misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Exploring the gothic: teaching, excursis on RLStevenson's Olalla

From the little known "The Maze", one of films of brilliant gothic series Shades of Darkness (Michael Cox and June Wyndham-Lewis); this is an allusion to Brief Encounter, the film

Dear Friends and readers,

I'm teaching Exploring the Gothic, this term and as usual -- since I'm an adjunct and never know if a section will be taken from me at the last moment, and often don't get any literature course consecutively or often enough to build a real course for students -- , I was in the position last April of having to decide a list of books inside two weeks and put it away, lest I give these indifferent people who pay me so little as well too much of my time uselessly both to myself and students's learning (the last subjects of concern to anyone with power in the place). 

My problem is now I've thought (as I often do) of different choices now early in the term for 201.  I fear I'll forget them by the time I teach this again as I've done that before (so much time goes by I can't find my alternative new ideas).  There are more longer books, less short stories.

So here's my present list. 

Holmes and Watson at close of Abbey Grange, having seen real justice done in this tale of wife abuse

A new and better one (? not sure):

Wharton, Edith.  Afterward and Kerfol (online stories)
Hill, Susan Woman in Black
Stevenson, R.L.  Ollala (online story) -- I'm thinking of switching to Markheim (shorter, easier to understand)
Martin, Valerie.  Mary Reilly
Charnas, Suzy McKee, Vampire Tapestery
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Adventure of Abbey Grange and Adventure of Cardboard Box (online stories)
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle
McEwan, Ian Atonement
Summerscale, Kate. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Perhaps I need another male gothic but don't want to assign Stoker's Dracula (as it's another long novel and would therefore replace Vampire Tapestry); I will eliminate Turn of the Screw to have at least more stories set today (The Haunting of Hill House)

Lady's Maid's Bell (Wharton story, Joanna David in leaning role), another from Shades of Darkness

Over the course of the term I'll come back to the above to think about it.   But that perhaps I should not give up on RLS "Olalla:"  thoughts for today:


Rereading "Olalla" and thinking about it today. It's a rather longish short story, a male gothic:  central is a man who is a wanderer, exile and adventurer (very RLS, think "Sire de Maltroit's Door" and "A Lodging for the Night").  The story: A young wounded soldier never named journeys to a remote house in Spanish mountains to convalesce.  His hosts are strange taciturn family, once rich and powerful, now in complete decline. Ageing beautiful mother who sits very still and will bite; Felipe, half-wit, bestial somehow and the beautiful Olalla who lives in a tower with books.

I'm going to preside over teaching it tomorrow (so to speak). It's a fascinating story RLS said the tale came to him as part of a nightmare (the way Jekyll and Hyde did) and it's drenched in atmosphere, haunted forbidding. A kind of aura with all sorts of words making this brooding atmosphere.  "Shadow," "grave, "I had a half-lingering terror."  It's a rare story for Stevenson where he has a central woman character and treats of intense heterosexual attraction and romance.  it also resonates autobiographically:  Stevenson's wife, Fanny Vendergrift Osborne, ten years older than him,

Fanny Vandergrift Osborne at the time of their marriage

had a daughter of her own, Isobel, who grew into womanhood in the Stevenson household. Evidence suggests Stevenson was erotically drawn to Isobel; he brought her love gifts when he'd buy Fanny love gifts; there was a triangular rivalry going on, unacknowleged, intense. Well our unnamed narrator falls in love with Olalla and her mother acts as a barrier who commits the most overtly (the only one onstage and described) act of the story. When he puts his arm through a window after Olalla tells him he must leave, and it begins to bleed, she bites it hard.
"'I have cut myself,' I said, 'and rather badly.  See!'  And I held out 
my two hands rom which the blood was oozing and dripping.

Her great eyes opened wide, the pupils shrank into points; a veil seemed to fall 
from her face, and leave it sharply expressive and yet inscrutable.  And as I 
still stood, marvelling a little at her disturbance, she came swiftly up to me, 
and stooped and caught me by the hand; and the next moment my hand was at her 
mouth, and she had bitten me to the bone.  The pang of the bite, the sudden 
spurting of blood, and the monstrous horror of the act, flashed through me 
all in one, and I beat her back; and she sprang at me again and again, with 
bestial cries, cries that I recognised, such cries as had awakened 
me on the night of the high wind.  Her strength was like that of madness; mine 
was rapidly ebbing with the loss of blood; my mind besides was whirling with 
the abhorrent strangeness of the onslaught, and I was already forced against 
the wall, when Olalla an betwixt us, and Felipe, following at a bound, 
pinned down his mother on the floor.
The story is told that Fanny once bit Stevenson hard when he was in one of his 
intense its of hysteria-neurosis to bring him to himself.  He took drugs for 
his continual llness and they had transformative effects (one thinks of his 
Jekyll and Hyde novel and dual self "Markheim" story too. 
RLS wrote the story with great care and he wanted to create a sense of place by all the visual and concrete things he imagined.  In a way the protagonist crosses an interface just the way Mary Boyne did when she went up to that attic (Afterward), Lady Jane when she insisted on getting into the muniment room (MR Jones), the way the unnamed narrator does in Kerfol), and finally Arthur Kidd did by crossing the causeway into Eel Marsh House (Woman in Black).

Vivid atmosphere: the Spanish setting is wholly imaginary. The long journey through the wild mountainous terrain, the arrival at the lonely and forbidding residencia, the first encounters with the strange household, the air of brooding suspense which hangs over all - each element contributes to the unforgettable aura which pervades the story as a whole. Again and again the reader is struck with the force of writing:

She cast a dark shadow on my fancy; and it was often a glad thought to me that my enchantress was safe in the grave, her wand of beauty broken, her lips closed in silence, her philtre spilt. And yet I had a half-lingering terror that she might not be dead after all, but re-arisen in the body of some descendant.

All morning I went from one door to another, and encountered spacious and faded chambers, some rudely shuttered, some receiving their full charge of daylight, all empty and un-homely. It was a rich house, on which Time had breathed his tarnish and dust had scattered disillusion.

As I turned from the window, my eyes alighted on the portrait. It had fallen dead, like a candle after sunrise; it followed me with eyes of paint. I knew it to be like, and marvelled at the tenacity of type in that declining race

It's not made clear who is a vampire for sure. It's a modern tale like Mr Jones and also Charnas's Vampire Tapestry.  We are not given stereotyped imagery or exaggerated horror.  We are to think the mother is a vampire, and perhaps the son and daughter. The son liked to torture that poor squirrel.  About the blood: well, it is fantasy and yet just before blood was understood scientifically (in 1904 a Nobel Prize to the man who analysed blood in a way that give us the classics 4 types which today enables us to do transfusison -- so many lives saved; I'd be dead at 27 without ti) so we can't answer questions using the claptrap of crucifixes, garlic and other nonsense of the earlier 19th century.

There is a kind of retreat for both characters back to acceptance of their lots.  The man does not try to reform the family (perhaps it's impossible) and the girl does not try to have a life different from this one of read, walk, study.  We do see how climate, culture, the family you are born into and its history and your very genes are impossible to escape, or feel this is so.

Note the ending: "pleasure is not an end, but an accident; that pain is the choice of the magnanimous; that it is best to suffer all things and do well."  You might conclude in this story we see an inherent conservativism in the gothic.  When gothic confronts us, as it does, with the violence and atavism of nature, we move away from seeking adventure and (like Mary in Mary Reilly) look to order (she argues all action is predicated on some evil as power is only felt as we inflict it on others), peace, hold fast to ethics even if they seem inadequate and don't really give us what we want.

The question is what are these ethics we are to hold fast to.  All his work manifests a deep bleak pessimism concerning human fallibilities and our animal nature.  His work again and again -- and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde  most famously-- shows us the conflict between an intense desire to let go, to live that nature out whatever be its impulses in dreams and life against the moral/ethical claims of human integrity and humanity.  It is the rational versus irrational; and the active versus the contemplative free life that make his stories and essays so rewarding.  In his dream life he fought the battles once again

The one course I've perfected -- it's a good course -- is 302 Composition in Natural Sciences and Tech because I've been given it to teach so many times and often in a row -- faute de mieux (many of my colleagues would rather take a running jump off a cliff to them it's worse than 302 in Business which I wouldn't go near.

Tags: costume drama, gothic

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