116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Can Scholars Cry? Sentimental Gothic and Suspicious Critique

Elizabeth Mathews, University of California, Irvine

In this paper, I will explore the difficulties of responding publicly to eighteenth-century sentimental gothic novels in a critical atmosphere of suspicion. Considering the contemporary and current reception of the sentimental aspects of these works, I will both elucidate and contest scholarly norms of feeling about fiction.


In the last two decades, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Rita Felski, and others have begun to question why literary scholars feel the need to read suspiciously. Their work has called attention the way we have become habituated to guarding ourselves against a text’s manipulations, to the point where admitting to being moved by a novel seems amateurish. Even as discussions of scholarly affect have become more common, I have found it deeply uncomfortable to reconcile my own often weepy engagement with the sentimental gothic fiction I study with longstanding critiques of fiction that attempts to tug on readers’ heartstrings. Modern critics define sentimentality as inherently problematic, whether because sentimental portrayals make personal emotion performative, because they confuse moral sensations like compassion with embodied sensations like pleasure, or because the sympathy they invite encourages their audiences to vent their feelings while remaining detached from real-life suffering. These objections are important, but they imply that readers who enjoy sappy novels are naïve at best and immoral at worst.

Eighteenth-century gothic fiction presents a particularly interesting case study for sympathetic responses. These novels were initially popular in part for their ability to make audiences care about the torments of their characters, but recent scholars judge these depictions of suffering as over-the-top, false, or even parodic. Gothic scholars of the last several decades gravitate toward analysis of the unsentimental qualities of the works, even when that means ignoring or dismissing central characters and scenes in the narratives. As a scholar who writes about the reception of these novels’ emotional portrayals, I have been driven by a desire to understand why others find a scene of a woman dying, for example, to be humorous, when I myself dissolved in tears when first reading it. I have discovered that there is a gaping divide between the contemporary marketing and professional reviews of these works and the responses of professional critics and often even amateur ones in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Because of our cultural distance from eighteenth-century conventions for representing emotion and the affective distance prescribed by conventions of modern-day criticism, it is difficult to feel what early audiences claim to have felt when reading, and it is nearly impossible to perform these feelings publicly.

In this paper, I will discuss trends in early and late responses to gothic novels like Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), Eliza Parsons’s Castle of Wolfenbach (1793), Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Matthew Lewis’s Monk (1796), focusing on how readers have characterized the sentimental aspects of these works. Considering the norms of eighteenth-century sensibility alongside the norms of modern critical suspicion, I will present possible methods for scholarly response that resist both uncritical absorption and critical mistrust of these texts’ emotional qualities.