Hello! I’m Lauren Nixon, and as I recently joined Haunted Shores as a Research Associate, I thought it would be good idea to formally introduce myself to the Network.
I was awarded my PhD last year from the University of Sheffield: in fact, I might have been one of the last people in the country to Viva in person. My Viva took place four days before the Britain went into national lockdown, in a completely empty campus sat six feet apart from my examiners in a room with all the windows open. Admittedly, not quite the experience I had imagined when I finally sat my Viva after the years of being a PhD student.
My thesis was titled ‘This trade of Death’: War and the figure of the soldier in Gothic Fiction 1764 – 1823, and it explored the way in which the writers of the Gothic engaged with the form to unpack wartime anxieties about everything from national identity to bodily trauma and unsustainability of chivalry. As is so often the case with the PhD, this wasn’t the project that I had originally proposed when I first started. But when re-reading the novels of Ann Radcliffe and her contemporaries in the early stages of my research, I found myself being constantly distracted by how often soldiers appeared in these novels as both the heroes and villains. After mentioning this to my supervisors repeatedly and noting how little critical work I’d seen on the subject, a new idea began to take shape. And so, a thesis on women’s readership became one on war and masculinity instead.
One aspect that particularly interested me throughout my thesis, but that I never got to explore, was the way that the perception of the soldier shifted over the course of the 1790s into the 1800s. In the months prior to Britain’s entrance into the War of the First Coalition in 1793 there was a major nationalist push, as the newspapers and pamphleteers warned of the possibility of French invasion and the desperate need for Britons to take a patriotic stand to defend their borders. Whether or not Britain could indeed withstand renewed conflict with France was a point of some concern: the British Army had suffered a great defeat in the loss of the American Wars of Independence, and the overwhelming cost of decades of intentional warfare had left them in tatters. Private soldiers had been turned out with no half pay to support them, which had seen many turn to lives as vagrants and criminals. The military’s public image in 1793 was hardly that of a brotherhood of noble, chivalric soldiers, and some major rehabilitation needed to be done. In the Gothic fiction of the early years of the Revolutionary Wars the soldier is painted as every inch the hero: he is an icon of sensibility and polite masculinity, the picture of chivalry and heroism.
Yet as war dragged on, and particularly when Napoleon seized control of the Revolution, the soldier became a more murky, questionable figure whose actions off page make them untrustworthy: think Mr Wickham in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But where the soldier’s reputation began to suffer, the naval officer’s only gathered strength (perhaps not surprisingly, considering Britain enjoyed far more success at sea then they did on land.) Thanks to major victories and popular tales of naval courage, the men of the Navy steadily became the nation’s emblematic heroes. The Navy was seen to face far greater threats and more severe conditions than the Army, with greater personal sacrifices demanded of their officers conducive to their winning of decisive battles whilst actively defending the nation’s borders.
Although the sea and shorelines offered the promise of space in which heroic masculinity could be constructed towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, they also continued to be fraught with anxiety. Britain’s coastlines became iconic bastions, the physical representation of its ideological nationhood, but they were also dangerous spaces where the enemy could invade or infiltrate. One moment that is particularly striking in the Gothic’s engagement with war is the final chapter of Mary Shelley’s 1823 novel, Valperga. The story of a 13th century Italian condottieri, Castruccio, Valperga is a novel that is scathing in its anti-war sentiments: Shelley writes two female characters, Euthansia and Beatrice, into the historical narrative to demonstrate the destructive nature of war and the inevitable corruption of chivalry by military violence. At the novel’s close the heroine Euthansia is betrayed and banished into exile in Sicily by the protagonist Castruccio. Her ship, however, is lost at sea: ‘Nothing more was ever known of the Sicilian vessel which bore Euthanasia. It never reached its destined port, nor were any of those on board ever after seen.’ The death of Euthanasia, who throughout the course of the novel struggles to resist the violence that engulfs Valperga’s neighbouring states and to maintain peace for her people despite Castruccio’s warmaking, is a powerful, poignant moment that marks the novel’s end. Although Castruccio’s history, the narrator informs us, continues for some two years after this event, the text ends with Euthanasia. And specifically, Euthansia lost to history at sea:
Why such an end, for a novel that is concerned with the way war consumes and destroys the lives of women? Well, I think I know, but that’s not exactly my point here. The Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars spanned decades, and the literature that was produced in response and retaliation overlaps repeatedly with ideas of shorelines, coastlines, seas, and oceans. The question I want to ask then, is if we look more closely at the Gothic of this period and its engagement with the Gothic, using the lens of coastal, littoral, and nautical Gothic, what might we find? This is the avenue I’d most like to explore in my personal research as a member of Haunted Shores, and I’m certain that being part of the network – and being able to listen, read, and learn about the work of my fellow researchers! – will help me bring it to light.
Want to talk to me more about naval officers and coastal borders in national identity? You can find me on Twitter @literaryla.
Valperga etext: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0606801h.html