New Chapter: The Supernatural Fourth Dimension in Lucas Malet: Victorian Gothic
I’m very excited to share my latest article “The Supernatural Fourth Dimension in Lucas Malet’s The Carissima and The Gateless Barrier” which is included in The Palgrave Handbook of Steam Age Gothic. This article is the first examination of Lucas Malet’s work against the exciting Victorian phenomenon of the supernatural fourth dimension. While much of my research has focused on space, the supernatural and the fourth dimension, this article is my first published foray into the wonderful writing of Lucas Malet.
Lucas Malet (pseudonym of Mary St Leger Kingsley Harrison) was an important and immensely popular writer at the end of the nineteenth century, but like many women writers of the time, her work largely disappeared from critical notice across the twentieth century as critics preferred to canonise her male contemporaries (writers like Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who not only moved within Malet’s intellectual circle, but as early Malet critic Talia Schaffer has shown, actually based some of their novels on Malet’s). In the last few decades, several critics have recovered Malet’s work to illuminate her wide-ranging and culturally and historically significant body of work.
Lucas Malet is one of several important women writers whose work is now being brought (back) to light.
Writing from the 1880s-1920s, Malet’s novels span the Victorian to the Modern, and move comfortably across several genres. Most interesting for me are two Victorian novels written in the Gothic style: The Carissima: A Modern Grotesque (1897) and The Gateless Barrier (1900). Several critics have noticed that these works curiously diverge into two contrasting styles of Gothic often referred to as ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ Gothic (in this model, ‘Male Gothic’ focuses on overt horror after the style of M. G. ‘Monk’ Lewis who wrote the scandalous 1796 novel The Monk, while ‘Female Gothic’ is modelled on the more subtle psychological terror and domestic spaces of eighteenth-century Queen of Gothic, Ann Radcliffe). My article proposes a reason for this stylistic divergence: I argue that Malet’s conscious choice of these contrasting Gothic styles for her two novels can be explained by her engagement with popular Victorian notions of the supernatural fourth dimension, including contemporary writings about the scientific conditions and particular states of mind under which such a higher plane of existence might be accessed, perceived or entered into.
Both The Carissima and The Gateless Barrier are novels that explicitly evoke the supernatural in the context of a romantic entanglement between two doomed lovers. In The Carissima, the protagonist tells the story of two lovers whom he encounters on holiday: a beautiful and artful young woman (Charlotte, or ‘The Carissima’ of the title) and a psychologically tormented young man (Constantine Leversedge) recently returned from a colonial outpost. The story follows the engagement and eventual marriage of the young lovers, but it is also marked by a curious detail: Leversedge is haunted by the ice-cold spectre of a dog with glowing eyes who has pursued him ever since he encountered a horrible scene of death and decay in the far reaches where he had travelled. The narrative is as much about this man’s tormented psyche (with disastrous consequences) as it is about the young woman’s behaviour in courting this man (with equally disastrous consequences).
Yet while The Carissima leans into Gothic horror, The Gateless Barrier, though it contains some similarly chilling moments (a young woman’s body was interred in the walls of the room she now haunts), its focus is on a positive and willing engagement with the supernatural as the young male protagonist, recently inheriting an English manor, falls in love with the ghost of the beautiful young woman who haunts his home, and who had lived in it a century prior. The narrative focuses primarily on the man’s attempts to bring his ghostly lover into physical being by crossing the threshold between the natural and supernatural worlds (marked by the boundary between the room she haunts and the rest of the house).
Both of these novels, I argue, engage closely with contemporary ideas of a supernatural fourth dimension of space. As I have explored elsewhere, the late Victorian period saw the popularisation of earlier nineteenth-century mathematical notions of a fourth spatial dimension (stemming from non-Euclidean geometry). In the last decades of the century, this concept of a fourth dimension (or ‘Hyperspace’ or ‘Higher Space’ as it was variously called) was blended with popular understandings of the supernatural, ghostly realm that had long fascinated the nineteenth century (an era of variously fervent and facetious table-rapping, ghost clubs, spiritualism, spirit photography, societies for psychical research, occultism, mediums, mesmerists and more besides).
After decades of interest in the supernatural, at long last there seemed to be a scientific explanation not only for where the supernatural might exist (on a ‘higher’ spatial plane), but also for the particular kinds of conditions under which it might be accessed. A flourish of books and pamphlets were published that claimed to teach readers how to train their minds to perceive higher dimensions (and thus the spiritual beings that resided there). As I explore in my article, Malet’s two Gothic novels engage in this pursuit by advancing and exploring two conflicting theories about how the supernatural might be accessed: on the one hand, as a demonic, haunting presence that presses upon the unwilling and increasingly weakened human mind (resulting eventually in madness, possession and death); on the other, as the intrepid human mind extending itself consciously into a higher realm, pushing the boundaries of the natural world and scientific knowledge.
Read about how these two novels explore diverging theories of the fourth dimension, and the ways in which this explains their ‘Male’ and ‘Female Gothic’ styles in my article here: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-40866-4_33
Read the rest of the wonderful Gothic essays in this volume at: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030408657
Cite this article: Kirstin A. Mills, ‘The Supernatural Fourth Dimension in Lucas Malet’s The Carissima and The Gateless Barrier.’ The Palgrave Handbook of Steam Age Gothic. Ed. Clive Bloom. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2021, pp. 613-629.
Find out more about my published writing: www.kirstinmills.com/academic/publications/