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Dreadful: Aesthetic Fear in Victorian Reading

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series (PLSM)

Abstract

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the rise of both the novel and physiological psychology, in which thinkers interested in affect often turned to literature to understand the functions of fictional emotion. One problem that has dogged aesthetic and psychological theorists since at least Aristotle is the aesthetic appreciation of negative affects. Why do we read tragedy, melodrama, and horror fiction, which evoke fear and sadness? How do we enjoy them? This essay will survey the history of the debate on the psychology and physiology of fear, including associationism, common sense and evolutionary theories. It will then discuss the period’s fiction, focusing especially on the affect of reading in the genres of gothic and sensation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Dover, 2003), 87.

  2. 2.

    Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 87.

  3. 3.

    Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 87–88.

  4. 4.

    David Hume, “Of Tragedy,” in Four Dissertations (London: A. Millar, 1757), 185.

  5. 5.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 189.

  6. 6.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 191.

  7. 7.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 192.

  8. 8.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 192.

  9. 9.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 192.

  10. 10.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 192.

  11. 11.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 193.

  12. 12.

    Hume, “Of Tragedy,” 195.

  13. 13.

    Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757 reprint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.

  14. 14.

    Burke, Philosophical Enquiry, 78.

  15. 15.

    Burke, Philosophical Enquiry, 83.

  16. 16.

    Henry Home, Lord Kames, “Of Our Attachment to Objects of Distress,” in Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, ed. and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005), 19. Accessed July 24, 2015, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1352.

  17. 17.

    Home, Lord Kames, “Of Our Attachment to Objects of Distress.”

  18. 18.

    Home, Lord Kames, “Of Our Attachment to Objects of Distress.”

  19. 19.

    Anne Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” The New Monthly Magazine 16, no. 1 (1826): 149.

  20. 20.

    Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” 149.

  21. 21.

    See Bruhm, Gothic Bodies (1994) for a discussion of the relation of pain to terror , and of Radcliffe’s adaptation of Burke (37–40).

  22. 22.

    A Jacobin Novelist [Anon.], “The Terrorist System of Novel Writing,” Monthly Magazine 4, no. 21 (August 1797): 102–4. Reprinted in Rictor Norton, ed., Gothic, Readings: The First Wave, 17641840 (London: Continuum, 2000), 299. See Maggie Kilgour, The Rise of the Gothic Novel (1995) for a discussion of the theme of revolution in gothic novels.

  23. 23.

    See Michael Gamer for a full discussion of critical reactions to gothic .

  24. 24.

    Robert D. Hume, “Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel,” PMLA 84, no. 2 (March 1969): 284.

  25. 25.

    Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (New York: D. Appleton, 1873), 290.

  26. 26.

    Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 292.

  27. 27.

    Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 292.

  28. 28.

    Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 305.

  29. 29.

    The other was Herbert Spencer, whose work influenced Bain’s.

  30. 30.

    Alexander Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 3rd ed. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1875), 151.

  31. 31.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 151.

  32. 32.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 152.

  33. 33.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 153.

  34. 34.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 156.

  35. 35.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 157.

  36. 36.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 157.

  37. 37.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 158.

  38. 38.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 158.

  39. 39.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 158.

  40. 40.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 158.

  41. 41.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 159.

  42. 42.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 121–22.

  43. 43.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 122.

  44. 44.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 170.

  45. 45.

    Bain, The Emotions and the Will, 170.

  46. 46.

    Alexander Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric. Part II: Emotional Qualities of Style, 2nd ed., Enlarged (New York: Appleton and Co., 1888), 5.

  47. 47.

    Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric, 78.

  48. 48.

    Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric, 78.

  49. 49.

    Anon., “The Pleasures of Malignity,” The Spectator 2 (October 6, 1888): 11.

  50. 50.

    Anon., “The Pleasures of Malignity,” 11.

  51. 51.

    Anon., “The Pleasures of Malignity,” 12.

  52. 52.

    See Nicholas Dames, The Physiology of the Novel.

  53. 53.

    Caroline Levine, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 3. 

  54. 54.

    Levine, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense, 78. Levine’s focus is on more canonical literature, but sensation fiction participates in the tendency to realism at midcentury.

  55. 55.

    Jonathan Loesberg, “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction,” Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 118.

  56. 56.

    This mainstream view was not universal; the anonymous author of “Sensation Novels” in The Journal of Psychological Medicine (1863) suggests that the craving for sensation is not new and that in a time of relative peace and prosperity sensation may be a better focus for this natural taste than the bloody wars and public executions common in earlier eras—a very Bainian view. Anon., “Sensation Novels,” The Journal of Psychological Medicine 16 (January 1863): 515.

  57. 57.

    Henry Longueville Mansel, “Sensation Novels,” Quarterly Review 113 (April 1863): 482.

  58. 58.

    Mansel, “Sensation Novels,” 482.

  59. 59.

    For example, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch and Nicholas Dames have each noted, railway travel was thought to cause nervous fatigue, in part through the onslaught of visual impressions through the window as the railcar moved at unprecedented speed. The speed of plot development in these novels, often read on the railway, made reading less an exercise in judgment than an overstimulating onslaught of images through the train windows.

  60. 60.

    Mansel, “Sensation Novels,” 489.

  61. 61.

    Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife, intro. Lyn Pykett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 49.

  62. 62.

    Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife, 49.

  63. 63.

    Aaron Smuts, “Art and Negative Affect ,” Philosophy Compass 4 (2009): 40,  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00199.x.

  64. 64.

    Edward A. Vessel, Gabrielle G. Starr, and Rubin Nava, “The Brain on Art: Intense Aesthetic Experience Activates the Default Mode Network,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6, no. 66 (2012): 11, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00066.

  65. 65.

    Vessel, “The Brain on Art,” 11.

  66. 66.

    Vessel, “The Brain on Art,” 2.

  67. 67.

    Levine, The Serious Pleasures, 6 and passim.

  68. 68.

    Although some scientists feel that the concept of a well-defined limbic system is inaccurate, the centrality of the amygdala and hippocampus to the formation of memory seems well established, though the processes are still being fleshed out.

  69. 69.

    Michael R. Trimble, Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 126. This is very close to Nietzsche’s conclusions in 1872 (The Birth of Tragedy).

  70. 70.

    Trimble, Why Humans, 129–30.

  71. 71.

    V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, no. 6–7 (1999): 21.

  72. 72.

    Ramachandran, “The Science of Art,” 31.

  73. 73.

    Ramachandran, “The Science of Art,” 31.

  74. 74.

    Ramachandran, “The Science of Art,” 33.

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Gilbert, P.K. (2018). Dreadful: Aesthetic Fear in Victorian Reading. In: McCann, D., McKechnie-Mason, C. (eds) Fear in the Medical and Literary Imagination, Medieval to Modern. Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-55948-7_5

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