BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

Gothic for the Multitudes

The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800-1835: Exhuming the Trade
By Franz J. Potter.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 213 pages.
Hardcover. $69.95.

Reviewed by William Parrill.

The term gothic is so widely used today as to be almost useless except as a subdivision of Romantic publishing. Unless a writer, such as Patrick McGrath, specifically identifies himself as a gothic writer and knowingly announces himself as writing in that tradition, critics would do well to avoid the term completely. The term is properly used to identify a group of sensational popular novels, written mostly by women, of the Romantic Period, roughly 1764-1835. The novels and stories, written rapidly and cheaply published, took advantage of new methods of printing to appeal to the lowest of literate tastes.

Readers of Jane Austen are, of course, familiar with the list of gothic novels included in Volume 1, Chapter 6, of Austen’s early novel Northanger Abbey. Although written in 1798-1799 and sold to a publisher in 1803, the novel was not published at that time. Shortly before her death in 1817, Austen bought back the manuscript and revised it. By the time the novel was published some months after Austen’s death, the list of novels that entranced the heroine, all of which were originally published during the 1790s, already belonged to the historical past.

Franz J. Potter’s useful study examines the phenomenon of gothic publishing during the period of its greatest popularity and gives the most complete bibliographies of gothic novels and stories for the 1800-1835 period yet published. Potter does not, however, list novels and tales by American writers, but they could not have been, except for Poe, either as numerous or as important. It would be interesting to know how many of the English gothics were pirated and reprinted in the United States. Poe, of course, wrote a famously disparaging review of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, but the notoriety of that novel made it an obvious choice for American publication.

Potter’s study has three central parts. The first is an analysis of the rise and gradual decline of gothic publishing in England. The second is a detailed examination of the novels and stories of William Child Green, Francis Lathom, and Sarah Wilkinson. (The latter, a woman who attempted vainly to support herself by writing millions of words and who spent time in debtor’s prison, makes Hawthorne’s jibe at the “damned mob of scribbling women” sound smallminded, or worse.) Mary Shelley, whose masterpiece Frankenstein (1818) has already been closely studied by others, receives shorter treatment. The third is a three-part bibliography, which includes gothic novels of the period, “bluebooks,” and gothic tales. The so-called bluebooks were cheaply printed sensational novels characterized by their flimsy blue covers. The bibliography may, I think, be augmented but is unlikely to be replaced.

Then, as now, ephemeral fiction was closely tied both to technology and to the demands of the market place. Potter’s research shows that the increase in the numbers of readers fed the circulating libraries—that is, the cheap rentalfor a day or two of popular titles. Both sensational and moralistic, gothic novels and stories, often translated, amplified and changed from the German, were already in decline when they were rescued, artistically if not commercially, by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) in England and Edgar Allan Poe’s tales in America. Perhaps, the popularity of gothic stories survived longer in America than elsewhere.

All great writers both transcend their times and are closely connected with it, and the more we know about the context of the times the better understanding we can have of them. Although Potter is silent on how many of the novels and stories he catalogues still exist, he has furnished us a valuable context for understanding them. At a time when libraries are discarding thousands, perhaps millions, of volumes of ephemeral fiction to save money and space, the gothic fiction of the early nineteenth century serves as a useful example of how much can be lost.

Franz J. Potter, who has written extensively on the trade gothic, is Assistant Professor at National University, Camarillo, California. The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800-1835 is an essential book for all graduate libraries and a useful one for any college library.

William Parrill is Emeritus Professor of Communication and English at Southeastern Louisiana University. His latest book is European Silent Films on Video: A Critical Guide, published by McFarland.

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