Grimes, Hilary. the Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing

By McReynolds, Leigha | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Grimes, Hilary. the Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing


McReynolds, Leigha, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Grimes, Hilary. The Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011. 187 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-4094-2720-9. $99.95.

In her introduction to The Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing, Hilary Grimes explains that the goal of her book is to establish a literary late Victorian Gothic. This Gothic subgenre is defined, she contends, by texts and authors that produce the effect of the uncanny in haunted and haunting scenes of writing that trouble agency and destabilize the self. Grimes uses "uncanny" in the Freudian sense of the thing that is both familiar and unfamiliar, as well as drawing on Nicholas Royle's definition of the uncanny as ghostly. The ghosts that haunt this new Gothic range from the literal ghost of the ghost story to anxieties that lurk in the mind of the author. I am not convinced that this book does, in fact, offer a new definition for and understanding of late Victorian Gothic; this argument is not sustained throughout the chapters, and the focus seems consistently to be, instead, on the tension between a desire for and struggle against the supernatural. However, to that end, this book does provide compelling readings of the shared anxieties haunting authors, mental scientists, and psychical researchers in the fin de siecle, which is an admirable and critically useful achievement.

Each of the six chapters discusses a late Victorian author or authors along with key psychological and psychical developments in order to highlight a specific aspect of the anxiety produced by attempts to exorcise or contain the supernatural. The opening chapter, "(Ghost)Writing Henry James," explores ways in which scenes of writing are rendered uncanny when agency and authorship in writing are ambiguous. Who is ultimately responsible for the written words? This question haunted James as an author and the spiritualist phenomenon of automatic writing. The anxiety stemmed in part from developments in mental science leading to a new understanding of the mind as an untidy place that could be made up of multiple selves, and the reading of James's "The Private Life" explores the multiple, haunted selves of the author. Through a consideration of James's own use of a typewriter and a typist later in life, Grimes traces the anxieties produced by developments in technology, like the typewriter and telegraphy, with the new human subject--typists and telegraphers--that supported them. James used but was wary of these new forms of communication and writing, which, in his view, mirrored in uncanny ways the telepathy and mediated writing of spiritualism. Reading Kipling's "The Wireless" and James's "In the Cage" unites the psychological and the technological as Grimes shows that in both of these stories the telegraph disrupts the boundaries between the mind, body, and machine, emphasizing the telegraph's discursive blurring with telepathy. This chapter successfully blends literary, biographical, psychological, and psychical evidence to show how new writing technologies led to new manifestations of the Gothic.

Chapter 2, "Sensitive to the Invisible," addresses the paradox and anxiety that resulted from late Victorian attempts to separate the scientific and the supernatural. Grimes demonstrates how Arthur Conan Doyle's writing on photography and spiritualism often drew on the same descriptive language, which in turn bled into the Holmes stories. Doyle's writing on spirit photography shows that his desire to provide and encourage support for spiritualism was in conflict with a fear that empirical methods would cheapen the mysteries of the unknown. Francis Gabon's composite photography approaches this anxiety from the other direction: his attempts to regulate and identify the criminal resulted in a ghostly presence in the photograph that thwarted attempts to access the truth about identity. This explication of non-fiction writing sets up Grimes's culminating argument of the chapter. …

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