Literature of the English Country House: Servant Narratives in Gothic Literature

Those taking Literature of the English Country House are this week reading extracts from Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho and thinking about the role of the country house in Gothic literature. In this post Kathleen Hudson, a PhD candidate in the School of English, tells a little about the role of the servant in such literature. 

She wished much to enquire when Count Morano was expected at the castle, but an unwillingness to ask unnecessary questions, and to mention family concerns to a servant, withheld her. Meanwhile, Annette’s thoughts were engaged upon another subject: she dearly loved the marvellous, and had heard of a circumstance, connected with the castle, that highly gratified this taste. Having been enjoined not to mention it, her inclination to tell it was so strong, that she was every instant on the point of speaking what she had heard.
– Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

A harlots progress plate 1

A harlot’s progress plate 1

In the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century servants play an important role in the exploration of both public and private identity. Within the novels of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Charlotte Dacre, and Mary Shelley, the earliest works of the Gothic genre, servant characters act as important set-pieces who provide crucial information and support aristocratic and middle-class characters materially and mentally. They do this primarily through their ‘narratives’ – the instances in the text where servants interrupt a protagonist’s conversation or activity in order to present a story, sermon, memory, observation or insight which reflects their uniqueness as characters. Within this narrative servant characters in the Gothic provide protagonist and reader with a kind of narrative of ‘otherness’ as servants belong to a specific background which distinguishes them from their employers. They also have the ability to move in myriad areas within the domestic space and therein have a particular insight that other characters may lack.

A harlot's progress plate 5

A harlot’s progress plate 5

Consider, for example, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Within this text the heroine, Emily, interacts with numerous servants, many of whom provide her with insight into her situation and follow her through her engagements with the Gothic space. Her maidservant Annette, for example, introduces Emily to a painting of an important mother figure, gives her information about Emily’s mysterious and dangerous uncle, and eventually saves Emily from numerous dangerous situations. As a servant, a domestic entity needed both upstairs and downstairs, Annette can freely move about Udolpho castle and is often the only one who knows the information which Emily (who is often confined to a single space) requires. Annette complicates her narrative, however, as someone who “dearly loved the marvellous” and who, in keeping with the Gothic aesthetic, often provides important information in the form of ghost stories and supernatural folk tales. Annette and numerous other servants in early Gothic literature frequently construct mini-Gothic tales in their narratives, synecdoche versions of the Gothic novel which point to common tropes and elements within the genre. Within this pattern the protagonist becomes a kind of Gothic reader while the servant functions as a Gothic novelist – moreover the reader herself gets a chance to examine how elements of the genre inspire emotional responses.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Jean-Baptiste Greuze

The servant’s position as an often comical ‘interruption’ whose narrative intrudes upon an aristocratic or middle-class conversation reflects social anxieties related to servants as a class in the latter half of the 18th century. A servant is a member of the household who represents a different class and therefore a different social and moral outlook. They aren’t members of the family and are essentially ‘others.’ However, once they are incorporated into a domestic space they very nearly have complete freedom to move anywhere and see and hear anything. This implied freedom and ‘otherness’ is very problematic for a social system which saw the domestic space as a haven for British virtue – consider Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, where a writing and reading servant, privy to the secret immoralities of her deviant ‘gentleman’ master, poses a serious threat to stability.

Gothic servants are perhaps most interesting within this context, then, because their narratives reflect the aforementioned social anxieties and as well as issues particular to the genre. David Punter and Glennis Byron argue that the early Gothic genre “represented excess and exaggeration, the product of the wild and the uncivilized, a world that constantly tended to overflow cultural boundaries.” When servants speak within an early Gothic text they are usually functioning within the protagonist’s attempt to contextualize and control an increasingly chaotic world. However, servants destabilize the domestic space around them by presenting an alternative narrative constructed through their social and moral difference. They also problematize the larger novel by exploiting the mechanisms of the Gothic genre itself, usually by employing narrative forms such as ‘ghost-stories’ as a means of examine terror and awe in the text.

Mysteries of Udolpho

Mysteries of Udolpho

In Udolpho Emily is dismissive of Annette’s interruptions, calling them “silly tales” and treating them as casual amusements or irritating distractions – a popular response among Gothic protagonists. However, Radcliffe, like many other Gothic authors, used servant narrative to articulate a number of important questions about her heroine’s identity and the larger mysteries of the Gothic space. This pattern is repeated and developed throughout the Gothic genre – servants jump into the main narrative of the text in order to present their narrative, and in doing so they accidentally-intentionally call attention to elements like sensibility, superstition, amorality, selfishness, and other aspects which effect the characterization of other people and their responses to the world around them.

To find out more about Kathleen’s work, be sure to follow her on Twitter! 

Don’t forget that tomorrow you’ll have an opportunity to ask Amber Regis and Joe Bray any questions you might have about this week’s materials in a live Google Hangout. You can send us your questions or comments either by using the course hashtag #FLHouseLit on Twitter, submitting them in the Google Hangout chat window (if you have an Google account) during the event!

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One comment to “Literature of the English Country House: Servant Narratives in Gothic Literature”
One comment to “Literature of the English Country House: Servant Narratives in Gothic Literature”
  1. Pingback: The School of English | Literature of the English Country House: G. W. M. Reynolds and the Homes of the Wealthy

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