A Dark Transfusion: The Polish Literary Response to Early English Gothic

Anna Mostowska Reads Ann Radcliffe

by Agnieszka Łowczanin (Author)
Monographs 264 Pages
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 16


This book fills the gap in research of the early stages of literary Gothicism and examines its transfer from England, via French, to Poland-Lithuania in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The focus is on the oeuvre of Anna Mostowska, the first professional female writer of the Gothic in the region, and the extent to which it was shaped both by local literary tradition and political circumstances, and by Gothic fiction of Ann Radcliffe. This volume aims to redraw the maps of early Gothic by providing new insights into our understanding of the routes and meaning of its cross-cultural dissemination.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Anna Mostowska: Her Times and Her Gothic Project
  • Chapter Two Romance, Translation, Terror, and the Gothic
  • Chapter Three Sensibility, Femininity, Education, and the Gothic
  • Chapter Four Empire and Female Gothic
  • Conclusions
  • Works Cited
  • Series index

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Cover illustration Aleksander Orłowski, Portret kobiety siedzącej na skale, 1803. By permission of the National Museum in Warsaw (Min.601).

Figure 1.1 Jan Zachariasz Frey, Zygmunt Vogel, Widok Świątyni Diany w Arkadii, 1807. By permission of the National Museum in Warsaw (Gr. Pol. 9844).

Figure 1.2 Joseph Richter, Widok Domku Gotyckiego w Puławach, before 1830. By permission of the National Museum in Warsaw (Pol.1612).

Figure 1.3 Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Rovinskii, Vziatie Pragi [Massacre of Warsaw Praga, 1794, satirical illustration.] Materialy dlia russkoi ikonografii (c1884–1890). Engraving. By permission of The New York Public Library.

Figure 2.1 Marcello Bacciarelli, Portret Stanisława Augusta z klepsydrą, 1793. By permission of the National Museum in Warsaw (MP 312).

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In his analysis of the western imagining and creation of the concept of the Orient, Edward Said famously said: “Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, (…), society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together” (Orientalism 27). Political and social circumstances in which those who create literature live, inevitably shape not only their literary works, but also the reception of these works, and determine their presence in or absence from literary histories and the canon. Thus, while politics and social circumstances shape literary works, economy is the additional factor which determines their arrival and existence on the market, influences their popularity with the reading public, not infrequently vying for precedence with artistic merit. Combined, these factors determine whether a given literary work stays with the reading public, enters their consciousness and influences their shared imaginary, or whether it slides into oblivion.

It seems that as a consequence of political, rather than cultural, charting of the globe, discussions of the Gothic until very recently hardly ever challenged what Avril Horner has aptly called “the tyranny of Anglo-American narratives of the Gothic” (1). Criticism of the Gothic has rarely considered it from a broader European or global perspective in order to both examine the processes of cultural cross-fertilisation and transfer of its modes and techniques, and to inspect the simultaneous developments of what independently exhibited analogous shapes. This Anglocentric approach might be anchored in the problems of the origin and, consequently, definition of literary Gothicism. If Horace Walpole’s subtitle in the second, 1765, edition of The Castle of Otranto, “a Gothic Story,” is to be taken as the starting point of the genre, the strictness of adherence to the conventions thus initiated may restrict a broader angle and permit the analysis of only those works which exhibit a direct lineage from the precursor, in line with his classic formulation of Gothic heritage as dealing with a “combination of economic and sexual intrigue, based on an accursed dynastic succession, to the accompaniment of supernatural manifestations in a southern European medieval Gothic-castle setting” (Cornwell, “European Gothic” 64–65). Gothic would thus be limited to works which, as Maurice Lévy would have it, feature medieval architecture, convey the sense of the marvellous, and emulate medieval romances (“ ‘Gothic’ ” 9). However, Walpole’s trend-setting use of the word in a literary context was possible because, by then, it had become “a highly mobile term” (Punter and Byron 3), extending the scope of its associations from referring to a ← 11 | 12 → Germanic tribe and its barbarity, to medieval architectural primitivism, so that by the mid-eighteenth century in England “gothic” meant uncivilised and unruly, old fashioned, crude and provincial. The history of migrations of its meaning is perhaps as rich as its later cultural and generic transmutations. With the growing interest in British heritage, largely amateurish and antiquarian, and the works popularising the significance of the local folk traditions of the forefathers, came the acknowledgement and greater appreciation of native history. However, Gothicism was not only an aesthetic and historical nostalgic turn towards the native, so crucial for the eighteenth-century redefinition of Britishness. It was also political. The word, with its full historical and cultural weight, stemming directly from the liberty-loving spirit of the local Goths, the Anglo-Saxons, was soon used to legitimise parliamentary sovereignty. “Gothic” was charged with meanings and local flavours when it entered literary histories.

Expansion of Gothic Criticism

Perhaps then, a history of the pre-late-eighteenth-century migration of its meaning implies that the idea of mobility is inscribed in the word “Gothic” and the concept of Gothicism. Once Walpole appropriated it to the field of literature, it began yet another migration: decades after he used it to define the type of story he wrote, literary critics started to apply the term “Gothic” to designate a literary genre.1 From ancestral, supernatural, political and economically charged, it began to characterise works which depicted the domestic and were associated with the female experience of oppression, fear and insecurity; “literary Gothic started as a cluster of motifs” (Bridgwater 21). Therefore, migration can be seen as one of the signatures of the Gothic. The scope of its application has never been limited to literature, and nowadays when Gothic is unmistakably a cultural term, we more often speak of a Gothic mode, rather than a genre. Despite Maurice Lévy’s concern about the “deconstruction of the Gothic,” and its “monstrous aberration and departure from historical truth,” which he observed in the contemporary application of the word and expressed in the early 1990s (“‘Gothic’” 6, 14), nowadays, more than two decades later, nobody questions that Gothic is ubiquitous and cross-generic, “notoriously one of the most slippery terms in the literary critical dictionary” (Killeen 13). Criticism of the Gothic has long opened itself to the understanding of the term as “a taste, an ‘aesthetic,’” and acknowledged ← 12 | 13 → its “heterogeneous” nature (Miles, Gothic Writing 1). Such an approach, almost by definition, invites further subcategorisations to differentiate among, to paraphrase Henry James, those loose monsters, which tend to be quite baggy. It allows not only for the distinction of periodically defined categories within the Gothic, such as, for example, Victorian Gothic, or geographically specific ones, such as, Irish, American, South-Ontario, Barcelona or Desert Gothic, but also, because of “the generic multiplicity of the Gothic” (Miles, Gothic Writing 4), it allows for the inclusion of new spin-off genres and new modifiers to help define the Gothic. Criticism of the Gothic also tends to cross historical literary boundaries and examine a broader pre-late-eighteenth-century ambience that anachronistically bears the tropes later labelled as Gothic. Here, for example, Shakespearean influence on shaping the Gothic imagination and fascination with otherness, the supernatural, and emotional extremity, has been explored by Jacek Mydla in Spectres of Shakespeare. Appropriations of Shakespeare in the Early English Gothic (2009), and in collections of essays, Gothic Shakespeares (2008, ed. by John Drakakis and Dale Townshend), and Shakespearean Gothic (2009, ed. by Christy Desmet and Anne Williams).

Since a chronologically progressive vertical inspection of Gothic transmutations is possible, whereby nineteenth-century Victorian, or twentieth-century Gothic have been distinguished, a horizontal analysis of the cross-feeding of contemporaneous tendencies occurring at various, roughly simultaneous, historical moments can offer another interesting angle from which to inspect the Gothic. Tracing such migrations of the Gothic can certainly not only expand its volume, but also enrich the understanding of its drives and allures and give evidence that from its onset it has been a potent cultural mode, and quite literally too, a migratory and boundary-defying one. There have been attempts to look at the Gothic from such cross-national perspectives, and read it as a truly European phenomenon, and not only because of the southern setting of its first exponents. One of the first, most notable scholars to draw attention to Anglo-French exchanges of the Gothic was Maurice Lévy in Le Roman Gothique Anglais (1968). Among later attempts to look at European literatures from a Gothic angle was European Gothic. A Spirited Exchange 1760–1960 (2002), edited by Avril Horner, followed by Le Gothic: Influences and Appropriations in Europe and America (2008), co-edited by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik. Most recently, worldwide perspectives have been opened in Gothic criticism to chart the reformulation of its tropes and the way they “engage with the anxieties produced by the breakdown of national and cultural boundaries” (Byron 2). Gothic has been redefined as a globe-encompassing phenomenon in Globalgothic (2013), edited ← 13 | 14 → by Glennis Byron. New terms, such as transnational Gothic and globalgothic, have entered the critical lexicon of Gothic studies. There are also Europe- and world-conscious chapters in the first edition of David Punter’s Companion to the Gothic (2000), where, amid those dealing with the English-speaking territories – Scottish, Irish and American Gothic – the chapter “European Gothic” by Neil Cornwell offers an extension beyond Anglo-American critical interest and opens up Gothic affiliations of the texts produced in three European literatures, namely French, German and Russian, in the early stages of the development of the genre. The most recent second edition of David Punter’s New Companion to the Gothic (2012) has been extended to contain an entirely new section entitled “The Globalization of Gothic” with chapters on Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, Asian, and Japanese Gothic. Neil Cornwell’s chapter on European Gothic, however, remains unchanged and, to the best of my knowledge, continues to be one of the most-recently published comprehensive surveys of the expansion and adaptation of the Gothic mode on the Old Continent, focussed, however, solely on the territories of France, Germany and Russia. In a very insightful introductory passage Cornwell charts the development of the Gothic as an “ethnic and cultural concept” and examines it from a shared Pan-European imagistic and political perspective (“European Gothic” 64). Discussing the burgeoning of literary Gothicism, via the Marquis de Sade, he admits that the “political, social, cultural, and religious anxieties” of the troubled last decades of the eighteenth century, “felt Europe-wide (indeed, northern hemisphere-wide),” could only be expressed by means of the Gothic genre, “the inevitable product of the revolutionary shocks” resounding on the continent (Cornwell, “European Gothic” 64). Cornwell concludes his analysis by acknowledging the existence of other, “[n]ear-contemporaneous European works” and “their successors (east and west)” (“European Gothic” 64–65). Also other critics acknowledge the possibility of the Europe-wide dissemination of the Gothic. Terry Hale, after a detailed analysis of the Anglo-French literary exchange in the eighteenth century, in “Translation in Distress,” concludes by making a more geographically specific remark that, “one might be tempted to hypothesize that the genre may have undertaken other journeys, perhaps eastwards, again through French, to Russia and Poland” (34).2 ← 14 | 15 →

To date, however, not much has been written, and very little in English, on the subject of “other journeys” the Gothic may have undertaken, and the comment made by Hale about expansion of the Gothic beyond the boundaries of well-mapped western Europe, to a large extent, still remains insufficiently explored in the criticism of the Gothic. The main eastern territory which has garnered the attention of critics in recent years is the Russian Empire, politics, perhaps, playing an important role here. Transformed into one of the mightiest powers in the eighteenth century, conquering and annexing adjacent lands, it became a crucial player in the political arena at the time literary Gothic was born. Many of the themes resulting from expansion into new cultures and territories have been recently described as haunting and feeding the imagination of Russian writers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the reasons of interest to Anglophone critics may be the parallels and differences of colonial themes and preoccupations with the margins of the empire with those relating to the British Empire. Russian Gothic has been further explored by Neil Cornwell in his other publications, especially on Odoyevsky, like “Pushkin and Odoyevsky: the ‘Afro-Finnish’ Theme in Russian Gothic” (2003). Examples of most recent chapter-length publications on Russian Gothic and the Gothic of the territories once forming the Russian Empire include: Katherine Bowers’s “The Fall of the House: Gothic Narrative and the Decline of the Russian family” (2015) and “Through the Opaque Veil: the Gothic and Death in Russian Realism” (2017), and the publications of Valeria Sobol, especially her book-length work in progress Haunted Empire: The Russian Literary Gothic and the Imperial Uncanny, 1790–1850, and “On Mimicry and Ukrainians: The Imperial Gothic in Pogorelsky’s Monastyrka” (2013), to name a few.

Gothic Beginnings and the Foreign

In order to understand the importance of expanding criticism of the Gothic into new territories it is crucial to realise the importance of the exchange and mutual injection of cultural themes Gothic has enjoyed, and stress that, as has been said, migration has been at the core of the Gothic from its very beginnings. Literary Gothic has been open to foreign influence from the moment of its inception, ← 15 | 16 → and, as its name evidently manifests, moulded by a migratory, non-native English ingredient. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in its first edition professed to be a translation by a “William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto” (1). The subsequent, most popular novels of the first phase of the Gothic by Ann Radcliffe and M. G. Lewis followed the same trajectory. Even though these authors did not pretend to be editors or translators of works originally written by foreign writers, they not only invariably transported their readers to the geographically remote and ideologically distant foreign territories of southern-European and obligatorily Catholic countries, but also openly admitted to the influence of foreign flavours. In this respect, Lewis is best remembered for The Monk (1796) where he acknowledged the following influences: of a Turkish story of the Santon Barsisa, which had been printed in the Guardian in 1713 (McEvoy 443), of a German story of the Bleeding Nun, of “an original Danish Ballad,” and the Spanish “Gayferos and Melesindra mentioned in Don Quixote,” and concluded that many more “plagiarisms” may be found, “of which I am at present totally unconscious” (Lewis 6).

Criticism devoted to these early stages of the Gothic has recently significantly expanded to probe beyond the fictional level of geographical remoteness and architectural exoticism of Gasconian châteaux, Apennine and Sicilian castles, or the convents and cathedrals of Madrid. One of the recent directions in the study of the early stages of the Gothic has been to see the historical and political influences on the development of the genre as well as the social circumstances of its germination. As has been said, an important development in Gothic scholarship is to examine the more immediate contemporary continental influences on the English Gothic, and to follow the directions of its dissemination onto the continent. Trying to map a more comprehensive history of the Gothic which does not only zoom in on the British Isles, the indisputable cradle of the genre, but zooms out for a broader perspective, both at the time of its birth and later dissemination, three kinds of traffic can be distinguished.

The first is a two-way literary exchange between England and the countries with which it had a cultural, and political connection – and often tension – countries which were, geographically speaking, the nearest, that is France and Germany. One of the most comprehensive recently published studies on the exchanges between England and France is Angela Wright’s seminal Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764–1820: The Import of Terror (2013). These cross-Channel influences resulted in numerous, often unacknowledged, translations and appropriations of the works of French authors practised by Horace Walpole’s most immediate followers, Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee and Charlotte Smith (Wright, Britain, France 35), a phenomenon which will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter Two. Their romances of ← 16 | 17 → the 1780s became in turn “a direct influence” on the Gothic of the 1790s, especially on one of the most significant authors of the first wave of the Gothic, Ann Radcliffe (Wright, Britain, France 36). This proliferation of Gothic productions in England, in turn, brought about their speedy export, a migration back, so to speak, to the Continent, and further transformation of the already transformed and appropriated forms. English Gothic romances were almost immediately translated into French, the lingua franca of the European literati and the cosmopolitan aristocracy who were the continental readers of the Gothic romances written, after Walpole, to a considerable degree, though not solely, by and for the English middle-classes.

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Łowczanin (Author)

Agnieszka Łowczanin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of British Literature and Culture at the University of Łódź, Poland, where she teaches courses on British literature, culture and history. She specialises in eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries fiction, focusing on the politics, poetics and paradoxes of the Gothic. With Dorota Wiśniewska she co-edited the volume All that Gothic (2014).


Title: A Dark Transfusion: The Polish Literary Response to Early English Gothic