Thursday, 29 September 2011

The star-sown sky spread cloudless

Okay. That’s quite enough wallowing in nostalgia (for a day or two, at least) for a bygone age of schooling I wasn’t actually alive during – time to write about something else.

How about Gothic literature, and its commonalities with spanking fiction? Sound interesting? Of course it does! Then gather round and I’ll begin.

When someone mentions ‘Gothic literature’, what do you think of? Vampires, werewolves and ghosts? Twilight? Fair enough if so, for the supernatural has always been an element within the Gothic (going right back to The Castle of Otranto), but it is not the case that it is all that the genre is about. Interpretations offered by various literary theorists on what the Gothic novel might represent include: a critique of the social position of women; a subversive commentary on the constructed nature of society itself; an exploration of the concept of identity, the relationship between literature and reality, and the border between the conscious and unconscious mind… there are probably as many possible readings as there are Gothic texts.

But, as fascinating as these things may be, I’m going to focus on those elements that resonate most strongly with our favourite little genre and its tales of smacked bottoms and sexual domination.

First and foremost, both genres are – like the ‘romance’ genre that overlaps with each – primarily forms of escapism that foreground the sensational (i.e. emotion, feeling, the sensations) rather than externalities such as scientific facts or historical events. In the Gothic, this generally takes the form of terror; in BDSM fiction it might be sexual desire and satisfaction, the effects of punishment (such as the physical pain and the humiliation and/or pleasure of a spanking), or the psychological and emotional aspects of subservience.

Both genres (typically) have a female protagonist. In the Gothic, this female protagonist is taken from her normative, everyday starting point and dropped into a strange and potentially threatening situation (in early Gothic texts, this would involve the heroine physically travelling to a strange foreign land, or a mysterious old castle, but it could just as effectively be a journey of the mind). She is young, innocent and vulnerable, and is subjected to all manner of beastly, frightening things (cue the supernatural) during her spell within the nightmarish Gothic world. She eventually returns to her home, changed for her experiences.

Any of that sound familiar? It should! Just as in the Gothic, in BDSM fiction the central character undergoes a process of transformation, whether that be a full-blown rite of passage from innocence to sexual experience, a straightforward change in attitude as the result of a punishment, a journey into or through a sub/dom relationship, or any other form of development or change induced by his/her experiences.

Here's an extract from Ann Radcliffe's The Italian that exemplifies some of the things I've described: "Some strange mystery seemed to lurk in the narrative she had just heard, which she wished, yet dreaded to develope; and when, at length, Ellena appeared with the miniature, she took it in trembling eagerness, and having gazed upon it for an instant, her complexion faded and she fainted."

And here's a remarkably similar snippet from The Story of O: "Whatever courage, or whatever surge of overwhelming desire she may have had, she felt herself suddenly grow so weak as she was about to reply that she slipped to the floor, her dress in full bloom around her, and in the silence Sir Stephen's hollow voice remarked that fear was becoming to her too."

One more key commonality is that, within both the Gothic space and the BDSM space, the rules of the ‘outside world’ are changed in some way or simply don’t apply. Crucially, this means that, for the heroine (and through her, the reader), reality becomes subjective: she can’t trust her senses. She can’t rely on her knowledge of the outside world. She must instead negotiate an altered reality; one constructed and controlled by a person or force that has nefarious or libidinous designs on her. If that means that she has to adjust to being forced into the role of a maid/plaything/sex toy who is thrashed for the slightest infringement of her captor’s rules, then that’s too bad!

Combine this twisted reality with a focus on the sensational and you have two genres that are a) basically free from the constraints of everyday life and propriety (in short, anything goes!) and b) geared towards evoking a suitably sensational, vicarious response in the reader.

I love them both, but then I love to imagine being a helpless little waif at the mercy of a lustful, dominating He or She (and being chased round a castle in a gorgeous frock like the one Hazel Court wears above)...

1 comment:

  1. she would be a joy to watch get spanked :)