The Transatlantic Gothic Novel and the Law, 1790-1860

By Chaplin, Sue | Gothic Studies, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The Transatlantic Gothic Novel and the Law, 1790-1860


Chaplin, Sue, Gothic Studies


The Transatlantic Gothic Novel and the Law, 1790-1860 by Bridget M. Marshall (Burlington: Ashgate, 2011). ISBN 978-0-7546-6995-1, 200pp., £55hb.

Marshall's study takes its place within a growing body of scholarship that has begun over recent years to forge essential conceptual and historical connections between the Gothic and the theory and practice of law. Most recent studies, however, have tended to focus upon British Gothic fictions that initiated and developed literary Gothicism from the mid-eighteenth century into the Victorian period. The originality of Marshall's work lies in its cogent analysis of the Anglo-American juridical contexts out of which English and American Gothic emerged. Marshall contends that the Gothic ought to be understood as a transatlantic phenomenon, as a mode that developed out of fertile, multi-faceted exchanges between England and the new American republic from the late-eighteenth century onwards.

Central to Marshall's argument is the notion that the Gothic can not properly be understood apart from its complex, ambivalent engagements with multiple sites of juridical power in this period. From the shifting and often highly contested function of the jury in criminal trials, to fraught questions regarding the constitutional legitimacy of government in both countries, the Gothic emerged as a mode of writing uniquely suited to the interrogation of the law's role in defining the civil status of the modern subject and the nature and extent of modern juridical power over that subject. Marshall's introduction and her first two chapters set key early Gothic fictions (The Castle of Otranto [1764], Caleb Williams [1794] and Frankenstein [1818 revised 1831]) within this volatile juridical and political milieu and, although the novels studied here have been almost done to death by scholars with an interest in the juridical-political dimensions of early Gothic, Marshall opens up some fruitful new avenues of enquiry here: the status of the 'infant at law' in Caleb Williams, for instance, and the role of the citizen-juror, and reader-as-juror in Frankenstein.

It is perhaps fair to say, though, that the earlier chapters could have been condensed somewhat, given the extensive existing scholarship on these novels, in order to make room for more extended analyses of transatlantic Gothic in its specifically American contexts. For this reviewer at least, it is in the study of early American Gothic texts carefully situated within their historical moment, and especially within the context of transatlantic juridical paradigms, that this volume really shines. Chapter three examines Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly [1799], revealing the ways in which the novel's fluid Gothic textuality subverts transatlantic discourses of law (the study perceptively foregrounds the extent to which early American jurisprudence inherited and modified English legal theory and practice) that insist upon the supposed transparency of juridical texts. This reliance on the written word of law ('Black Letter Law' as it came to be known in England and America) was especially pronounced in an emerging American legal system the foundation of which was the written constitution of the new republic. Comparing Brown's novel to Caleb Williams, the chapter contends that Brown in fact goes beyond Godwin in contesting the truth-value of legal texts and processes; not only is the word of law radically unstable and often quite opaque in this novel, all forms of signification emerge as unreliable and even dangerous to individuals who seek stable systems of juridical interpretation in order to make their case. Marshall perceptively observes that even dead bodies 'lie' in this text: logical, empirical deductions about the manner of death from the appearance or location of a corpse are invariably misguided and the reader (posited by the text as an investigator, or citizen juror) is implicated in a variety of catastrophic errors of judgement. …

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