirs and his Fantastic fiction, such as moments of madness and reverie acting as revelations to the central character: a feature prominent in works like Jean Sbogar and his memoir 'Suites d'un mandat d'arrêt' (1832). Certainly, it is no small coincidence that Nodier's promulgation of the Fantastic and the irrational in the post-Napoleonic period should coincide with his attempt to reconstruct his life and create an alternate reality. The lies in his souvenirs are frequently attempts to create a compensatory double for the real self that the vicissitudes of the age, political and philosophical, had forced upon him, and are a defiant promotion of the imaginary and fantastic over the literal and verifiable truths which both rationalists and empiricists had imposed upon the era. His fictions do the same, although more thoroughly, by attempting to divine truth far from the limitations of post-Enlightenment philosophy and to present his characters with a self-realization beyond the constraints of the times and ideologies through which they lived. Indeed, some of his later contes, including 'Inès de las Sierras' (1837), demonstrate the extent to which fantasy, including supernatural experience, can be used to create reality, and that 'reality' itself can become the part of life which is reserved for a fictional self.

In the following chapter I shall explore the development of Nodier's frénétique and fantastique fiction alongside the maturity of his ideas on the Fantastic; the basis of his notion of the Fantastic as an anti-Enlightement and counter-revolutionary discourse and its fundamental divergence from the Todorovian definition; and then finally observe his use of the Fantastic in his later fiction to challenge science and to replace the real lives of characters like Michel in 'La Fée aux miettes', and Inès in 'Inès de las Sierras', with a compensatory reality which copies the project of his memoirs.

Frénétique et fantastique

Nodier's understanding of the 'fantastique', which he also characterized as 'mensonges' (lies), is certainly different to either Tzvetan Todorov's definition or to Radcliffe's literature of terror. For Nodier the fantastique – a term he only began to use in 1830 – involves not simply a tenuous relation to the supernatural, but more fundamentally deviations from reason and accepted dogmas in an act of rebellion against the age. As well as being one of France's most successful exponents of the conte fantastique, he was also one of its most important theorists, characterizing it in various essays – introductory and otherwise – as a necessary form of inquiry for the epoch. Thus in the following section I shall be analysing the development of his theories of the frénétique and then the fantastique alongside the symbiotic practice of his fiction.

After the reinstatement of the Monarchy in 1815, Nodier worked for various journals with a great degree of success, and effectively proselytized for the new literature by authors like Byron and Goethe, which had recently arrived from England and Germany. Apart from his first souvenir, his earliest success after the Restoration – in fact his first major success in the art of fiction – was a Romance which drew upon his experience of working in the Illyrian Provinces, and his acquaintance with the geography and mores of the region: Jean Sbogar (1818). This Romance tells the story of a wealthy Breton orphan, Antonia, who comes and stays at Casa Monteléone during the Napoleonic era, when the Dalmatian region is full of gossip about the brigand Jean Sbogar. Her own interest is piqued by this, and one day, while pretending to be asleep, she becomes aware of two men discussing her, one of whom she hears professing his love, calling Antonia his 'wife before God' ('mon épouse devant Dieu').

Later she and her sister leave the region in order to attend the party season in Venice, where they meet a young and gifted philanthropist called Lothario, who espouses nihilist political views (p. 150), and who defends Sbogar on the grounds that many founders of civilization have been brigands. Despite the obvious love between the two, Lothario runs off, leaving Antonia a set of tablets which betray highly left-wing, Jacobin views. Returning to Casa Monteléone, she and her sister are captured and spend time in Castle Duino, where she becomes mad, and accepts Sbogar's hand in marriage in a confused mental state (p. 192). The castle is overrun by Napoleon's army, which captures Sbogar and his men but frees Antonia. Placed at the site of his execution, she sees him and screams 'Lothario' as he is led in, falling and dying in a swoon. He, meanwhile, merely shouts 'Marchons!' to the others, and walks indifferently to his own death.

Reports that Jean Sbogar was being read by the famous occupant of St Helena just after its publication contributed to the tale's fame. At the time critics remarked on its similarity to Byron's The Corsair, and made a somewhat unfavourable comparison with Ann Radcliffe's novels. More recently, the critic Hélène Lowe-Dupas has seen it as continuing what she describes as Nodier's poetics of 'coupure', or the 'cut', extending this metaphor of contradiction to the sociopolitical. While she notes that Rioux saw the romance as conservative in tendency, she understands it more as exposing the irreconcilably ambivalent attitude which Nodier held towards revolutionary politics, both idealizing them but presenting their inevitable debasement through violence: a point supported by the fact that the tale was instrumental in preventing Nodier from being granted a visa to Russia by Tsarists fearful of revolutionary agitators.

The work certainly owes some debt to Ann Radcliffe in its use of an uncertain, terrified female protagonist and nightmarish castles, as Bryan Rogers has noted, although the 'hesitation' and uncertainty experienced by the heroine does not concern the potentially supernatural but rather the ambiguity of Sbogar's identity and the unreal nature of her own experience. It further exemplifies the bifurcation between the surface self created by external events and the compensatory reality of the self revealed in dreams and imagination, which division formed an integral part of the rationale used by Nodier for rewriting the factual events of his memoirs. Hence, as Rogers remarks, Antonia only perceives the real Jean Sbogar and hears his confession of love when in a state of la folie. Similarly, Jean Sbogar can only be accepted by the sane Antonia when he is pretending to be someone else, Lothario. Just as Nodier happily distinguishes between the ideal self of his recreated truth and the pernicious reality forced upon him by history when recounting the events of his life in his memoirs, so he divides the hard-nosed brigand Jean Sbogar, who marches curtly to his death after his beloved has died, from the idealist Lothario, who adores the Hébertiste communism of the Montenegrins. Fantasy, if not quite the Fantastic, is thus a means of divining truth and facilitating self-realization beyond the vicissitudes of reality in both Nodier's memoirs and his fiction, and is indicative of a stance that was to develop throughout his later frénétique and fantastique fiction.

A year later Nodier followed up this success by collaborating with Alfred Jouffroy on a stage-play 'Le Vampire' (1819), based on Byron's (really Polidori's) tale. In this version of the story, involving the death of Ruthwen, the solemn promise by Aubray not to reveal it and Ruthwen's subsequent duping of Aubray's sister, the action is moved to the Scottish islands and the villain is dispatched with poetic justice by a deus ex machina. While emulating the new literature issuing from Britain and Germany, Nodier also began to contribute many pieces to the Revue de Paris, the Journal des Débats and other periodicals in order to proselytize on its behalf. He gathered a group of younger writers around himself, who would slowly leave the classical strictures of unity behind them and create a new literature which involved the 'féerique', but without being too extreme in its divergences. Aware of the charges that could be levelled by Classicists at the more grotesque forms of the 'littérature romantique', as he called it, he devised the name for a more extreme school – which, as Anthony Glinoer has shown, was more an attempt at exculpating other Romantic writers from the charge of sensationalism.

In a review of a translation of the German writer Spiess's poem Le Petit Pierre, Nodier claimed that: 'It is absurd to believe that there might be a war of schools between Classics and Romantics', before admitting that there does exist a literature of 'monstrous extravagances where all the laws are violated'. He then declares that while the age has been deadly, 'it does not explain the too easy audacity of the poet and novelist who drags atheism, rage and despair across the tombs; who exhumes the dead to test the living, and who torments the imagination with horrible scenes'. This literature Nodier himself names the 'frénétique'.19 The objection to a literature that violates all the rules suggests firstly a rejection of the excessively supernatural, although Nodier's main complaint against the 'frénétique' seems to concern its use of the macabre and the horrific, given the tendencies he lists (which include atheism). We may thus presume that the 'frénétique' consists of mainly two features: violation of rules (of nature) and the horrific.

Thus Nodier, as Glinoer notes, was really attempting to salvage the reputation of Romanticism through differentiating it from this supposed 'school'. Thanks to the proximity in French between the word 'roman' (novel) and 'romantique', Nodier equated the imagination of the new literature with the novel form itself, declaring in his preface to Bérard's Lord Ruthwen that the new form, 'this romantic genre ... [t]he very name of novel [roman] which recalls a modern language ... excludes the obligation of this servile imitation of antiquity'. At the same time he declares that he does not like 'these superstitions which ... offer only scenes of terror to thought', but feels justified in prefacing this particular vampire novel because the theme is so well established in European literature, especially in the work of Lord Byron.21 Indeed, while there are elements of the ghoulish and thus the frénétique in Le Vampire (1819) and Lord Ruthwen(1820) (which Nodier may have in fact written himself), in neither work are there representations of horror or the macabre, with the violent acts, as in a Voltairean tragedy, being all 'offstage'.

Such denial of the macabre did not last long. In 1821 Nodier published his 'translation' of a tale by an Illyrian nobleman called 'Maxime Odin', 'Smarra, ou les démons de la nuit', together with three 'Illyrian' poems (one of which, like 'Smarra', was in fact an original composition). The tale is a dream fantasy, involving the nightmare of an eighteenth-century Piedmontese Lorenzo, who has just bedded down with his Greek beloved Lisidis. In the dream he becomes the Roman Lucius, a student at Larissa, Thessaly, who is returning home to his palace where he will feast and be waited on by his beautiful slave Myrthé. His friend Polémon then arrives at the palace. Polémon, like Lucius, is a veteran of the siege ofCorinth, and now begins to describe his recent suffering at the hands of the witch Méroé. She cast a paralysis over Polémon's body and opened up a column at her house to reveal demons of the night, who were eating children (pp. 81–2). When Polémon appealed for pity on their behalf she accused him of violating the enchantments of sleep, and opened a rhomboid from which emerged a slow-growing stryge called Smarra that attacked his heart. When this was finished she took him high above the city to a sepulchre full of ghouls who were exhuming and tearing corpses, which she then forced Polémon to do as well (p. 87).


Excerpted from The Fantastic and European Gothic by Matthew Gibson. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Gibson. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Fantasy and Counter-Revolution in the Theory and Fiction of Charles Nodier
2. History and Politics in the Fantastic Fiction of Hoffmann, and his Reception in France
3. The Double Life of the Artist in the Récits fantastiques of Théophile Gautier, and the Rejection of Bourgeois Life under the July Monarchy
4. ‘A Life in Death a Death in Life’: The Legitimist Novels of Paul Féval and the Catastrophe of the Second Empire
5. Paul Féval’s Le Chevalier Ténèbre and Le Faun’s ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’: the Failures of the Bourbon Restoration
6. Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Olalla’, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Refutation of Utilitarian Morality

Short Chronology of Relevant Events

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews