BMCR 2021.10.02

Spectres of antiquity: classical literature and the Gothic, 1740-1830

, Spectres of antiquity: classical literature and the Gothic, 1740-1830. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 284. ISBN 9780190910273 $74.00.

[The Table of Contents is at the end of the review.]

James Uden’s new monograph, offering intriguing insights on the relation of Classical and Gothic literature, is a valuable contribution to the fields of both Classics and Gothic studies. The author persuasively argues that Classical antiquity was perceived by the Gothic authors of the 18th and 19th centuries as a menacing authority, a literary spectre haunting their present and asphyxiating their intellectual aspirations. In his own words (p. 4), “Spectres of Antiquity underlines the continuing presence of Greece and Rome in Gothic novels, poetry, and drama–in epigraphs or quotations, allusions to texts, personalities and places–and argues that a tension with the classical was a vital constituent of the Gothic”. The book is comprised of six chapters, almost of the same length, framed by a thorough introduction and an inspired afterword. Uden adopts a convenient and easily followed linear order, beginning with the examination of Edward Young (1683-1765) and ending with Mary Shelley (1797-1851). The transition from each chapter to the next is seamless, continuing the thread of the main argument spanning from cover to cover.

The book’s introduction, elegantly written, expresses the book’s aims and offers sufficient background information to the reader. The very term “Gothic”, subtitling the second edition of the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), bore at the time connotations of “anti-classical”, indebted to its history. Beginning as a label for Germanic tribes that played their role in the “Fall of Rome”, Gothic later would be used either as a synonym for barbarous (as opposed to the civilised Rome), or as symbolising liberation and independence from the oppression of the Roman Empire and, more generally, Classical antiquity. Gothic literature encapsulates “the political and aesthetic tension” (p. 14) between the Gothic and Classical due to their synchronous, and not temporally sequential, existence.

The first chapter sets the background of the study by examining three eighteenth-century authors whose ideas on antiquity would influence the Gothic: Edward Young, Edmund Burke, and Richard Hurd. Each to his own extent contributed to moving Classical antiquity from the public sphere into the private experience of the solitary reader. Young, whose writing inspired the title of Uden’s book (p. 17), expressed the idea that the blind, venerating attitude towards the Classics had created a ghost out of them, looming over modern poets. Burke, on the other hand, was the first to view the evocation of horror inherent in Classical literature (e.g. the Virgilian underworld, pp. 40-41) as an expression of the sublime, a positive goal, capable of moving individual readers. Finally, Hurd, moving one step further, attempts to bridge Classical literature with the Gothic novel by underscoring the elements of horror found in the former as forerunners for the latter, in which horror is greater.

The second chapter looks at the author Horace Walpole. The second edition of his novel The Castle of Otranto was subtitled a Gothic Story, thus linking for the first time the term with the element of the supernatural, which abounds in the novel. Uden draws an interesting parallel between Walpole’s motley collection of antiquities—mainly those of body parts—in his suburban villa, Strawberry Hill, and his attitude towards Classical literature and its presence in the aforementioned novel as well as in his tragedy, The Mysterious Mother: isolated concepts and persons from mythology, amputated pieces of literature, denuded of their original context and deprived of their meaning, reappear in a foreign environment as morbid curiosities. Walpole’s treatment of the Classical past is corrosive, turning it from a rich source of exemplars and ideals into something strange and grotesque, mutilated and manipulated so as to be aligned with his Gothic aesthetics.

In the third chapter Uden goes on to examine the celebrated novelist Ann Radcliffe. Unlike Walpole’s writings, “the specific engagement with classical literature largely disappears” (p. 19), but antiquity still plays a significant role in Radcliffe’s writings via mainly the mechanism of “remembrance”. Triggered by the environment around them, Radcliffe’s heroines remember “monumental” scenes of the Classical past, often involving warfare, such as the Trojan War, or Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. The recollection of these events comes with the protagonists’ sympathetic feelings towards the experience of the victims and the oppressed. The focus is centred on the lives of the powerless individuals who suffered from the grandiose aspirations of others. A similar attitude is found in Radcliffe’s travel narrative as well, where there are “many more specific references to Latin books and inscriptions than her novels” (p. 101). Uden persuasively argues, against others, that we are not in position to be certain that Radcliffe did not know Latin, and, so, the passages found in her travel writing should be attributed to her husband, William. Regarding the chapter’s structure, the author remains faithful to his linear examination, looking at Radcliffe’s writings in chronological order. However, I could not help wondering if a break in this sequential format in favour of a more genre-based examination, with separate treatment of the fiction and travel writing, would be more helpful to the reader. As it is, after looking at the novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) Uden proceeds to the travel book A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), and culminates with Radcliffe’s last novel, The Italian (1796-97).

I found Uden’s reading of Matthew Lewis, the subject of the fourth chapter, the most interesting section of the book. While Lewis is mostly known for his Gothic horror novel The Monk (1796), Uden justifiably argues that Lewis was as much a translator as he was an author. The chapter’s focus is centred around Lewis’ idiosyncratic expression of his anxiety about revealing his homosexuality through the presence of Classical literature in his work.

Pieces of translation, quotations, or allusions are associated with Lewis’ intellectual urge to write, erotic desire towards men, and the danger of self-exposure through the publication of his work. Uden persuasively uncovers Lewis’ queer canvas by reading deeply into the author’s work: the translation of Horace’s Epistles 1.20 in the preface to The Monk, the Anacreontic poem found in the novel’s plot, the protagonist’s (Monk Ambrosio) seduction by a woman who initially appeared to be a young boy, and Lewis’ keenness to be called “Monk Lewis”, thus identifying himself with his protagonist, are just some examples of Uden’s penetrative gaze when it comes to Lewis’ novel. Also fascinating is the examination of Lewis’ adaptations and translations. The Love of Gain (1799) was an imitation of Juvenal’s thirteenth Satire in which Lewis highlighted the horror elements of the Latin original and alluded to his own Gothic works. According to Uden, The Love of Gain was addressed to an educated elite in an attempt, by blending the Classic with the Gothic, to repudiate the accusations—such as homosexuality, blasphemy, vulgarisation of taste—that his previous works had given rise to. Uden’s analysis of Lewis’ translation of Goethe’s “Der Fischer” (1778) corroborates his reading that “Lewis found in Latin and Greek literature a resource for expressing terror—not, perhaps, the terror of the supernatural, but the all too real terror of personal condemnation and sexual exposure” (p. 153).

In the fifth chapter, Uden moves away from English authors and looks at the novels of Charles Brockden Brown in the United States. Although educated in the Classical languages himself, Brown demonstrates in his fiction a scepticism towards the value and usefulness of a Classical education. Set in the public arena, there is a conflict between the “old world” and the “new world”, the “ancient” and the “modern”, the “European” and the “American”. The grandeur of antiquity and the moral principles associated with it are begrimed in Brown’s fiction by their close connection to sordid acts involving deceit, homicide, and madness. In Wieland (1798) the protagonist, who displays a religious reverence towards Cicero drifts into insanity. Fascinating is Uden’s discussion of the villain of the novel, Carwin, who is depicted as the incarnation of the ancient ideal of the orator, without morality. Carwin is a ventriloquist who can manipulate people by mimicking other persons’ voices (perhaps even God’s); his ability is described by the term biloquium (“double-speech”), a term coined by Brown himself, Classical in its appearance, but empty and false as the values of antiquity it carries. Antiquity is approached in religious terms, as a sacred relic whose value is given and beyond question; yet that is what exactly what Brown does, he questions the value of Classics.

In the sixth and final chapter, Uden returns to England and Mary Shelley. The author of Frankenstein, combining traits from Romanticism and the Gothic, depicts Classical antiquity as “abjected, marginalized, event transparent” (p. 224), yet, nonetheless, as an authority that modernity wishes but utterly fails to imitate. Victor Frankenstein’s inspiration to create life is owed to his attachment to obsolete concepts, which, combined with the achievements of modern science, ends up in tragedy. In Valerius: The Reanimated Roman (1819-20) the homonymous man’s “dead hand” (p. 210) sabotages the protagonist’s affection towards him. In the dystopian The Last Man (1826), the last man alive on Earth chooses to die amidst some Roman ruins; the statues seem to have more life in them than he does. Also, Uden’s comparative examination of the mentions of the Herculaneum papyri in Shelley’s novel and in Charles Maturin’s gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) is genuinely engrossing.

The perfectly fitting title Afterword: Haunting or Reception? which marks the ending of the book, recapitulates the monograph’s main idea, and, in addition, offers a brief, yet stimulating discussion of the concept of reception.[1] Anatomising the culturally and ideologically charged term “reception”, Uden astutely states that the very notion of reception, of receiving something, rests on a volitional basis. However, this underestimates the ways the past has already shaped people’s opinions and views, by definition against their will and without their even noticing. The Gothic metaphor of “haunting”, on the other hand, encapsulates this concept. Thus, Uden’s afterword opens more subjects for examination stimulated by his discussion throughout the book.

However, and as it is to be expected, not all the smaller points in the book are of equal weight. In most cases, Uden seems aware of this and chooses to shield himself with appropriate phrasing, e.g. p. 132 “It might signal a comment to the reader” (emphasis mine). The main argument of the book, though, remains valid. Regarding the editing, the unjustified text in the footnotes disrupts the book’s otherwise exceptional editorial quality (misprints and typos are vanishingly rare).[2]  Despite offering novel and striking insights, the book is readily accessible to non-specialists. All non-English quotations are (commendably) translated and details of editions used are given in the footnotes. Uden gives due acknowledgement when drawing on the work of previous scholars, but clearly indicates where he dissents from them and where he is developing original interpretations, making it easier for the reader to evaluate his own contributions.

All in all, the Spectres of Antiquity is a valuable addition to Classical Scholarship, Gothic studies, and those interested in the concept of Reception.

Table of Contents

Introduction (p. 1-23)
1. Gothic and Classical in Eighteenth-Century Criticism: Ghosts, Knights, and the Sublime (p. 25-54)
2. Horace Walpole, Gothic Classicism, and the Aesthetics of Collection (p. 55-84)
3. Ann Radcliffe’s Classical Remembrances (p. 85-119)
4. Queer Urges and the Act of Translation: Matthew Lewis (p. 121-155)
5. Classical Idols and the Early American Gothic: the Skepticism of Charles Brockden Brown (p. 157-189)
6. Embodied Antiquity: Mary Shelley’s Relationships with the Past (p. 191- 225)
Afterword: Haunting or Reception? (p. 227-233)


[1] On the term, see James Uden, “Reception”, in Roy K. Gibson and Christopher L. Whitton (eds.), The Cambridge Critical Guide to Latin Literature (Cambridge, forthcoming).

[2] On p. 111, n. 93 there is need of spacing after the colon. On p. 129, n. 35 for “A Monk” read “The Monk”. On p. 140 n. 77 Paul’s “Romans” is not italicised. On p. 208, n. 58 there is unnecessary spacing before the semicolon. Lastly, on p. 212, n. 71 the “M.” for M. Shelley is duplicated.