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Things as They Are: Ironic Gothic in Caleb Williams

Nine months away from seminars - and pretty much the same away from this blog - and I'm back in the thick of things, facing a blur of John Clare, Charlotte Smith, Thomas de Quincey and, for the second time, William Godwin's strange novel of the 1790s, Caleb Williams.

I find this quite an odd book to place and position, and the first thing I asked my students to do was to scattergun ways of reading it as a gothic novel, a political novel, a psychological novel and a self-reflexive/aesthetically experimental novel respectively. As we worked this through - and especially in contrasting the first two genres - I queried how we reconcile the intensely inward plane of gothic distortions and anxieties with the realist promise of the text's subtitle: 'things as they are'.

After all, here is a narrative that freely appropriates gothic conventions - fires, secrets, murders, bandits, imprisonments, vengeances, pursuits - whilst also coming from the pen of one of the era's leading political thinkers who, in the original preface, explicitly describes the book as engaging in the central political question of its time: reform versus conservatism, or revolution versus tradition. At times, the registers jar: in the prison chapters, for instance, there is a lengthly journalistic condemnation of conditions of incarceration which is clearly a piece of polemic social critique; it then moves back to the pure and impulsive narrativity of the nemesis plot.

Of course, to critics of 1790s fiction, the juxtaposition of gothic and politics is nothing unusual. When I asked the question, I had my own hypothetical answer somewhere in the back of my mind. Somewhat obliquely influenced by a debate on Kafka's fiction between Marxist theorists Adorno and Luk√°cs, I'd probably broadly suggest the point is that, for Godwin, 'things as they are' are so irrational that it takes the warped spectrality of gothic to jolt us into the realisation we are living in a politically absurd world. Politics is gothic.

However, one student point took a different - and equally interesting - tack. My reflex interpretation suggests a political faith in representation on the part of Godwin and the novel: a sense that the point is to show us the truth of a nightmare. Look: here it is. The prison. The law. The structures of power and class. They are worse than our nightmares. The student's point was, in effect, more searching. Nothing is at it seems, and Caleb Williams' leading motif is conspiracy: as emphasised by Thomas Pfau's impressive reading of the novel. As such, the subtitle 'things as they are' is simply ironic: it's not about showing that the truth isn't what it seems at first glance, but showing that truth is never what it seems. All the protagonists find are endless unravelled and unravelling fictions, secrets and subterfuges, and I might add, he desire to find (or control) 'how things are' - the place of truth itself - is pretty destructive to all involved. The politics of secrecy are a politics of force.

This interpretation works well with - and draws further robustness from - the novel's textuality. One of the things we noted was that whilst Caleb Williams is not an epistolary novel, it certainly shares with lots of eighteenth-century and gothic fiction the implication that the text in front of us is a physical thing in the text. The narrator is writing down their life as it passes: this - in works like Samuel Richardson - can be exploited in lots of ways, such as when letters are intercepted and forged. The general slant of this as a literary technique is that one's story is vulnerable, since it is not archived in some immaterial place ('the novel') above the world of the story but rather potentially circulates as a fragile object within it. And as such, the identities of the selves who narrate themselves in those vulnerable narratives are also vulnerable.

That certainly is true of nearly all accounts of self in Caleb Williams, both written and otherwise. Again and again, Caleb is consoled by the sense that his secret narrative (itself born out of Collins' description) could be translated or turned into oral testimony and this revelation of truth would be the final line of defence against his oppressor and torturer. And yet such faith is clearly naive. All kinds of account and testimony are so evidently fragile and breakable in this world - easily turned aside, erased, refused, or simply turned back into the dark spaces.

The state of 'things as they are', therefore - whether finding it, recording it or attesting to it - is never straightforward in Caleb Williams. Truth itself is as gothic and labyrinthine as everything else.

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