University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Where the shadows lie: The Gothic in early-mid and late nineteenth-century London.

“Nilay’s dissertation demonstrated an excellent breadth of reading and a confident grasp of the historical and social issues. It made great use of the Gothic as a cultural lens, using it to explore the changing nature of urban anxieties in Victorian London. Based upon an impressive range of primary evidence, Nilay developed a compelling argument for the ways in which Gothic ideas and images crossed over from sensationalist fiction to inform Victorian social investigation. His analysis of the anxieties surrounding Victorian prostitution was particularly rich and sophisticated.” – Dr Karl Bell, Nilay’s dissertation supervisor.

I became interested in researching the Gothic and its links to Victorian Britain from a natural curiosity for the macabre and the fantastic in a historical context. This prompted me to explore this topic and choose it as the basis of my dissertation alongside the fact that I had not expected historians to be so interested in these literary forms. Thus, I began preparing and writing my dissertation under the idea that I could add to what I saw as a relatively new discourse. Naturally I had to discover an angle to tackle the Gothic, and from my research it became apparent that Victorian London had been discussed alongside the genre significantly.

From this I lay the foundation of labelling London as a Gothic City. This idea of London as a capital encompassing everything Gothic, encouraged me to seek out Gothic novels where the city played a significant part, and was described in unnerving ways. I felt that these fictional commentaries on London would present an intriguing counterpart to the non-fictional commentaries of contemporaneous social investigations, and indeed the similar portrayals of the metropolis that I identified promoted me to posit whether there a was blurring of fiction/fantasy and reality.

It is important to note that my thoughts concerning this blurring as well as the idea of a Gothic London significantly evolved. Whilst initially thinking about fantasy and reality just as a case between the supernatural and the natural, it was clear that it was so much more multifaceted than this, as mentioned previously it entailed critiquing the relationship between the fictional novels and non-fiction. The research I conducted highlighted that they equally constituted ‘Gothic texts’. By the end of my research works like Oliver Twist and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde read like social investigation reports, and social investigations, like Gothic texts. This arose by focusing on specific themes to base my own argument as to why London was Gothic. These included analysing representations of Cholera, contemporary criticisms of the economy, bodysnatching, prostitution, and urbanisation amongst others. Positing London as Gothic was therefore more about understanding the context of the city and what was happening, alongside its fictional representation, instead of just one or the other. It came to be a process of trying to understand the mind-sets of Victorians experiencing London, then just London itself, as the Gothic was clearly used by authors and investigators to explain what the metropolis was in the rapidly developing nineteenth century.

Finding sources was an interesting experience. I often found that there was a default list of texts that all historians had used in their own works or referred to. Moreover, to an extent the historiography despite all its value was lacking somewhat, with several texts failing to explicitly discuss the Gothic or any historical blurring. As such I spent an extended period finding more texts that would be of use. Procuring primary sources was not as difficult thanks to the many online databases, however it was still a long process, particularly as my subject area and the themes I was looking at were quite abstract, and so it was often a very prolonged search. Nonetheless, I found a sizeable number of materials in a relatively stress-free way.

All things considered, it was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience, as despite any frustrations I may have experienced, I was motivated to do this dissertation not because it was compulsory, or solely to achieve a good grade. I did it because I found it fun, and could broaden my horizons as a Londoner about where I live, and how people have experienced it.


Nilay Visana is a BA History student at the University of Portsmouth. His dissertation was joint-winner of the Josephine Butler Memorial Prize, which is awarded for an outstanding piece of work on women’s or gender history.

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