To Make a Long Story Short: Gothic Fragments and the Gender Politics of Incompleteness

By Grove, Allen W. | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

To Make a Long Story Short: Gothic Fragments and the Gender Politics of Incompleteness


Grove, Allen W., Studies in Short Fiction


Eighteenth-century British Gothic romance seems an unlikely candidate for discussion in a journal that focuses on "short fiction." Today, most studies of Gothic fiction address the lengthy three-, four-, even five-volume novels by writers such as Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Sophia Lee, Regina Maria Roche, and Charlotte Smith. The novel's length, in fact, became an important part of the Gothic aesthetic as writers intertwined multiple narratives and constructed dizzyingly complex genealogies. The long length also allowed the novelist to create suspense through the artful interruption of, and digression from, the main story lines. Nevertheless, short Gothic fiction--both the Gothic fragment and the Gothic tale--was extremely popular during the last three decades of the eighteenth century. Robert D. Mayo, through his invaluable archival work on the Gothic short story, discovered 20 magazines that published original works of this now largely forgotten genre ("Romance" 765), including the Universal Magazine (1747-1803), the Edinburgh Magazine (1785-1803), the Monthly Mirror (1795-1811), the Attic Miscellany (1789-92), and the most popular and influential of the journals that published fiction, the Lady's Magazine (1770-1837) ("Short Story" 449). E. W. Pitcher suggests that an even greater. number of samples of Gothic short fiction can be found in the pamphlets and pamphlet anthologies of the late eighteenth century (342).

One of the most popular forms of the Gothic short story was the "fragment." These short works, ranging in length from a few hundred to several thousand words, begin disorientingly in the middle of an adventure and end abruptly (often mid-sentence) at a climactic moment. Two of the most influential of these fragments--Anna Laetitia Aiken's [more commonly known by her married name Barbauld] "Sir Bertrand: A Fragment" (1773), and Nathan Drake's "Montmorenci, a Fragment" (1798)--were originally presented as exempla of an aesthetic theory clearly derivative of Burke, and were first published by the authors appended to essays "On Objects of Terror." Mayo notes that Aiken's short work was particularly popular as it went through three editions in Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose, was published at least-nine times in the magazines between 1773 and 1820, and was imitated if not plagiarized by numerous other writers ("Romance" 769). Nevertheless, Aiken's presentation of her fragment as nothing more than a case study of aesthetics and form seems to have shut down scholarly study of the work as a serious piece of short fiction. Vijay Mishra expresses disappointment in "Sir Bertrand": "Mrs. Barbauld [Aiken], unfortunately, is concerned only with the formal dimension of a fragment, with the `materially' incomplete text. As a consequence, she fails to put her own theory into practice, since the fairy-tale dimension of her Gothic fragment left little room for Gothic terrors" (95). Similarly, Mayo reductively classifies the fragment genre on a whole as a mere study of form: "The Gothic fragment is an exercise in atmosphere, a disconnected episode of terror, divorced from all the novelesque elements which encumber the Gothic romance" ("Short Story" 451). Such a diminutive view of the fragment immediately separates it from the more elaborate novel. Both Mayo and Mishra suggest that "Sir Bertrand" is a mere surface lacking depth, a narrative without complexity, a literary exercise void of politics.

Alternatively, I view the fragment as the quintessential unit that creates both the poetics and politics of Gothic fiction. After" all, almost universally Gothic texts are fragmented, interrupted, unreadable, or presented through multiple framings and narrators. Gothic novels tend to highlight their own incompleteness and the unreliability of their narrators. Furthermore, because the majority of Gothic novels present themselves as either ancient romances or historical documents--two overtly masculine forms--authors can invest the points of absence and uncertainty in their works with specific ideological significance. …

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