Gothic novels helped Britons think like world citizens

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Evan Gottlieb

"Her present life appeared like the dream of a distempered imagination, or like one of those frightful fictions, in which the wild genius of the poets sometimes delighted. Reflection brought only regret, and anticipation terror."
The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe

Gloomy castles and distressed maidens may not suggest “globalization” to most readers, but Evan Gottlieb is prepared to argue that the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe show keen awareness of eighteenth-century Britain as part of the larger world of Europe and beyond.

“Radcliffe’s romances have often been read as surreptitiously confirming Britons’ insular sense of superiority to the Europeans who populate most of her novels,” said Gottlieb, a Center Research Fellow, OSU English faculty member, and author of Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing, 1707-1832.

“Yet Radcliffe herself consistently encourages readers to identify primarily with her bourgeois, tolerant, cosmopolitan heroes and heroines, rather than with their feudal counterparts, the aristocratic villains and earthy peasants who tend to be tied more closely to a particular region or estate.”

The work on Radcliffe is part of Gottlieb’s larger project, Romanticism, Globalization, and the Making of the Modern World Order, 1750-1830. He describes the main goals of the project as twofold: to demonstrate that early globalization trends influenced the development of important works of British poetry and prose during this era; and also to consider how Enlightenment and Romantic literature likewise played a significant role in shaping modern perceptions of globalization.

At first glance, said Gottlieb, this hypothesis might seem counterintuitive.

“Not only are we used to thinking of globalization as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon, but also scholars tend to consider British Romanticism as a cultural and literary phenomenon more frequently associated with local attachments, nationalism, or imperialism rather than with globalization.”

“Globalization” for Gottlieb’s purposes is best defined, in the words of Manfred B. Steger, as “a multi-dimensional set of social processes that create, multiply, stretch, and intensify worldwide social interdependences and exchanges.”

Although the connections between eighteenth-century and Romantic-era literature and the incipient British Empire have been well documented, the former’s associations with the developing processes of globalization are just starting to be understood.

“Among today’s literary scholars, there is general consensus that eighteenth-century and Romantic-era literature both reflected and shaped the terms of Britain’s growing dominance on the world stage.” Driven largely by the methodology of post-colonial theory, critics have interpreted Romantic literature and culture in an imperialist context, that is, in terms of exploration, domination, and racism.

“In fact, globalization is coterminous with many of the great social changes that marked the period 1750 to 1850, including the rise of European secular nationalisms, the growth and expansion of modern forms of capital, and the adoption of a universalizing definition of progress predicated on cultural and industrial modernization.”

In general, said Gottlieb, previous scholars have tended “to conflate these trends with the history of British imperialism. Given the ways in which today’s world is increasingly dominated by global, rather than imperial, conditions, it seems more fitting than ever to consider imperialism as one phase of the movement toward Western-dominated globalization rather than vice versa.”

The challenge for British authors and readers at the time was to learn to conceptualize their situation vis à vis the rest of the world. “How did Britons come to understand themselves, not merely in relation to each other, but also to the rest of the world? Put in literary historical terms, how did the writers of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era prepare their readers to think globally?”

During his Fellowship term Gottlieb is writing the chapter on Radcliffe, provisionally titled “The Global Gothic: Tolerance, Aversion, and Cosmo-politanism in Ann Radcliffe and her Contemporaries.” The key event for Gottlieb’s analysis was the defeat of Napoleon in 1814-15.

“Prior to this, Britain had already been at war with France for most of the previous century. Paramount during the early years of the Romantic period then was Britain’s need to have a strong sense of itself as a united country engaged in an epic struggle with an implacable enemy.

“Yet despite the growing British resistance to the democratic, international ideals of the French Revolution, many pre-Waterloo Romantic writers, such as Ann Radcliffe, show a keen awareness of Britain’s inevitable interconnectedness with Europe and beyond.”

Gottlieb will analyze this process of identification primarily through three Radcliffe novels: The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797). The “delicate play of sameness and difference,” he argues, provided training for Radcliffe’s British readers in becoming global citizens.