Essay: Shared Rhetorical Strategy in 19Th Century British Fiction and Non

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19th c Prose, Fiction and Non-Fiction

One crucial way in which English fiction and English non-fiction prose in the nineteenth century do inform each other is in the development of the grotesque as a rhetorical mode. Although "grotesque" is a somewhat loose critical category, it is nonetheless common in critical discourse in the period and since, and generally refers to the exaggeration of unnaturalness, ugliness, or strangeness, usually pushed to an effect quite near comedy. Certainly the grotesque in nineteenth century English literature more generally is observable as an emergent mode -- to turn, in poetry, from Wordsworth to such later works as Tennyson's "Saint Simeon Stylites," Browning's "Caliban Upon Setebos," or the Death's Jest-Book of Thomas Lovell Beddoes is to witness the emergence of a poetic grotesque style that had not previously existed. What did exist before the nineteenth century, and the possible progenitor of the emergence of the grotesque as a category in prose, is Gothic. However the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Gothic strain in English literature is not to be conflated with the grotesque. While Gothic fiction in William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, and "Monk" Lewis may have certainly exploited grotesque-seeming elements, in general those elements lacked the comic edge which is visible in the grotesque: they are meant to produce horror, but not laughter or critical distance. The use of grotesque in nineteenth century prose (fictional or otherwise) is, as I shall argue in this paper, a mode of mockery, which therefore has an implicit element of critical purpose to it.

To look at two early nineteenth century examples of the emergence of grotesque from Gothic, we may consider the paired examples -- one fictional and one non-fictional -- both conveniently published in 1817. These are Austen's Northanger Abbey and Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. Any discussion of the Gothic is obliged to take account of Austen's first complete novel, if only because it is intended, through mockery, to do away with the Gothic mode altogether. But it is important to note that for Austen, the Gothic mode is still defined by fear -- it is a work that is intended to cause sensation of terror in the reader, and thus Austen allows her "heroine" Catherine Morland (a word we must put in ironic quotation marks because Catherine's self-dramatization as a Gothic "heroine" is signposted in the novel's opening sentence) to experience the terrors even though the reader knows there is nothing to be afraid of:

Catherine, as she crossed the hall, listened to the tempest with sensations of awe; and, when she heard it rage round a corner of the ancient building and close with sudden fury a distant door, felt for the first time that she was really in an abbey. Yes, these were characteristic sounds; they brought to her recollection a countless variety of dreadful situations and horrid scenes, which such buildings had witnessed, and such storms ushered in; and most heartily did she rejoice in the happier circumstances attending her entrance within walls so solemn! She had nothing to dread from midnight assassins or drunken gallants. (Austen, Chapter 21)

The "dreadful situations and horrid scenes" which Austen deliberately leaves unenumerated are familiar to any reader of Gothic fiction, but Austen's point is that they are unrealistic flights of fancy. In some sense, Austen is still very much a late eighteenth-century rationalist, and her ironic distance holds the imaginative excess of Gothic at arms length. But to look at Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, published in the same year, we may find the same dialectic of rationalist skepticism (with an element of mockery) meeting imaginative excess, with an altogether different result. In Chapter IX of the Biographia, Coleridge is describing the limits set upon philosophy and science by respectable consensus:

Whoever is acquainted with the history of philosophy, during the last two or three centuries, cannot but admit that there appears to have existed a sort of secret and tacit compact among the learned, not to pass beyond a certain limit in speculative science….Therefore the true depth of science, and the penetration to the inmost centre, from which all the lines of knowledge diverge to their ever distant circumference, was abandoned to the illiterate and the simple, whom unstilled yearning, and an original ebulliency of spirit, had urged to the investigation of the indwelling and living ground of all things. These,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Shared Rhetorical Strategy in 19Th Century British Fiction and Non."  Essaytown.com.  April 22, 2014.  Accessed November 16, 2019.
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