Jan 102007

I finally finished Richard Davenport-Hines’ Gothic: Four Hundred Year of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. It’s a big, sprawling book, rather like the sprawling mock-castles that the author spends a lot (perhaps too much) time describing.

There are, however, a lot of tidbits that are useful. Davenport-Hines defines the Gothic as the counterpoint to the Romantic. Romanticism is about rationalism, the perfectability of human nature and human society, the conscious, rational mind, the unified, authentic self. Gothicism is about fear and passion, the uncontrollable unconsciousness and the corrupt society, unchangeable fate and destiny, multiple, performed selves. Davenport-Hines touches on BDSM several times, the idea that “fear could sublime,” but also the idea that power was unstable and that social hierarchies could be inverted.

Take, for instance, Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, who wrote the seminal Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto in the 18th century.

Walpole prefered men to women as objects of desire. One of them was Lord Lincoln, who didn’t really reciprocate Walpole’s affections. In 1743, Walpole went to a masquerade to meet Lincoln. “I dressed myself in an Indian dress, and after he was come thither, walked into the room, made him three low bows, and kneeling down, took a letter out of my bosom, wrapped in Persian silk, and laid it on myhead; he stared violently! They persuaded him to take it.” It was a mock-Persian crush note to Lincoln. (Davenport-Hines, Gothic, Pg. 121)

Here we have race and gender cross-dressing, exhibitionism, and perhaps a degree of humiliation, all self-imposed. Walpole is clearly topping Lincoln from the bottom, or trying to. Another letter to Lincoln, written a year or so after the masquerade incident, shows Walpole’s masochistic manipulation.

…do tell me, what it is can secure you to me: point out – if you can guess, what sort of turn and behaviour could fix you – … I assure you, there is no part I won’t act to keep you.

Davenport-Hines, Gothic, Pg. 121-122

While Walpole is clearly a masochist (by Anita Phillips’ definition, which requires a degree of manipulation and a figure of devotion), this is not truly a BDSM relationship, in that neither Lincoln nor any of Walpole’s crushes returned his affections.

There’s also a rather odd anecdote:

Slavery he [Walpole] loathed, and he expressed “horror” rather than irony at the bequest of Christopher Codrington, who founded the library at All Souls College in Oxfored. Codrington bequeathed his Barbadian plantations to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts with instructions that they maintain a perpetuity of 300 slaves, who were branded with “Society” on their chests.

Davenport-Hines, Gothic, Pg. 124

Davenport-Hines says that The Castle of Otranto was meant to be a joke: it opens with a man being crushed to death by a giant feathered helmet that fell from the sky on his wedding day. Other writers took it seriously, and their imitations were inadvertently camp. Walpole probably did make a contribution to the emerging form of BDSM with his villainous aristocrat dependent on his servants, and lots of pseudo-Medieval architecture, especially the dungeons.

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