Monday, 16 April 2018

Gothic Adaptations: Fingersmith

On Wednesday 18th April we’ll be meeting to discuss the adaptation of Sarah Waters’ neo-Victorian melodrama, Fingersmith (2002). Ahead of the session Hannah Moss thinks about the ways in which the novel is itself an adaptation…

Take two orphaned heroines of uncertain origins, place one amongst gang of thieves and the other in a Gothic country house presided over by a domineering patriarch… It’s a familiar recipe! Fingersmith (2002) certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the early Gothic novel along with the sensation fiction and theatrical melodramas of the nineteenth century. In many ways this is a novel about adaptation, as Sarah Waters effectively takes all of our favourite ingredients and then adds an unexpected twist to create something new.

(Cover for Sarah Waters' Fingersmith)
Sarah Waters’ neo-Victorian melodrama evokes the sights, sounds, and spectacles of Dickensian London as she weaves together the narratives of her two heroines, Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly.  Sue is an orphan whose mother was hanged for her crimes and, as a consequence, she has been raised by Mrs Sucksby, a baby farmer who is the matriarch of a group of petty criminals. When a gentleman rogue of their acquaintance, known simply as ‘Gentleman’, offers Sue the opportunity of making her fortune, she is drawn into a plot to swindle an heiress out of her inheritance – or so she thinks!

Maud Lilly, the seemingly naïve young ward of old man consumed by his passion for collecting rare books and prints, is to be their target. Gentleman has already infiltrated their home posing as an artist and connoisseur who can help Mr Lilly compile a book of mounted prints. By working as Maud’s lady’s maid, Sue is to facilitate meetings between Gentleman and her mistress by chaperoning their drawing lessons. Once married, and Maud’s money is safely in his hands, Gentleman intends to dispose of his new wife by having her committed to an asylum. So far, so familiar.

Much of the action even takes place in Lant Street, Southwark – the very place Charles Dickens lived as a child, during the period when his father was being held in Marshalsea debtors’ prison nearby. Waters plays with the idea of adapting Dickens from the outset. At the opening of the novel Sue, the Fingersmith or thief of the title, recalls how as a child she was taken to the theatre on a pick-pocketing mission, but it is the stage adaptation of Oliver Twist being performed that leaves a lasting impression. Unable to separate fiction from reality, the scene where Bill Sykes brutally beats Nancy to death alarms Sue to such an extent that she screams out:

I don’t know if it was the people getting up – which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes’s feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me.[i]

The menacing figure of Sykes haunts Sue, but it is never is it explained to her that it was only a play. Instead, Mrs Sucksby claims that Sykes, a Clerkenwell man, would never step foot in the Borough: ‘She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco’.  (Waters, 2002: 6). Sue believes the stories she is told even if they go against what she sees with her own eyes – and so Waters artfully sets-up what will be an important theme of the novel as a whole. What’s more, the embedded theatrical melodrama mirrors its frame text in that these are the characters who populate Waters’ vision of London. For example, Sue lives with Dainty and John – a couple whose abusive relationship to a certain extent replicates that of Bill and Nancy.

(Richard Rivers, charming Gentleman/conman in the BBC adaptation)
As for Gentleman, well he has a long lineage when it comes to Gothic villains: a handsome, supposedly aristocratic criminal who plans to marry a woman for her fortune and pack her off to the madhouse - where’ve we seen that before?! If my own research into art in the novel has taught me anything, it’s never trust a man who offers to give you drawing lessons! Maud certainly thinks of him in terms of his literary archetypes and antecedents: ‘I think of him, Macheath-like, counting off a set of vicious faces – Mrs Vixen, Betty Doxy, Jenny Diver, Molly Brazen – until he finds the face he seeks … Suky Tawdry’(Waters, 2002: 240). He’s aligned with the captain of the band of thieves in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), as well as the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), but neither picture fully encapsulates Gentleman’s brand of villainy. Gentleman may not be the aristocrat-turned-artist he presents himself as, but neither is he a criminal mastermind. The reader comes to realise that he, like both Sue and Maud, has been drawn into play a role in a larger plot without knowing the whole story.

(Maud Lily from the BBC adaptation)
Waters delights in making literary allusions, drawing on the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Bradden, and then subverting them. Mr Lilley at first appears like another Mr Casaubon – a crusty old scholar working on a seemingly endless task – but his magnum opus is not what it seems. What the servants assume is a dictionary is actually an annotated bibliography of pornographic works. Then there are the twinned blonde heroines, Sue and Maud, who look so much alike that there’s bound to be a plot afoot. Their appearances converge as their identities merge, and in both cases it is an innocent appearance that masks corruption. Nothing is what it appears, and everyone is engaged in a performance.

It is proof of Waters’ skill as a writer is that she can essentially repeat the same story from another character’s perspective and still hold the reader’s attention. She effectively adapts her own work. As novel in ‘three acts’, the first part is narrated from Sue’s perspective before dramatically shifting to Maud once it is clear that Sue has been tricked, and then back again. Without giving too much away, Sue is basically drawn into a staged reality, just like with the play. Fingersmith leaves the reader questioning how much anyone can ever know, especially when something witnessed by one character does not match up with what another claims to have seen.

(Sue Trinder, Maud Lily, and Richard Rivers from the BBC Adaptation)
When Fingersmith was adapted for television in 2005, Waters expressed her concerns in a Radio Times interview with the rather apt admission that ‘it’s a bit like handing your baby over to possibly unscrupulous guardians. […] Maybe they’ll decide to turn your Victorian melodrama into a science-fiction epic, a musical, Fingersmith on Ice…!’[ii] Thankfully no producer has actually succeeded in bringing Fingersmith on Ice to fruition (as yet) and the BBC dramatization scripted by Peter Ransley and directed by Aisling Walsh remains pretty faithful to its source text. The switch in perspective is handled well using voice over work, but Cramming a 600 page novel into just 3 hours of television is no easy task. It was inevitable that certain cuts would have to be made and, for Waters, this understandably makes for a rather strange viewing experience: ‘the drama sometimes moves with, to me, a dizzying swiftness. I find myself squinting at the edge of the screen, as if I’ll be able to see the deleted action taking place, just off-camera.’[iii] On screen, Waters’ teenage blonde heroines have become brunette twenty-somethings, but Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy present a captivating love story. For me, the only problem watching this adaptation when you’ve already read the book is that you know what twists and turns are coming, and watch with a knowing eye, looking out for the clues that characters misread. For example, I invariably found myself looking to see if it was clear that Maud looked genuinely scared of Gentleman all along, as opposed to nervously coy of his attention.
If Waters was concerned about how the BBC would treat her ‘baby’, you have to wonder what went through her mind when she was approached by Park Chan-wook, wanting to transform her neo-Victorian melodrama into an erotic psychological thriller set in 1930s Korea.

(The Handmaiden, 2016)
In an interview with BBC Radio 4[1] Waters describes her fascination with The Handmaiden (2016) and how she takes pleasure in being able to recognise her characters even when the film makes departures from her text. The move from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea inevitably changes the focus from class to culture; there’s an unmistakeable tension between the coloniser and the colonised present in The Handmaiden, driving the characters to pretend to be what they are not. For Waters, the excess characterising Park’s directorial work is entirely appropriate for her homage to the novel of sensation. By all accounts The Handmaiden (2016) is a stunningly beautiful visual experience, but there is a paradox in terms of the male gaze. A novel about women being trapped by men, and how women can appropriate or subvert the structures imposed upon them, essentially becomes a male authored text in the hands of a male director. Waters has acknowledged this, stating: ‘Though ironically the film is a story told by a man, it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.’[2] But do we experience the story differently?

We’ll have plenty of time to consider the politics of adaptation during our discussion on Wednesday 18th April. Join us in Seminar Room 1, Jessop West from 4-6pm, or Tweet us your thoughts.  

Hannah Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the female artist in Eighteenth-Century literature. In her spare time she can often be found cataloguing rare books in country house libraries.

[i] Sarah Waters, Fingersmith, (London: Virago, 2002), p. 4.
[ii] Sarah Waters, ‘Gains in Translation’, Radio Times, 2005, p. 28.
[iii] ibid

Monday, 2 April 2018

Announcement: Sheffield Gothic does 24 Hour Inspire

The 24 Hour Goth Slot

The 24 Hour Inspire is Inspiration for Life's flagship fundraising event. Its a 24 hour lecture marathon, featuring back to back half hour talks on life, the universe and everything, all accessible to a non-specialist audience. It raises funds through the sale of tickets and refreshments, and through general donations (you can read more about it here).

This year, Sheffield Gothic is taking part in this amazing event with three fantastically Gothic talks from 3.00am-4.30am. Yes, you read that right we are talking about the early hours in the morning - but what better way to celebrate the witching hour than to delve into the dark depths of the Gothic with your friendly neighbourhood Goths! Our own co-organiser (Mary Going) will be speaking about Dracula's Jewish shadow, while two members of our fabulous Gaming the Gothic Team (the wonderful project lead Emily Marlow from SIIBS and honorary Sheffield Goth Ash Darrow from MMU) will take you on a tour of Gothic gaming as they explore religion and ludology. So, join us as we explore vampires, religion, and gaming across the Gothic. 

The 2018 24 Hour Inspire will take place on 19-20 April 2018, in the Hicks Building at the University of Sheffield (you can find the full schedule of talks along with more details here). All funds raised will be donated to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Living.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Immortality and Death matters in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"

When thinking about the topic, one cannot help but wonder if death is really the end of existence, the final stage of our human bodies, or if it could be possible to play with it and make it obey our own rules whenever we want. Humankind has broken down so many limits by curing sicknesses that used to me mortal, developing medical procedures that were unthinkable in the past and even creating life in laboratories that it seems reasonable to give this possibility a momentary space on our thoughts.

Going further and being more adventurous, could this event take place at the very moment of the departure? It would be an attractive idea, for ‘death is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels.’ (Kübler-Ross, 2009: p. 4.) It would certainly empower the human race to have absolute control on its existence, including the end of it.

(Edgar Allan Poe)
With an attentive eye, readers may discover, if not already, that American writer Edgar Allan Poe seemed to think so, presenting this very same thought in one of his stories, either intentionally or not. Given the fact that ‘the United States is commonly characterised as a death-denying society,’ (Durkin, 2018: p. 48,) I look at this as an ironic panorama.

Finding such a topic is hardly surprising after we realize that ‘literature sometimes helps people to resolve the spiritual issues of death. It can be both objective and personal and it can give inspiration,’ (Skelton, 2003: p. 218.) We will also like to consider that ‘one of the central things of which literature can make us more aware is that death means different things at different times’ (Skelton, 2003: p. 211) as we go further into this proposal of death being controlled by humans.

In ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,’ Poe breaks the rules of Mother Nature by keeping a man completely conscious and still in the realm of the living after he dies, also forcing him to confess that ‘For God’s sake!—quick!—quick!—put me to sleep—or, quick!—waken me!—quick!—I say to you that I am dead!’ (Poe, 1944: p7.)

In the story, Poe ‘thus erode the borderline parts of the physiological apparatus to the point where that apparatus or body collapses into the abject material itself.’ (Sutherland, 2004: p. 3.) By doing this, he alters what is commonly understood as a living state, an aspect that becomes even more notorious when Valdermar speaks after being turned into this strange, undead creature

By medical means, or by mesmerism, to be more specific, the unnamed narrator creates a new kind of zombie that is only capable of speaking in certain moments of the story; frozen in time, he finds himself trapped in that unnatural state. However, this same creature cannot move, eat or realize any other activity that living beings are capable of, which gives us the clue that he’s not completely dead despite he isn’t living either.

It is in this limbo that Valdemar finally find a rest when ‘his whole frame at once—within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk—crumbled—absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.’ (Poe, 1944: p. 7.)

(Valdemar by Clarke)
After such an unnatural outcome, maybe with even more reason since Valdemar agreed to participate in the experiment of the unnamed narrator, it seems obvious that his death wouldn’t be peaceful or calm, but brutal, graphic and described with gory details. This is especially relevant when we consider its contrast with Poe’s typical use of the topic of the death of a beautiful woman, which he included in many of his stories (Elmer, 1995.)

Although this may not be considered as a case of immortality for some, it certainly is an early example of what it meant to be immortal for American society during Poe’s time: unnatural, far from being permissible and a dangerous, fearsome state that should be avoided, just like death. It is undeniable as well the fact that he has presented the transformation of a common human being into something else that seems to be detached of the limitations of being a mortal entity.

What is even more interesting about this story is not only the fact that death seems to be stopped by a simple human, well versed in medical matters of course, yet human nonetheless, but that it did for seven months, as specified in the tale. This leads to conclude that, besides being possible to achieve alternative states of consciousness, medical methods have also the capacity to control the effects of death in both human body and mind.

The idea is not far from reality as long as we consider that:

If the experiences described are true to life, perhaps the strategies that were used in this literary work, or are suggested through their absence, may be effective in your patient’s (or even your own) predicament. Literature, or ‘the humanities’, can enhance good practice in medicine. (Skelton, 2003: p. 218.)
However, I would like to point to the fact that this is not an appealing panorama, as far as I can see, if we keep in mind the results Mary Shelly’s memorable Victor Frankenstein achieved after creating his monster, the product of his long time experiments with corpses. Hutchisson (2005) suggests this same idea when speaking about Valdemar’s story, stating that attempts to control the natural course of death in human life would be unsuccessful, a point of view already mentioned in this article.

On the other hand, and if we keep thinking optimistically, this could mean that death can be successfully mastered and controlled after the right amount of research, experiments and knowledge are spent for this purpose, because ‘even though human beings possess mortal bodies, they have always longed for immortality.’ (Weiner & Meskimen, 2010: p. 1961.) We only need someone to do the first try in the real world in order to see how possible it could be to put an end to death, as ironic as it sounds.

Durkin, Keith. (2018). Death, dying and the dead in popular culture. Handbook of Death and Dying. 43-49. 10.4135/9781412914291.n5.
Elmer, J. (1995). Terminate or Liquidate? Poe, Sensationalism, and the Sentimental Tradition. na.
Kübler-Ross, E. (2009). On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families. Taylor & Francis.
Poe, E. A. (1944). The facts in the case of M. Valdemar. Alex Catalogue.
Skelton, J. (2003). Death and dying in literature. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 9(3), 211-217.
Hutchisson, J. M. (2005). Poe. Univ. Press of Mississippi.
Sutherland, H. (2004). Wide Webs of Fear: American Gothic Fiction and Its British Counterparts. STAR (Scottish Transatlantic Relations) Project Archive. April.
Weiner, J., & Meskimen, J. (2010). Long for this world: The strange science of immortality. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Alan D. D. is an author, blogger and journalist who has been freaking the world since 1995. Hailing and writing out of Venezuela, Alan D.D. has worked with books, comics, music, movies and almost anything else that catches his attention. 99% of the time, it's something about witches. He's currently trying to get his first novel in English published and searching for a 24/7 chocolate supplier.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Gothic Training Retreat Schedule: 22-24 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic are pleased to announce the final schedule for the Gothic Training Retreat. Hosted by the Centre for the History of the Gothic at the University of Sheffield, this retreat will take place from Thursday 22nd to Saturday 24th March, and each day will feature a morning keynote and workshop from our fantastic guest speakers focusing on Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-First Century Gothic, followed by afternoon talks, sessions, and visits that will delve into all things Gothic and PhD related. We also have some fun evening activities planned including a ghost walk around Sheffield! See below for the full schedule, and we look forward to seeing you there! 


Friday, 9 March 2018

Announcement: Religion and Rape Culture Conference

As you may be aware, our friends over at the Shiloh project have recently released a cfp for their Religion and Rape Culture conference taking place at the University of Sheffield on 6 July 2018. They are seeking submissions of abstracts (presentations and research posters) for a one-day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of religion and rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. This event is supported by WRoCAH and AHRC.

(Poster for the 1968 film Rosemary's Baby)
Following the success of our own Gothic Bible conference, we know that this event will be of interest to the Gothic community, and especially those interested in or research Religion and rape culture in Gothic or Horror. Sheffield Gothic will be helping out with the event, and we encourage those of you who are interested to submit an abstract or come along on the day!

We would also like to draw your attention to one of the brilliant keynotes, Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College), whose work will definitely be of interest to Gothicists, and especially those interested in or researching the Gothic and/or Horror and religion. Some of her notable works include:

The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but the conference organisers also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference will take place at The University of Sheffield on 6th July, 2018. It is open to researchers at any level, and from any discipline and proposals from students, organisations and community groups outside of HE are welcome. Submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short author bio no later than 29th March, 2018. Please indicate whether your submission is for a research poster or a presentation. The organisers particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

  • Gender violence and the Bible
  • Gender, class and rape culture
  • Race and rape culture
  • Visual representations of biblical gender violence
  • Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
  • Teaching traumatic texts
  • Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
  • Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
  • Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
  • Spiritualities and transphobia
  • (Image depicting the rape scene from TheMonk)
  • Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email

Registration for the event is free, and you can register here.

You can also visit The Shiloh Project blog here.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic Does World Book Day Part Two

To celebrate World Book Day 2018, we decided it was the perfect time to celebrate two of our favourite books here at Sheffield Gothic: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As both books are seminal Gothic texts and both celebrate their 200th anniversary this year (technically Northanger Abbey was published late December 1817 but the frontispiece declares 1818, so let us have this one okay?) it seemed like the ideal time. Yesterday, Sheffield Gothic co-organiser discussed her love for Northanger Abbey – which you can read here – and today Sheffield Gothic’s other co-organiser discusses her favourite book, Frankenstein.


It was on a dreary night of November, that I first sat down to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and imagined the dull yellow eye of the creature. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but ever since I first read Shelley’s novel in my teens, I have returned again and again to the story of Victor Frankenstein and his quest to create life. Or, to put it more accurately, I have been fascinated by the Creature and the Creature’s narrative. The Creature’s story is framed by abandonment, neglect, and then abuse from the creator, Victor while the Creature’s physical appearance is marked by Victor’s laziness and impatience: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my intention, to make the being of gigantic stature.’[i] Yes, I may be slightly obsessed with the representation of the Creature: I will scrutinize whether you use ‘monster’ or ‘creature,’ I will judge films on how Victor and the Creature are depicted, and my friends are well aware that a quick comment about Frankenstein can turn into a long tirade about just how awful Victor truly is.

(A few of my copies of Frankenstein)

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the start: In the beginning there was a young writer named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley. Born on 30th August 1797, and daughter of William Godwin (who you may know as the author of Caleb Williams) and Mary Wollstonecraft (yes, renowned mother of modern day feminism who was recently named by current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as his political hero), the young Mary began a love affair with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814. Although Percy was a huge fan and political follower of Mary’s father, that did not stop the pair eloping. With his wife Harriet in England, Percy and Mary travelled Europe, eventually ending up in Geneva with Mary’s step-sister, the celebrated poet Lord Byron, and his doctor, Polidori at the now infamous Villa Diodati.[ii]

The events at Villa Diodati were often drug-fuelled and influenced by a philosophy of free love (I would highly recommend Ken Russel’s fabulous, if melodramatic, retelling of these events in his 1986 film Gothic) and it was here that Mary Shelley came up with – or gave birth to - the idea for Frankenstein. Confined to the house due to unceasing rain, the group amused themselves by reading German ghost stories until Byron proposed they each come up with a ghost story. Byron’s own contribution was a poem about a vampire, later inspiring Polidori’s short story ‘The Vampyre’ which is frequently cited as inspiring the modern fictional vampire. The other significant creation from this evening of ghost stories is Frankenstein. Although unable to come up with a story on the night, Mary Shelley later recounted the morning after:   

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shit eyes, but with acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling besides the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.  Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.[iii]

In true Gothic fashion, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation came to Mary Shelley in a dream – or rather a nightmare - and with the editorial help of Percy Shelley, Mary transformed it into Frankenstein.

(1831 edition)

First published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was dedicated to William Godwin and contained a preface written by Percy Shelley, with many people speculating that Percy, and not Mary, was the true author of the work. Four years later, the second edition of the novel was published, this time declaring the true author of the text, while in 1831 a heavily revised edition was published. It is this later, 1831 edition that is most widely published today, although I personally feel the 1818 edition is far superior: the later, revised edition responds to criticism of the original text, making the story less radical and presenting Victor in a more sympathetic light. Rather than being responsible for his actions – the horror of the novel stemming from his own decisions – the 1831 portrays Victor as a victim of fate; instead of possessing his own agency, Victor is merely an unfortunate pawn.[iv]

Although there is only one answer to the question ‘Which is the best edition of Frankenstein?’ (the answer being, of course, the 1818 version!) the legacy of Shelley’s novel is undeniable regardless of your response. It is a text that has been adapted countless times in novels and comic books, onstage and in film, while the figure of the Creature often escapes beyond the bounds of its narrative and, like Dracula, is frequently referenced in popular culture. Peter Ackroyd’s 2008 novel, for example, moves the creation of Shelley’s creature to London, reimagining the events as Victor is guided by none other than Percy Shelley (perhaps, too much Percy and not enough of the actual creator, Mary herself).

In her lifetime, Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake performed in 1823. The first film adaptation, Frankenstein, was written directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison Studios in 1910, while perhaps one of the most notable early adaptations is James Whales 1931 version for Universal starring Boris Karloff. Universal subsequently released numerous sequels – including Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) – and later Hammer Films also saw success with numerous adaptations such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).    

(Boris Karloff in James Whale's Frankenstein,1931)

Recent adaptations include Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which claims to be a more faithful adaptation of Shelley’s novel (spoiler: its not!) and also Danny Boyle’s 2011 stage adaptation. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as both Victor and the Creature, Boyle’s version essentially creates two interlinked versions, where the characters of creator and creation are blurred together and it is, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Shelley’s novel by a long stretch. Other recent adaptations include Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein (2014) and Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein (2015), and you can read my reviews of these films here and here. A version of Frankenstein's creation also appears in Buffy the Vampire Slayer season four as the big bad, Adam, while Victor Frankenstein and his Creature feature prominently in Penny Dreadful

Ultimately, however, nothing compares to Shelley’s original 1818 novel. The compelling nature of Frankenstein – a story about a creator who has overreached, and of a Creature abandoned by their creator – continues to resonate with and fascinate us, and will probably continue to do so. Moreover, Frankenstein demonstrates that female authors, and the creativity of their works, should never be underestimated, and to quote Shelley herself:

Beware; for I am fearless and therefore powerful. [v]

Mary Going is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring depictions of Jewish characters and myths in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century fiction, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic and the Reimagining the Gothic project. She maintains that 'If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear' (although we may be joking about that!)

[i] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), p. 35.
[ii] Fun fact: Mary Shelley often refers to John Polidori as ‘Poor Polidori’ because he kept injuring himself during their stay in Geneva.
[iii] Mary Shelley, ‘Author’s Introductiom to the Standard Novels Edition (1831)’ in Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), pp. 192-197 (p. 196).
[iv] To read more about the differences between the 1818 and 1831 versions, check out Anne K. Mellor’s ‘Revising Frankenstein’, in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 170-76, which you can also read here.
[v] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2008), p. 140.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Sheffield Gothic Does World Book Day Part One

For World Book Day 2018, we decided it was a good time to celebrate two of our favourite books here at Sheffield Gothic: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As both books are seminal Gothic texts and both celebrate their 200th anniversary this year (technically Northanger Abbey was published late December 1817 but the frontispiece declares 1818, so let us have this one okay?) it seemed like the ideal time. Today, Sheffield Gothic co-organizer Lauren Nixon delves into her Northanger Abbey, and watch out tomorrow for a post on Frankenstein by our other co-organizer, Mary Going. 

Northanger Abbey

My love for Northanger Abbey is no secret; it’s the novel that took me to Bath as undergraduate and pushed me towards the weird wonders of the Gothic. Since reading it for the first time in my early teens Northanger Abbey, with its sharp witty prose, its naive heroine and ever charming, Radcliffe reading hero, has had a special place in my heart.

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman with an appetite for novels but whose ‘situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against’ her ever becoming a heroine. Catherine, enamoured with the works of Sheffield Gothic’s own beloved Ann Radcliffe and desirous of adventure, sets off to Bath in the company of family friends to make her first entry into town society.

Though written sometime in the 1790’s - around the same time as early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice - Northanger Abbey wasn’t published after Austen’s death, packaged together with Persuasion and a biographical note from Henry Austen acknowledging his sister’s identity as the popular author of her four previous novels. Northanger Abbey has often since been published alongside Persuasion, as Austen’s two ‘Bath’ novels, but the two novels hardly sit well together; written in the final months of her life Persuasion is Austen’s most mature, reflective and moving work, a world away from Northanger Abbey.

In fact, Northanger Abbey was almost Austen’s first published work. In 1803, Henry Austen helped his sister sell the novel, then called Susan, for £10 to Richard Crosby. The family eagerly awaited the publication; it never came – though Austen wrote an excellent, biting letter to the publisher in 1809 signed ‘Mrs Ashton Dennis’(MAD) to demand it be returned to her. Some edits to the manuscript must have been made by Austen – such as the updates to the setting and the change of the heroine’s name to Catherine – but many critics have noted that the tone and style of the novel speak more to that of Austen’s juvenilia than her later novels.

Northanger Abbey is often thought of as a parody of the wildly popular Gothic novels of the 1790’s. Its narrative beats playfully mimic that of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho¸ though I’ve always felt the novel’s satire focus more on the ‘misreading’ of the Gothic rather than the form itself. Henry Tilney, the charming man who reads novels and knows his muslin, after all admonishes Catherine not for reading novels but for the assumptions about the world she has made from reading them. Catherine when we first meet her lacks both experience and sensibility and reads Radcliffe’s work not as a masterful, powerful analogy for contemporary anxieties but as a racy, wild romance.

(One of my many bookcases)
I’ve always found much to adore in Northanger Abbey: the humour, the pace, the liveliness. The slyness of Isabella Thrope and Austen’s ridiculing of John Thorpe’s boastful hypermasculinity.  The innocence and sweetness of Catherine, her growth and development over the course of the novel. Everything about Henry Tilney. But it’s also the novel that features Austen’s excellent, impassioned defence of the novel as works ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.’

Over the years I’ve collected a number of different editions of the novel, including an old Folio Society edition that’s among my most prized possessions. However, despite the many, many bookcases in my house I *still* don’t have the space to display my full Austen collection.

Some of my favourite covers however, include this absolutely marvellous, over the top cover from (I believe) a 70’s edition of the novel published by the Paperback Library:

Though I’m fond of these simple, but lovely Penguin covers:

I also loved Marvel’s 2011 Northanger Abbey by Nancy Butler and Janet Lee:

But I think my favourite will always be the watercolour illustrations by CE Brock, from a 1907 edition of the novel.

Lauren Nixon is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield specialising in masculinity in the Gothic, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic and the Reimagining the Gothic project. She only brings up Jane Austen when it is absolutely relevant, which is apparently three to four time a day. 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Review: The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

This post was previously published on Reel Steel.

Widely praised as his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Del Toro’s latest feature is a thoughtful retelling of the age-old Beauty and the Beast trope of fairy-tales and classic monster movies alike. The plot focuses on the unlikely romance between a mute janitor and a humanoid-amphibian creature imprisoned in the top-secret government laboratory where she works.

Thematically, The Shape of Water is as reminiscent of an Angela Carter story (see The Bloody Chamber) as it is The Creature of the Black Lagoon. What elevates The Shape of Water from a generic ‘creature feature’ is Del Toro’s signature Gothic aesthetic and his engagement with socio-political issues relating to gender, race and sexuality. Elisa’s only allies - Giles, her closeted homosexual roommate (Richard Jenkins), Zelda, her African-American co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and Doctor Hoffstetler, a marine biologist and Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) – are outsiders who exist on the margins of Cold War-era Baltimore. Likewise, the film’s ‘monster’ is a liminal figure whose existence is an ‘affront’ to the socially conservative, prosperous, yet deeply unstable American identity, as embodied by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). This backdrop allows Del Toro to explore a number of issues that are, in many ways, as relevant today as they were in 1962: institutional racism, harassment in the workplace and the expression of dangerous, heteronormative attitudes from people in power. Interestingly, Elisa’s relationship with the amphibian man (Doug Jones) is never portrayed as transgressive or taboo. Rather, we are encouraged to see their intimacy as natural. Female masturbation is represented in similar terms: Elisa’s daily, self-administered stimulation is shown to be as ordinary as boiling an egg.

Submerged in a sumptuous, aquatic colour palette, The Shape of Water is visually-arresting from start to finish. Sally Hawkins’ wordless, sensual performance recalls the charm of silent cinema, which is heightened by Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score, while Doug Jones’ skilful body acting encourages us see beyond the ‘gill man’ suit to the individual beneath. The Shape of Water is a moving narrative about otherness that suggestively interrogates humankind’s capacity for tolerance. Del Toro has affectionately transcended his subject matter by offering up a monster movie with hidden depths.

Carly Stevenson is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Gothic's resident film reviewer. When she is not immersed in Gothic films, she spends her time exploring the Gothic elements of Keats.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Announcement: Gaming the Gothic Keynote

Sheffield Gothic are excited to announce Dr Ewan Kirkland (University of Brighton, @EwanKirkland) will be the Keynote Speaker for Gaming the Gothic! We’re honoured to be hosting Dr Kirkland, whose work spans a unique range of contemporary texts and has been at the forefront of recent research connecting Gothic Studies with film, television and digital media.

If you’d like to be a part of Gaming the Gothic, the deadline for submissions is Monday 5th of March. Abstracts should be of no more than 200 words, outlining the focus of the paper and the texts/topics that will be discussed. We hope to include as many speakers as possible, so presenter’s will be expected to keep their papers strictly to 20 minutes.

The conference is open to students and independent scholars of all levels, disciplines and institutions: we hope for Gaming the Gothic to be as diverse and varied as possible, and to be a space for discussion and shared learning to better the relationship between Gothic and Games Studies. As this is an academic conference, papers must seek to engage critically with their chosen texts, considering the way in which video games employ, work within or can be read through the Gothic.

Unfortunately, we are currently unable to accommodate papers via Skype: if you are unable to attend the conference, but would like to contribute in some way please contact the team.

For any questions or queries, please email

Monday, 12 February 2018

Gothic Adaptations: Wuthering Heights

As 2018 marks the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth it seems like the perfect time to re-read Wuthering Heights (1847). Ahead of the next GRG, Hannah Moss (a self-professed Wuthering Heights super-fan) takes us through some of the best (and worst) adaptations of Brontë’s novel… 

No question about it Wuthering Heights has to be one of my all-time favourite novels, and in many ways it’s Emily Brontë I have to thank for reigniting a love of literature that has led to me pursuing a PhD focused on women’s writing. Uninspired by the prospect of studying Sons and Lovers (apologies to any D.H. Lawrence fans reading this), I was having doubts about whether I wanted to study English Literature at A-Level when I was handed a particularly battered old paperback edition of Wuthering Heights to read over the summer holidays. I couldn’t put it down, and ever since this has been a novel I can return to again and again.

Fair to say Wuthering Heights was not what I had been expecting. I had made the assumption (as I suspect many others had done before me) that this was going to be some soppy love story about star-crossed lovers who are forced to meet in secret out on the moors. What I found in those tattered pages was a gripping family saga of obsession and revenge. Never before had I read a novel where every character was utterly detestable, and yet been so compelled to read on. If you’ve not read it before, I urge you to do so now. Persevere through the pages of sometimes impenetrable dialect representation (my Pan Classics edition from 1975 includes a glossary, explaining that ‘it would be a pity’ for readers outside Yorkshire ‘to miss Joseph’s sardonic humour), and you’ll see how powerfully Brontë writes of love and loss, rivalry and revenge. It’s often brutal, sometimes blasphemous, but always brilliant.

(Kate Bush singing her version - aka the best adaptation - of Wuthering Heights)

Now, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is arguably the best adaptation (dancing along to this is a highlight of the IGA Goth disco), but Hark A Vagrant’s comic strip adaptation has to be a close contender for the crown. If you’re after a quick and hilariously funny recap of the story, look no further - just don’t say ‘Lockwood was obviously high’ next time you come to submit a paper on Wuthering Heights.
Wuthering Heights has inspired so many artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers that there are too many adaptions to list them all here. There has been an opera, a ballet, a Bollywood musical, and an MTV teen movie, not to mention concept albums, comic strips, and countless literary reimaginings, including Alison Case’s Nelly Dean (2015) which tells the story from the servant’s perspective. Then there are the erotic retellings (Wuthering Nights), and forays into vampire fiction (Wuthering Bites), as well as Children’s stories (Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright). Basically, there are so many unanswered questions that there is ample scope for fanfic: what are Heathcliff’s origins and why does Mr Earnshaw bring him home to live at the Heights? What exactly did Heathcliff get up to during his prolonged absence and how did he make his fortune? Is Dr Kenneth a serial killer? Well, the harbinger of death sure doesn’t seem qualified to give medical advice!

However, the complex structure of the novel makes adapting Wuthering Heights for the big screen a notoriously difficult task. What’s more, the sheer number of characters all with variants of the same names can be difficult to keep track of! The 1939 film starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier tackled both problems by focusing on Cathy and Heathcliff. Setting the tone for many subsequent adaptations, this film doesn’t develop the plot to include the next generation of Lintons and Earnshaws. Yes, this makes life easier for the screenwriter, but a vital aspect of the novel’s revenge plot is lost as a consequence. Is Hollywood to blame for making Wuthering Heights seem like a love story when it is actually so much more than that? As for the most recent film adaptation, Wuthering High (2015) *groan*, well this version perhaps owes more to 90210 than its source text. Relocated to sunny California, Cathy is a kooky rich girl who falls for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Heath is a second-generation Mexican immigrant and Ellen Dean is the high school bitch, but the interesting choices end there. With stilted dialogue, no connection to the natural landscape, and no real sense of the supernatural, it barely feels like Wuthering Heights. This is not a Gothic adaptation. If you want Wuthering Heights with a Gothic aesthetic, go for Peter Kominsky’s 1992 adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and rather giggly Juliette Binoche. Cue flashes of lightening, creaking floorboards and a soundtrack of screeching violins. Subtle, it ain’t.

(Filmic adaptations of Wuthering Heights)
Billed as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, this version frames the narrative with an introduction from EB in which she explains her authorial process from a ruined house she visits out on the moors: 

‘First I found a place. I wondered who had lived there, what their lives were like. Something whispered to my mind and I began to write. My pen creates stories of a world that might have been – a world of my imagining.’

It feels as if she’s been called upon to answer the same old question: how could a vicar’s daughter from Howarth possibly be able to write such a work of fiction? Including an actress playing Brontë in the opening scene does enable her to lay claim on a work that was originally published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, and allows her to answer the criticism she was subjected to, such as that which appeared in Graham’s Lady’s Magazine

‘How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.’[i]
However, with Brontë’s creation of the story forming another frame to the narrative taken over by Lockwood and then Nelly, her life and her fiction become inseparable, illustrating how the lives of the Brontës become entangled with the reception of their work.

Personally, I like the adaptation written by Peter Bowker and directed by Coky Giedroyc which aired on ITV in 2009 – and not just because it stars Tom Hardy *swoon*. This version opens from the perspective of Cathy’s ghost with a low level camera shot rushing through the moors up to the Heights. The breeze conveys Cathy’s eternal, elemental connection to the landscape more effectively than a glowing figure knocking on the window.

Heathcliff has to be one of the most covetable roles for an actor to land, and has been taken on by Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy – even Cliff Richard has had a go. Sally Wainwright’s Sparkhouse (2002) flipped the gender roles with Sarah Smart taking on the Heathcliff character in this modern day reimagining of Wuthering Heights, whilst Andrea Arnold responded to the debate surrounding Heathcliff’s race by casting a black actor, James Howson, to play the role in her 2011 film adaptation. We could easily spend the two hours of our next meeting debating who we’d cast as Heathcliff, but I want to take the opportunity to write about a form of paratextual adaptation, if you will – the cover art. 

(Different Wuthering Heights book covers)
Some people collect stamps, postcards or pin badges - I collect copies of Wuthering Heights. Friends and family know I’ll gladly give shelf space to their unwanted copies, and I can’t walk past a second hand bookshop without taking a look at what editions they’ve got in stock. I’m equally amused and bemused by how different artists have interpreted the novel. Cover designs tend to fall into one or more of the following categories: a passionate embrace between Cathy and Heathcliff; a mean and moody depiction of Heathcliff, who sometimes looks more like the Incredible Hulk; the ghost of Cathy knocking at the window; a windswept natural landscape; an equally windswept, or ruined Wuthering Heights; or if all else fails, Branwell Brontë’s portrait of the author is a popular choice. Then there are the covers that make absolutely no sense - why Emma Hamilton was chosen to grace the cover of the Bantam Classics edition is beyond me! From the pulp fiction of the 1970s to the somewhat controversial Twilight covers, each edition is a product of its time revealing where different publishing houses have chosen to position Wuthering Heights in the literary marketplace. HarperCollins’ decision to use the imagery of a red rose on a black background (a snowdrop on the UK edition), imitating of the cover art of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga in the hope of cashing in on its success, brought accusations that the ‘classics’ were being ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to a young, predominantly female, readership.[ii] Whatever packaging the text comes in, the content remains the same, but the cover imagery does have the power to shape our expectations and suggest intertextual links. No doubt the Twilight connection helped to bring a new generation of readers to the text, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. There’s no need to shame readers for their literary tastes or reading habits. However, I am curious how the novel is interpreted when it is read through the lens of being ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’? Does it encourage the reader judge the toxic relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff in a more favourable light? 

('Twilight' versions of Wuthering Heights book covers)

To quote Lady Gaga, Cathy and Heathcliff have the ultimate ‘Bad Romance’. Their love is an obsession that eventually hurts everyone around them, but how do different adaptations portray such a complex relationship? Sounds like a suitably appropriate discussion for Valentine’s Day, right? We’ll be meeting 4-6pm in Seminar Room 8, Jessop West to discuss adaptations of Wuthering Heights, along with any other examples of Gothic Bad Romance you’d like to share. See you there!

Hannah 'Wuthering Heights Super Fan' Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the artist in Eighteenth Century Literature. While she is at home in every country house across the UK, this year you might find her wandering the Moors in search of Tom Hardy. 

[i]  From an anonymous review of Wuthering Heights published in Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, July 1848.