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literature

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English Literature: Romanticism  
 
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But the double self figured forth in the writings of his friends Shelley (Prometheus Unbound, 1820) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818) seems to have another, more directly ethical, import. And yet, as Eve Sedgwick has shown in her chapter on James Hogg's 1824 novel Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the homosocial dynamic impelling the good-evil Doppelgänger still may mask a cultural homophobia of real significance.

The Gothic Novel and Homosexual Self-Loathing

The one genre in which displaced homosexual elements figure large is the gothic novel. The main male authors who created the conventions of gothic fiction in the later eighteenth century--Walpole, Beckford, and Lewis--were all (more or less) homosexual: Walpole may be thought to have been "iffily" so, as Sedgwick claims, or to have been afflicted late in life with what George Rousseau has termed "sexual fragility," but the attachments of his early years make his orientation plain enough.

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What this trio accomplished over the generation that spans the publication of Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765) and Lewis's The Monk (1796) is succinctly articulated by Sedgwick: "The Gothic novel crystallized for English audiences the terms of a dialectic between male homosexuality and homophobia, in which homophobia appeared thematically in paranoid plots."

As these comments suggest, the homosexual displacements of the gothic, once identified, are not easily celebrated as liberating. The gothic transgressor always gets his just deserts: for his "unrestrained passions and atrocious actions," we are told on the last page of the novel, the Caliph Vathek goes to a special place in hell, "a prey to grief without end and remorse without mitigation."

Not only do we sense a ritualistic enactment of homosexual self-hatred in such paranoid fantasies, but the increasing misogyny of these gothic novels intensifies our awareness that the writers are participating in the cultural pathology they affect to be purging.

By no means on the same level of artistic achievement, John Polidori's The Vampire (1819) may nonetheless be thought an important document in this genre of homosexual paranoia. His contribution to the famous writing contest in Geneva that produced Frankenstein, The Vampire was actually begun by Byron, then taken over, in what appears a customary act of bonding with an older man, by Polidori. His suicide in 1820 has, in fact, been attributed to a despondency caused by the novella's being published as Byron's.

The real terms are less romantic. Handsome, sexually repressed, and mentally unstable, Polidori seems never to have survived being dismissed by Byron as his personal physician over his erratic behavior. (Why Byron in 1816 had need of a "personal physician" as traveling companion is a question rather too seldom asked.)

Whatever his psychological instabilities, however, it is the choice of subject matter that most deeply insinuates the homosexual displacement of The Vampire. Byron chose the subject after reciting to the entourage of young writers parts of Coleridge's just-published "Christabel," the one major poem of English Romanticism to be enveloped in a figurative homosexuality.

There the innocent heroine accepts the witchlike Geraldine into her castle and then her bed, where through a sort of vampirelike experience, she is subjected to the woman's dark influence. That the homophobic Coleridge would picture lesbian experience as corrupting is by no means as culturally interesting as Byron's emphasis of the passage and then the transference whereby the central figure, the vampire with an unpurgeable infection who craves a fraternity (in the Victorian period, of course, Bram Stoker would make it a sorority) of victims, is taken up by the two male writers.

Having given over the subject to Polidori, Byron, in a second act of transference, recasts its terms into the enigmatic tragic hero, Manfred, whose love has destroyed its object, leaving him unfit to live or die. It is not surprising that such a trope should become encoded in these circumstances, for the homosexual as vampire is essentially the cultural condition enforced by the intense homophobia of the Romantic age in England.

One other extension of the literary transgressive strengthens, unfortunate as it may be, this link between the gothic and psychic self-destructiveness: the strange figure of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. The son of the great doctor Thomas Beddoes, who is known for his discovery of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and as a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Thomas Lovell left what he called "Cantland" after his graduation from Oxford in 1825 and, except for a few visits home, resided in Germany and Switzerland for the quarter century that ended with his suicide in Basel in 1849.

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