Book Review: Ardel Haefele-Thomas’ ‘Queer Others in Victorian Gothic’

 

In my PhD preparation, I ought to be reading academic textbooks. As there’s a literature review part of the PhD thesis (as far as I’m aware anyway), it makes sense that I review academic textbooks that I read. Then, I’ve got a neat log of my thoughts on the field I’m delving into. So this is that.

Queer Others in Victorian Gothic is the first textbook I picked up because it seemed like it would begin to plug some gaps in my knowledge. Specifically, I have no trouble finding drag queens to analyse using a Gothic critical toolkit, but it’s considerably harder finding texts (mainly books) that contain some semblance of drag. I approached this book with a specific desire to begin finding other texts to explore and to simultaneously delve more greatly into the field of queer Gothic. I wasn’t expecting miracles, as from my MA, I’ve found a sharp lack on critical material about drag specifically (especially in literary criticism), so queer gothic that emphasises otherness and transformation seemed like a good enough launch point. I am not intending to review this book too greatly, as my main criterion at the moment is “did it help me?”; beyond that I’m currently fairly easy to please (once I have more developed and nuanced opinions on queer gothic, that will likely change). Anyway…

Positives:

I found this textbook to be a well-written and concise starting point for understanding Queerness in Victorian Gothic. As an utter newbie to this area, I didn’t feel condescended to by the author’s tone; it was written with reasonable details through its case-study chapter structure. Additionally, points didn’t feel laboured, and on the whole the text didn’t outstay its welcome. It said what is wanted to say (more or less) within a fairly tidy 147 pages. I felt like it was a good starting point, which is what I was looking for.

with regard to drag, it was again a good start. Like all the other textbooks I read on my MA, there is this tendency to kind of skirt around the word ‘drag’, or to get *this* close to it, to indirectly talk about drag, but to never quite step into that realm. On the one hand, this is great, because nobody is writing about it, so I still have a valid PhD topic. On the other hand, it’s really annoying because it isn’t going that tiny bit far enough for me and my research.

Negatives (for me):

My main critique of the text comes from its desire to explore the intersections of Gothic, Queer, and Postcolonial theory. Overall, I found there to be a general tendency to lean more towards the intersection of postcolonialism and the Gothic, rather than comfortably sit at the intersection of all three areas. Conversely, when talking about queer Gothic, there was little mention of postcolonial elements. This isn’t strictly a bad thing, as these discussions were well-written and felt well-handled, but the very outset of the textbook stated its position at the intersection of all three, which I (possibly naively) assumed meant a consistent discussion of queer postcolonial Gothic. When it did align all three areas, there was a tendency to get listy, which in my opinion, is never a good thing.

This may have been down to the case study structure, as the chosen texts seemed to have lean more into postcolonial Gothic or Queer Gothic rather than sit comfortably at the intersection of these areas. It may also be because Queer and Postcolonialism are enormous topic areas, and cleanly intersecting them at the Gothic is a very large task that couldn’t be done in 147 pages (a potential publishing restriction as Queer Others in Victorian Gothic is part of The University of Wales Press’ ‘Gothic Literary Studies’ series), so it makes sense to lean more towards Queer or PoCo theoretical applications to Victorian Gothic. This is not to mention a further intersection as this text works to focus on bodies and embodiment (the post-colon part of the title is Transgressing Monstrosity).

With regard to drag, my criticisms aren’t unique to this text at all: there’s a constant skirting around this area (whether conscious or not, I cannot yet determine); I hate this persistent use of ‘drag’, ‘cross-dressing’, ‘transvestite’, and occasionally ‘transgender’ and ‘genderqueer’ as relatively interchangeable and synonymous terms. When I get to do my PhD, I am setting out clear discrepancies between these terms mostly out of necessity, somewhat out of annoyance and this peeve of mine.

Overall:

did it help me?

Yes, I believe this text has been a good start in positioning me in queer gothic. I have some useful quotations gathered from it, some academic texts to follow up, and some primary fiction to follow up as well.

Did I learn anything?

Again, yes. Specifically, I learnt that if I’m going to perform “drag readings” on Victorian Gothic texts, there’s a lot of coded language to signify queer things to other queers. And I learnt some stuff about queer Gothic, a drag ball in Manchester in 1880… and that reading the whole book is (unfortunately) useful. I’d only intended to read two chapters, but  seeing it was only 147 pages, thought I might as well read the whole thing, and the most useful chapters were the ones I had no intention of reading.

 

Basically, a good start for me.

 

Follow up from it:

Elizabeth Gaskell – ‘The Grey Woman’

Vernon Lees – ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’

M. Brock – From Wollstonecraft to Stoker: Essays on Gothic and Victorian Sensation Fiction

R. Collins – ‘Marian’s Moustache: bearded ladies, ladies, hermaphrodites, and intersexual collage in The Woman in White

E. Showalter – Speaking of Gender

R. B. Anolik(? Goddamn, I hate my shit handwriting) – Horrifying Sex: Essays on Sexual Difference in Gothic Literature

Leslie Feinberg – Transgender Warriors

Foucault (UGH WHY, but fine I’ll do it) – The History of Sexuality

Marjorie Garber – Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (!!!!!!GOLD!!!!!!)

Judith Halbestam – Skin Shows

– In a Queer Time and Place

Kelly Hurley – The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siecle

M. Duberman – A Queer World: The Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader

Susan J. Nasarette – The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence

R. Fantina – Straight Writ Queer: Non-normative Expressions of Heterosexuality in Literature

M. Eliason and B. Beemyn – Queer Studies: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Anthology

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