10 December 2012
Caribbean Gothic: colonial and postcolonial views
My reading list is all a bit dark and Gothic at the moment, something that has only a little to do with having moved near to Strawberry Hill House. As well as being a change from my normal tastes, it has also nudged me to remember a lengthy conversation I had about a housemate’s lecture, back in my student days, concerning the Caribbean and Gothic literature.
Not long after Horace Walpole, author of ‘The Castle of Otranto,' advocated attempts to “blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern,” [p. 9, 1765 edition, Shelfmark: C.40.c.24] authors of Gothic fiction frequently looked to the spaces of Britain’s colonies for frightening and surreal inspiration. In the Caribbean this could be found in the horrors and social conflicts that were an ever-present part of slavery and the plantation system; race, landscape, social order and sexual desire, overt concerns of many British and Caribbean colonials, were used as narrative drivers. The Library holds a significant collection of works which use Caribbean locations or people to create the above effect, including, Charlotte Smith’s, ‘The Story of Henrietta’ [in ‘The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer…,' 1800, Shelfmark: RB.23.a.31619], Cynric Williams’ ‘Hamel, the Obeah Man’ [1827, Shelfmark: N.470] and many others.
The relationship between Gothic literature and the Caribbean is not one-note, however. The Caribbean was used to highlight metropolitan anxieties but Gothic styles were also used to illustrate the horrors of the plantation economy. For example, ‘The History of Mary Prince' [Shelfmark: 8157.bbb.30] uses Gothic stylistic conventions to expose the horrors of slavery; although it is noted by critics that the essence of Gothic writing can mean that the power of such writing is also reduced and sanitised through the use of these conventions.
This work (James Mursell Phillippo, Jamaica, its past and present state, 1843) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [Shelfmark: 1304.h.4.]
The dynamic between place and literature also changes over time, with postcolonial novels such as ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ [Shelfmark: X.908/15430] not only commenting on the postcolonial Caribbean but reinterpreting works which used the Caribbean to drive part of their narrative [in this case ‘Jane Eyre’, Shelfmark: 12619.g.10]. Such work is not restricted to the Anglophone Caribbean, however - Francophone and Hispanic authors have also attempted to grapple with postcolonial realities through Gothicised abstractions, with works such as ‘La cathédrale du mois d’août’ [1980, Shelfmark: X.958/8996; trans. 1987, Shelfmark: Nov.1988/249] and ‘Del rojo de su sombra’ [1992, Shelfmark: YF.2008.a.11557; trans. 2001, Shelfmark: H.2003.3535] tackling aspects of politics, religion and culture in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
This is a taster of a large collection and area of study, with much left unmentioned – including, since you’re probably thinking of it, Zombies. I can recommend digging around on Explore the British Library, and reading Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s contribution to ‘The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction’ [2002, Shelfmark: YC.2002.a.14753] if you want to know more.