The Fickle Fortunes of Chivalry in Eighteenth-Century Gothic

By Wright, Angela | Gothic Studies, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The Fickle Fortunes of Chivalry in Eighteenth-Century Gothic


Wright, Angela, Gothic Studies


'Chivalry', concluded Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755-6) 'is a word not much used, but in old poems or romances.'1 Johnson's terse dismissal of chivalry stems in part from his preceding observation that 'It ought properly to be written chevalry'. His correction to its anglicised orthography hints, one imagines, at its original French source, and goes some way to explaining his derogation of chivalry's relevance. Famously, Johnson set out the urgent case in the Preface to his Dictionary for the linguistic separation of the English and French languages, being anxious that the level of unrestricted borrowing from French would lead the English to 'babble' a 'dialect of France'.2 His desire to separate English and French also extended to an attempt to separate the two nations' cultural outputs. The first edition of Johnson's Dictionary was published contemporaneously with the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, where long-standing enmity between Britain and France became increasingly sharpened as the two imperial nations battled for control of North America. Johnson's concern is symptomatic of a broader anxiety concerning linguistic and cultural borrowings from France over the course of this conflict.

Concerns of linguistic, cultural and military incursion from France emerge more frequently in the wake of the Seven Years' War.3 In the literary arena, one of the ways in which these concerns are marked is through the highly-contested national stakes of chivalry. This essay argues that these national stakes of chivalry are negotiated in the realm of the Gothic romance in a particularly fluid and dynamic manner. While James Watt's essay in this collection also treats of chivalry in the Gothic, his essay focuses upon the gendered dynamics of prose chivalry. In my essay, I wish to address recent critical assumptions about the conservatism inherent in prose treatments of medieval chivalry, and open up a conversation about the possibility that Gothic romance recuperates a more positive version of chivalry in the wake of the famous Burke/Wollstonecraftrevolutionary debate of 1790.

As all of the essays in this special issue reveal, the particularly protean nature of the Gothic made it an appealing discursive site for the testing of national, generic, scientific and gendered assumptions. The relative merits of the discourses of chivalry prove no exception to this rule, being tested in detail within the Gothic. With the notable exception of Anne Williams's discussion of the romantic reassessment of gender through medievalism in The Art of Darkness, however, little else before this special issue has devoted attention to the significance of chivalry in the Gothic.4 This is possibly because of the persistent critical perception that Elizabeth Fay helpfully foregrounds in her study Romantic Medievalism, namely, that 'Conservative medievalism tends, both in the Romantic period and now, to be associated with knighthood, chivalry and honour. It is largely located in the romance tradition, and therefore is most widely associated with novels'.5 Fay names Clara Reeve and Walter Scott as two of the key proponents of conservative medievalism in the romance tradition. In contrast to the form of conservative prose medievalism which Reeve and Scott helped to mould, Fay instead locates Whig radical medievalism in the realm of poetry, associating radicalism with 'the troubadour or bard rather than the chivalric knight.'6 Fay's named examples of Reeve and Scott, while convincing, nonetheless beg a larger question of whether this conservative form of prose medievalism remains constant and consistently conservative in the decades between Reeve's The Old English Baron (1778) and Scott's Ivanhoe (1820). What happens in the Gothic of the 1780s and 1790s? The latter decade, indeed, is the most intensely productive decade of the Gothic in the eighteenth century. It is also a decade in which history and romance, and the very heterogeneous meanings of Gothic are accommodated with increasing complacency within the form of prose romance that we now understand as Gothic. …

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