Gothic Sci-Fi versus Love and Death

Gothic Sci-Fi versus Love and Death in English Backwaters: Shelley and the Brontes

So began a new phase of realism in fiction. The influence of Austen is felt in the late-Gothic novels of Mary Shelley (wife of the poet Shelley; daughter of Godwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft), which indulged in the unfamiliar but were always scientific and realistic in concept and development: imagining creating a human out of dead flesh using electricity in Frankenstein (1818); and bearing witness to the death of humanity by plague and war in The Last Man (1826). This brand of Gothic-realistic caused considerable controversy due to the inconvenient fact of Shelley’s womanhood and, in Frankenstein, her apparently irreligious message. Shelley herself, to save her livelihood and reputation, bowdlerized later versions of that novel. Austen faced no such problems due to her superficially harmless and uncontroversial subject matter. Shelley meanwhile was well ahead of her time (writing science fiction fifty years before Jules Verne, and predicting world war and apocalypse). Austen, though, set the tone for future novels investigating characters in extravagant depth. At this time, the work of Thomas Love Peacock can be seen as an aberration of sorts, he was uniquely satirical and unusually perceptive in his portrayal of women, but he fits comfortably in no genre per se.

Austen-like fiction that explored small towns and characters within their communities was developed and made considerably sadder by the Bronte sisters. Emily’s novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), is typical: depicting romance as sorrow, and sorrow as romantic. The sheltered isolation of the Brontes when they wrote did not limit the worldliness of their fiction and concerns as they did Austen’s. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847) particularly display powerful narrative skills and genuinely shocking but rarely improbable storylines (the mad Creole woman in the upper reaches of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre is particularly horrifying).

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