Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, October 23, 2009

Conan Doyle exorcises the Restoration

So, definitely not mediaeval.  Maybe mediaevalist, though, or at least following the same lines of thought. 

I’m half-TAing for three classes, one of which is on the genre of the mystery novel.  Unsurprisingly, it contains The Hound of the Baskervilles.  In fact, I’ve a bundle of essays in my bag beside me on the bus right now on how The Hound is both Gothic and anti-Gothic.  The basic intent of the set question is that the story contains Gothic elements and creates an atmosphere highly suggestive of the supernatural, cashing in on the thrill inherent in that genre, but has it both ways in that cold science and human agency carry the day. But I attended the lecture just now, and found myself questioning what Gothic actually means in this context.

The prof taking the course highlighted certain elements in the story that he regards as particularly Gothic – the emphasis laid on the age of Baskerville Hall (at one point he called it mediaeval), the animal savagery  in the face of Selden (the convict hiding up on the moors) – without explaining just what made them Gothic in the society in which Conan Doyle was writing.  The age of Baskerville Hall – its decrepitude? Suggestions of a dark past? The (probably figurative) ghosts of past ages of who-knows-what morality? The fact that the sheer size of the house (temporally as well as spatially) suggests ominous and unknowable secrets? What was it in the figure of Selden that would give the average reading Victorian a frisson?  Both, I think, are linked in the story that initiates the drama, the 18th century manuscript telling a story of the 17th, the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville.

The prof in question pointed, again, to certain aspects of this story as Gothic, and again I would have preferred to shift his emphasis.  He spoke of Hugo Baskerville as the Gothic villain because, as a lord of the manor, he ought to take a paternal attitude towards his dependants and he fails rather spectacularly in this.  He also pointed out the final vision of the hellhound lifting its bloodied jaws from Hugo’s throat, and the horror of his erstwhile companions.  Now, I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a Gothic story needs a good old bad-to-the-bone villain who epitomises the worst of humanity, or even something beyond the human, and also a good shock of gore.  But ingredient don’t make atmosphere; and for me the Victorian terror lies elsewhere.  The strongest Gothic moment in that tale-within-a-tale, so far as I’m concerned, is the moment when Hugo Baskerville rides off ahead of his companions into the dark on the moor, surrounded by his dogs, baying for the blood of his hapless (female, naturally) victim.  There we have simultaneously the moment when human darkness turns over completely to the diabolical, and the terror of the darkness and the unknown in the dark, of what is happening ahead on the moors, until that moment of shock and revelation when the hound raises its head.  And Hugo?  Well – he’s set very precisely in historical time.  He’s a Restoration libertine. 

The libertinism of the Restoration, of course, was looked back on with varying degrees of romanticism and dutifully appalled fascination by later generations.  Filtered through Conan Doyle’s eyes, the Restoration (in the person of Hugo Baskerville) stands in for the darkest and cruellest in English history, a time of the most shocking and unmentionable drunken depravities known to man (or fiend)[1].  The age of the house is partly sinister because it provides a link to the deeds of this man, the ethos of this time, in the vast and unsettling halls that swallow you up in visions of old carousing and predation, the darkness beneath the surface.  And there we have Selden – the animal in man, the werewolf, the vampire, the monster hidden under the veneer of civilisation that Hugo Baskerville became when he consigned his soul and body to the devil if he might only overtake the girl, clapped his spurs to his horse and sped off with his hounds.  The modern villain of the novel, Stapleton, is associated through his own actions with both the devil-invocation and uncontained sexuality of Conan Doyle’s libertine era.  In creating the devil dog, he consciously calls up the “devil” to do his work, just as did his ancestor Hugo[2], and his adultery and exploitation of the two women in his life turns them both into interchangeable victims (though not so helpless as the nameless damsel).   Plus there’s the tiny issue of gruesome murder, of course.

The Gothic need not recall the Restoration in its every occurrence, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that in Hound of the Baskervilles Conan Doyle does relate it to a time period and corresponding (perceived) historical mindset.  As such, it turns into a metaphor for the terrors within, the supernatural and diabolical that give rise to the werewolf but are always ultimately human. Holmes defeats these elements of the story and proves them false by the powers of Reason and Science and Logic – the thinking man’s triumph over the savage.

There we are – I have convinced myself.   

I don’t say this in criticism of the prof in question.  This is all, after all, beyond the scope of the lecture.  But certain of his statements and omissions started me thinking – and that’s certainly something to thank him for!


[1] Which just goes to show how sex-obsessed the Victorians really were, because only part of the libertine movement was about sex.  A large part of it was about freedom of religion, too, while Conan Doyle’s vision completely excludes the divine and is scrabbled over by greedy fingers of the devil.

[2] Though with differences, necessitated by the physicality of the events in the real world.  Both men intend to run their victims to death, probably by setting their dog(s) on them – in Hugo’s case his real dogs never get a look-in, as something far scarier than them comes along. Both the damsel and Sir Charles Baskerville die of fright after fleeing their pursuer, rather than being mauled.  And Hugo calls on the devil to help him catch the damsel, while Stapleton builds his own faux devil, and presumably, in doing so, gives the real one his soul once his body is sucked down into the mire (devoured by his master below!).

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