The Eyes Have It: Voyeurism and Violence in Reynolds’s Gothic

By Emily Violet Richardson

I was delighted to have received an email at the beginning of this year asking if I would like to contribute a piece for the fabulous G.W.M. Reynolds Society blog. I am sure none of us need to be reminded of how profoundly undercelebrated Reynolds is, but nonetheless, I feel privileged to be playing even a small role in contributing to this welcoming, dynamic, and impactful academic society. As a first year PhD student, it is my first real experience of writing about my work for an audience outside my home institution, King’s College London.

As a lifelong fan of all things horror and Gothic, it has surprised no one that my research project, titled ‘Violence, Voyeurism and Visual Technology: The Experience of the Eye in the Penny Blood Periodicals, 1830-1869’, seeks to probe what it really means to feel disgusted or shocked by a text – specifically, how does this effect our relationship to the author? The penny bloods were, of course, infamous for their macabre content, and in some way all share an interest in violated or transfixed vision. Reynolds especially is fond of descriptions of his characters eyes. The murder of the Duchess Agnes at the hands of her son in The Coral Island is made all the more haunting by the ‘living fire’ that burns in the eyes of Charles as he commits the unspeakable, as her ‘throbbing eyes’ are ‘blinded by [the] tears’ brought on by the pain of the administered poison. [1] In The Mysteries of London The Resurrection’s Man mother, “The Mummy” is a nightmarish figure, her eyes ‘so sunken’ [2] she could be mistaken for a corpse. And who could forget the ‘terrible lightnings’ [3] of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf Nisida’s powerful gaze?

I intend the third chapter of my thesis to feature The Bronze Statue; or The Virgin’s Kiss as its primary source. Part of my methodology centres around affect theory (the study of emotions and subjective feeling), and so today, I wish to share with you a close-reading of two Reynolds extracts – one taken from Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf and one from The Bronze Statue – to demonstrate how we can apply affect theory and affective science to works of penny fiction. Specifically, I’ll be using a mixture of appraisal theory and perceptual associative theory.

Appraisal theory proposes that all emotions are products of interpretations of events in the context of ones goals or judgements. [4] Perceptual-associative theory works on the belief that emotions are mechanical, impacted by interpretation only indirectly. Specifically, there are only three neural ingredients that have an impact on these interpretations: our receptiveness to things such as pleasure, pain, or the emotions of others; childhood events that have structured our personalities; and memories that have enough potency to resurrect the original emotional experience in repeat form. [5]

Appraisal theory, though primarily based in affective science, has been increasingly absorbed by affect theorists. Martha Nussbaum, in her book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, outlines the impact appraisal theory can have on our understanding of not only our own consciousness but the creative works of others. To Nussbaum, the root cause of emotion is an assessment made against a person’s idea of their own flourishing. [6] In other words, how does something you have experienced affect your state of being or needs? Nussbaum suggests that, in most cases (especially those to do with negative emotions), feeling can only ever be an ‘acknowledgment(s) of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency’. [7] Though spoken by Nussbaum in terms of interpersonal interactions (an association made with the bonds between a child and parent), it raises the spectre of an uneven relationship between an author and their reader. If we are to read a particularly distressing piece of literature, we are made to feel our enthralment to not only the written word but the position of power the author holds over us, a power to make us emote and more convincingly inhabit the world of a fiction. The word “flourishing”, though tricky in this context, can be related to this concept of a “lack of self-sufficiency.” We are, in a way, disempowered. Furthermore, a scene from a novel we may find upsetting because of our compassion for the misfortune suffered by the characters brings about what Nussbaum terms ‘eudaimonistic judgment’ [8], a realisation that a person is significant to our goals or needs. Again, this can be transferred to an analysis of the psychic interaction that takes place during the act of reading. Through negative emotions experienced via a text, we feel our dependency on its creator. But through the compassion we feel in the aftermath, we are reminded of the possibility of a collaboration with this creator.

While writing about emotions such as suspense, sadness, and anger, critic Keith Oatley picks up on a similarly collaborative theme when he posits an implicit contract between the writer and reader’. [9] In genres like horror, the continual build-up of tension only heightens the enjoyment of a narrative climax or general plot-based resolution. We trust in the author to answer any and all questions posed during the duration of a story, and this reciprocal relationship constitutes a ‘kind of play’. [10] Subsequently, the sadness of a loss, or an angry desire for retribution,  leads to ‘reflection’. [11] Reading is never just empty-minded escapism:

Fiction and its emotions exist, not as a consolation for the inadequacies of our experience, not even to give them meaning, but to enable us to enlarge the meanings that we constantly develop in our lives. [12]

Appraisal theory and perceptual-associative theory, though they may disagree on some things, dismantle when applied in combination the idea of fiction’s power resting solely with a text or its author. Perceptual-association relies on the idea of a “mechanical” emotional response system. The machine-like metaphor, the automation of a process that only tangentially involves interpretation, can be said to discount immediate, intense reactions to a fiction as lesser than to whatever reflection or contemplation may follow. Now my methodology has been established, we can turn to the passage from Reynolds below. It is taken from chapter twelve of Wagner and depicts the protagonist’s first transformation into a werewolf:

In the midst of a wood of evergreens on the banks of the Arno, a man—young, handsome, and splendidly attired—has thrown himself upon the ground, where he writhes like a stricken serpent, in horrible convulsions.

He is the prey of a demoniac excitement: an appalling consternation is on him—madness is in his brain—his mind is on fire.

Lightnings appear to gleam from his eyes, as if his soul were dismayed, and withering within his breast.

 “Oh! no—no!” he cries with a piercing shriek, as if wrestling madly, furiously, but vainly against some unseen fiend that holds him in his grasp.

And the wood echoes to that terrible wail; and the startled bird flies fluttering from its bough.

But, lo! what awful change is taking place in the form of that doomed being? His handsome countenance elongates into one of savage and brute-like shape; the rich garments which he wears become a rough, shaggy, and wiry skin; his body loses its human contours, his arms and limbs take another form; and, with a frantic howl of misery, to which the woods give horribly faithful reverberations, and, with a rush like a hurling wind, the wretch starts wildly away, no longer a man, but a monstrous wolf. [13]

In this scene, we can apply both appraisal theory and perceptual-associative theory simultaneously –  beginning within the boundaries of fiction and working outwards to the reader. Wagner is, for obvious reasons, startled by the suddenness, pain and unfamiliarity of his transformation into an animal. His horror comes from the evaluation that the events are bad for his “flourishing”, his life and reason endangered. The consistent alteration of perspective  – from the picturesque “wood of evergreens” to the anguish of Wagner’s “withering soul” and back to the natural innocence of the bird (the alliteration of “flies fluttering” a knowingly gentle touch by Reynolds) – highlighting the tragedy and outright gruesomeness of the moment. I use the word “tragedy” deliberately. There seems to be a deliberate nod to the numerous tangled gazes that intersect across the passage. Wagner is forced to bear witness to the mutation of his body, and the  references to the pastoral employed throughout make one implicitly associate the eyes of the author with a monotheistic God, a God who watches the intense suffering of his creation.

We, as readers, react instinctively and mechanically to the individual elements of the extract, constructing a mirror shared between us and Wagner. Just as the shock of the incident triggers Wagner’s emotional judgement and escalates his transformation into a werewolf, the reference to the “lightnings” that burst from Wagner’s eyes represents for us the immediacy and intensity of this creative turn. Our “mechanical” reaction is prompted by our evolutionary disinclination towards pain, but most significantly by our memory not of distant personal experiences but of the tone and atmosphere of the writing immediately preceding this. Having previously basked in the warmth of the ‘glowing hues of vermilion, and purple, and gold’ of a sunset and read of the joyous, sumptuous party in the ‘splendid saloons of [Francisco’s] palace’, the severe and sudden contrast violently stitching together mood and compromising our perspective. [14] Forced to experience a horrible event through both empathy and our own acts of perception, the brightness of a bolt of lightning becomes an uncanny metaphor. In short, the shock of the visceral events and the speed of the turn of feeling reminds us of the artifice of the fiction, placing us in a space with the author. Nussbaum would call this a moment of ‘contemplative creativity’. [15] The ultimate ‘intellectual goal’ is to achieve a ‘passion of understanding’, which I have hopefully demonstrated this snippet of text does. [16] As Patrick Colm Hogan points out, ‘it is not the logic of the appraisal that produces the emotion; it is, rather, the concrete imaginations and recollections accompanying the appraisal that do so’. [17]

I would like to bring things to a close by now turning to The Bronze Statue. The title of the story is taken from a particular piece of imagery. The bronze statue, an effigy of the Virgin Mary, opens quite spectacularly to reveal an elaborate trap that when activated impales the victim before plunging them into an abyss of rotating knives. Louis James calls this a ‘brilliant image suggestive of the savagery within religious idolatry’ [18], though we can use it to continue the metaphor of an uncaring creator God. Here is a description of the statue:

…although so placid and mild in outward semblance, [it] was really and truly an engine of some diabolical torture and hideous death—that while it looked like the effigy of a dweller in heaven, it was actually the representative of the most damnable fiend of hell, so that if it were a saint in seeming, it was a demoness in sooth! [19]

There is a double significance here. The creators of the statue narratively – the Spanish Inquisition – have committed a cruel deception by building this device. A contemporary Reynolds detractor may even have labelled it an act of cruel imagination. Unlike the victims of the bronze statue though, we are not (interpretively) ‘pierced by a thousand wounds, blinded, and bleeding all over’. [20] The sculpture is an excellent representation of a mode of reading certain facets of affect theory can productively disrupt. Rather than interpreting moments of literary shock or disgust as the tyrannical acts of a despotic author or a spiteful creator who betrays our trust, affective science offers a realm in which they are synergetic; or rather, opportunities to enter a more mutual, collaborative space.


Notes:

[1] G.W.M Reynolds and Frederick Gilbert, The Coral Island; or, The Hereditary Curse, People’s Edition (London: J. Dicks, 188?), pp. 203-204.

[2] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, Vol.I (London: John Dicks, 1846), p. 123.

[3] Reynolds, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (New York: Hurst & Company, 1865), p. 49.

[4] See Ira J. Roseman and Craig A. Smith, ‘Appraisal theory: overview, assumptions, varieties, controversies’, in Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Methods, Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 3-19.

[5] See Edmund T. Rolls, Emotion Explained (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 63-220.

[6] Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 22.

[7] Nussbaum.

[8] Nussbaum, p. 321.

[9] Keith Oatley, The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 60.

[10] Oatley, p. 52.

[11] Oatley, p. 103.

[12] Oatley, p. 143.

[13] Reynolds, pp. 50-51.

[14] Reynolds, p. 49.

[15] Nussbaum, p. 482.

[16] Nussbaum.

[17] Patrick Colm Hogan, ‘Affect Studies’, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, 31st August 2016 <https://oxfordre.com/literature/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-105&gt; [accessed 8th December 2021].

[18] Louis James, ‘Time, Politics and the Symbolic Imagination in Reynold’s Social Melodrama’, in Anne Humpherys and James (eds.), G.W.M Reynolds: Nineteenth Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (London: Ashgate, 2008), p. 192.

[19] Reynolds, The Bronze Statue; or, The Virgin’s Kiss (New York: W.F. Burgess, 1850), p. 385.

[20] Reynolds, p. 390.


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