By Wendy Walker.
I have long been interested in how new literary genres are born. They seem to arise when the existing genres provide no opportunity to express or channel deep and critical anxieties.
Gothic literature, the ancestor of the horror genre, arose, I believe, from deep anxieties about race, power and queer sexuality.
The need to express these anxieties pushed the authors of the first Gothic books to set their tales in worlds distant in time and space, safely away from the England of the late 18th century.
Horace Walpole was 46 when he wrote The Castle of Otranto.
William Beckford was 21 when he wrote Vathek.
Matthew Lewis was 21 when he wrote The Monk.
Ann Radcliffe was 28 when she wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Lewis and Beckford were major slave owners in Jamaica. Walpole and Radcliffe had been involved with the abolition of the slave trade, then the major issue before the British public.
Their novels exhibit a recurrent narrative structure that I call “sexual stealing.” “Sexual stealing” is the forcible taking by a powerful entity of a libidinized object — a treasure, a work of art, virginity, land, freedom or life itself — from a less powerful figure or group with no recourse to justice. In this narrative structure, the revenge of the victimized is accomplished partly by supernatural means in a kind of daemonic terror. More on this subject, including the complications of queer identity in relation to positions of power, can be found here.
I decided to try to elicit these issues by a constraint I had used in my book Blue Fire (2009). It involved selecting one word from each printed line of The Mysteries of Udolpho, never skipping a line and never using two consecutive words. Here is the opening of the novel with the words I chose bolded in red:
On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood in
the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St Aubert. From its windows were
seen the pastoral landscapes of Guienne and Gascony, stretching along the
river, gay with luxuriant woods and vines, and plantations of olives. To the
south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenées, whose summits, veiled
in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen and lost again, as the partial vapours
rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of
air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downward
to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green
of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks,
and herds and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above,
delighted to repose. To the north, and to the east, the plains of Guienne and
Languedoc were lost in the mist of distance on the west, Gascony was bounded
by the waters of Biscay.
St Aubert loved to wander, with his wife and daughter, on the margin
of the Garonne, and to listen to the music that floated on its waves. He had
known life in other forms than those of pastoral simplicity, having mingled in
the gay and in the busy scenes of the world; but the flattering portrait of
mankind, which his heart had delineated in early youth, his experience had
too sorrowfully corrected. Yet, amidst the changing visions of life, his principles
remained unshaken, his benevolence unchilled; and he retired from the
multitude, ‘more in pity than in anger,’ to scenes of simple nature… (Penguin, 2001)
So my extracted text reads:
banks of the plantations
whose forms gleamed
flocks herds and distance
the margin floated
As I elicited the submerged text, I added images and quotations that contextualize and comment upon it. These images and passages are for the most part contemporaneous with the first Gothic novels.
Sexual Stealing is poetic in that its form reflects its subject; it searches for a way to write the voices that are buried in full view, and subverts available genres to talk about something widely felt and intuited but not discussed. This writing assumes that writing is a form of listening, rather than expression, and that it requires the subjugation of the ego, an almost unthinkable posture for an American writer today.
This excerpt from Sexual Stealing is the end of Part One, following up one of the main characters on an 18th century West Indian plantation, the slave who has “had enough” and decides to escape into the wilds. While many slaves at this time resorted to outright rebellion with varying degrees of success, there was over the course of plantation history a steady accretion in individual resistance in the form of marronage, petit or grand. The “little” version consisted of feigned stupidity, slow performance of duties, and disappearing for a few hours or even days. The “great” marronage meant escape from the plantation altogether, stealing one’s body from the master, and going into the wilds to subsist alone, or more usually, by joining up with other maroons. In Jamaica the British waged unsuccessful war against the Maroons for over a hundred years. In Saint-Domingue (Haiti) there were many groups of Maroons who came forward to fight under Toussaint and Dessalines during the Revolution that freed the island from its white overlords. The maroon communities organized themselves along the lines of the African societies from which their members came. These populations still survive in Jamaica, Suriname and French Guiana, although in the latter two they remain under assault.
William Blake’s illustration for John Gabriel Stedman’s famous Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam is used courtesy of the excellent online image collection “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas.” (“Hanging by the Ribs Punishment, Surinam,1770s; Image Reference NW0206, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library).
21. Becoming a Maroon
“How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks—it makes me sore.”
– William Beckford, Journal, May 27, 1787.
“I have been hunted down and persecuted these many years. I have been stung and not allowed opportunities of changing the barking, snarling style you complain of, had I ever so great an inclination. No truce, no respite have I experienced since the first licenses were taken out…for shooting at me. If I am shy or savage you must consider the baitings and worryings to which I allude–how I was treated in Portugal, in Spain, in France, in Switzerland, at home, abroad, in every region.”
– William Beckford, Letter to Lady Craven, c.1790.
22. The Wizard
“Closely hid from the most penetrating eye, by the thick foliage of interwoven trees, stood the small sequestered hut of the Obiah-practitioner, Bashra, wrinkled and deformed. Snails drew their slimy train upon his shrivelled feet, and lizards and vipers filled the air of his hut with foul uncleanliness.
“His dwelling was the receptacle of robbers, and he gave them Obi, to protect them from the wounds of their assailants.
“It was here that fugitive negroes ran, to revenge themselves on those that did them any injury…”
– William Earle, Obi, or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack. In A Series of Letters From a Resident in Jamaica to His Friend in England. London, 1800.
23. The Search
William Blake, “A Negro hung by the Ribs to a Gallows,” in J.G. Stedman, Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, 1796.
24. Planter Rationalizations
“The planters of this island have been very unjustly stigmatized with an accusation of treating their Negroes with barbarity. Some alledge, that these slave-holders (as they are pleased to call them, in contempt) are lawless bashaws, West-India tyrants, inhuman oppressors, bloody inquisitors, and a long, &c. of such pretty names. The planter, in reply to these bitter invectives, will think it sufficient to urge, in the first place, that he did not make them slaves, but succeeded to the inheritance of their services in the same manner as an English ‘squire succeeds to the estate of his ancestors; and that, as to his Africans, he buys their services from those who have all along pretended a very good right to sell; that it cannot be for his interest to treat his Negroes in the manner represented; but that it is to use them well, and preserve their vigour and existence as long as he is able.”
– Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, 1774
25. An Exemplary Betrayal
“I hold the Treaty signed by Major General Walpole on the one part, Col. Montague James, the Chief of the Maroons on the other part & ratified by me absolutely as nothing.”
– Governor Balcarres, Letter to the Duke of Portland, (undated) January 1796.
Note: Parts of Sexual Stealing have been published in Re:Telling, An Anthology of Borrowed Premises, Stolen Settings, Purloined Plots and Appropriated Characters, ed. William Walsh (St.Petersburg, FL: Ampersand, 2011), EXPLORINGfictions, ed, Douglas Messerli and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place (Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2012).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wendy Walker‘s books include The Secret Service; The Sea-Rabbit, or, The Artist of Life; Stories Out of Omarie; Blue Fire; and My Man and Other Critical Fictions. She is co-leader of The Writhing Society and editor of Proteotypes. A book of her drawings is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in 2016.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 14th, 2015.