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The Gothic Bluebook – Trash or Treasure?

October 26, 2010

Popular in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, the “Gothic Bluebook”, so named because of its blue covers, has over time sunken further and further into obscurity, lost in the unrecognised literature of the past. The audience for the bluebook ranged from the barely literate all the way up to famous Romantics like Shelley, Byron and Keats, who are known to have bought and adored Gothic Bluebooks during their respective youths, so how can it be that something that was once so widely appreciated has been reduced to virtually anonymous extinction?

One reason may well be the very fact of what these snippets of literature were: Bluebooks. Bluebooks, with the rise of mass-publishing, were incredibly cheap to produce on a large scale and therefore weren’t of what would be considered exactly the highest quality of printing and binding. This made them, perhaps sadly, more vulnerable to the negative effects of the clumsy hands of the public. These books were so cheap to purchase (most were on sale at a sixpence a piece in the early 1800s) that it wouldn’t have been of huge concern to even the poorest section of the consuming market when they fell apart and were no longer fit for purpose. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Bluebooks, over the course of time, have been lost to decay. One would imagine that many found their ultimate demise in fire kindling or discarded in the gutter; the end result of either leaves the original in a state wholly unreadable. In the whole world, there is only one collection of original Bluebooks of any significant size, housed in a University in the USA, which shows how rare the preservation of these delicate little things has proven to be.

On the other hand, could it be that the Bluebook has perished because it wasn’t worth preserving? Even what I suppose would be termed “High Gothic” when considered in comparison to Bluebook Gothic came under constant critical attack; it has been biographically suggested that Matthew Lewis was tried for sedition after publishing The Monk and he was not alone in being scandalised for writing what he did. The Gothic had long been condemned as a sub-section of the Romance genre (not to be confused with the Romantic movement in literature) and only fit to be the library fodder absorbed by women with nothing better to fill their time with. In short, the Gothic genre of literature was considered “trash” when it first emerged and has only recently come to be acknowledged as more of a “treasure”.

Frederick S. Frank argued that the Bluebook “shilling shockers” brought “widespread critical denunciation and ridicule” on the Gothic genre as a whole and described the Bluebook in particular as “low quality Gothic fiction denoted by its garish blue coverings or wrappers.” ‘Garish’ isn’t often a term used in a positive light, so if explicitly calling the Bluebooks ‘low quality’ wasn’t enough to condemn them, then calling them ‘garish’ certainly does the job. Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented in a review he wrote of Lewis’s most famous novel for the Critical Review in 1797 on “how little expense of thought or imagination this species [meaning the Gothic genre as a whole] of composition” has had devoted to it, and having read a handful of Bluebook narratives, I can certainly see where these criticisms have originated from.

The work of Sarah Wilkinson, for example, is very formulaic and often borrows plot ideas and themes from the longer Gothic novels. The particular example I am going to draw from here is The Subterraneous Passage; Or Gothic Cell, which was originally published in Bluebook form in 1803. Like most Bluebooks, The Subterraneous Passage comes with a strapline on the cover that essentially summarises the plot: “Murder will come to light; and the avenging Power is sure to strike the guilty Assassin”. This instantly withdraws any notion of suspense that the anticipating reader might have conceived, and forces them to focus on the narrative devices used rather than the conclusion of the plot. But the problem with The Subterraneous Passage, and so many other Bluebooks, is that the plot, once the ending has been revealed, is rather flimsy. The varied pace of The Subterraneous Passage is unsatisfying; huge amounts of plot are covered in the space of a mere paragraph, which leaves the reader with an impression that some vital details have been omitted. For example, it is entirely ignored until more or less the end of the text that Emily has conceived a child by her husband, the evil bandit Dubois, and the baby, as a symbol of France, transgression and evil, isn’t even allowed to survive to the final page. The story of Bertha, who Emily discovers in the passage under the chapel hidden behind the secret door in the locked library in the West Wing of the castle (why is it always the West Wing?!), is told with deliberate brevity, and very much reminds me of one aspect of the plot of Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance. If the rest of the narrative were rushed, the ending comes even more abruptly, stating that Emily finally marries Edward Mortimer and lives out the rest of her life surrounded by the numerous offspring she produces with Edward (presumably these children, since they were the spawn of an English Nobleman, were allowed to survive) in a state of happiness that by far compensates for the sorrow she experienced in her youth. But, I suppose, what more can one expect from a novel condensed into 40 pages? I imagine that if you took all the eloquence out of Radcliffe and Lewis, this is what you’d be left with.

Which implies that Wilkinson’s language is without eloquence. This is true. On more than one occasion I found myself irritated that she had used “was” instead of “were”, which implies that, due to this indicator of a more colloquial style being adopted, her education was lacking something in comparison to that of the likes of Radcliffe and Lewis, who both write in flawless, “proper” English. Wilkinson’s narrative also completely lacks description and, as aforementioned, detail. While Radcliffe whiles away the pages with lengthy descriptions of the stunning scenery her characters find themselves inhabiting, Wilkinson wastes no pages on this. She doesn’t even describe anything of what her characters look like beyond the most basic details required to distinguish them from one another. While Lewis details graphically the sins of Ambrosio and spends over 100 pages on Raymond’s account of how he came to be acquainted with Agnes and in a position where he is trying to extract her, pregnant and a sworn nun, from a convent, Wilkinson is deliberately brief regarding everything. Even the eventual demise of Dubois is summarised in more or less a sentence – he was sentenced to execution on the rack, but ingested poison rather than face his due (I thought this was a bit of a cop-out, really. Where’s the horror in avoiding an execution?). Because of the lack of this metaphorical flesh on the bones of the plot, Wilkinson’s story completely lacks any notion of terror or horror. After all, how can you be horrified or terrified by something that never gets mentioned?

When I first read The Subterraneous Passage, I thought that it had the potential to be a rather spectacular longer novel. Then I found out that the idea was illegally borrowed from the plot of a longer Gothic novel already published. I was a bit disappointed by this, but the revelation didn’t really diminish my overall enjoyment of the text. Despite my rallying criticism, I actually quite enjoyed reading The Subterraneous Passage, though I cannot pin on why. It was superficially pleasing, but lacking in substance and therefore not worthy of deeply-considered merit. And unfortunately, this appears to be the retrospective conclusion I draw on many things I read that fall under the “trash” category of literature. When one understands what it was exactly that fuelled their enjoyment and appreciation of their reading, then, and only then, can it be considered a literary “treasure”.

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