Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad ?: The Representation of Nationality in “British” Gothic Fiction 1750-1840. A Computational Approach to Topics in Fiction

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This research draws on a large database of 174 eighteenth- and nineteenth century British Gothic novels in order to analyse trends in the representation of national identity in Gothic fiction. The texts in the database are marked up with metainformation (such as the author‘s nationality, the novel‘s setting, or factors such as the year and city of publication) to help distinguish between- and compare different types of Gothic fiction. The corpus is subsequently run through a topic model that identifies clusters of words that frequently occur in relation to each other. Three of the topics output by the model, those that I interpret as topic Religion, topic Romance, and topic Empire, are plotted in relation to the novels‘’ settings and their authors‘ national identity. This facilitates a close reading of the use of those topics in the (most relevant) texts, in which particular attention is paid to the representation of national identity according to the principles of Beller and Leerssen‘s theory of Imagology (2007). A second pivotal methodology is that of the Digital Humanities: this methodology underlies my approach in which the close reading is combined with the analysis of quantitative computational results. I argue that the topic modelling of Gothic fiction is incredibly useful for the identification of trends and relevant texts that would have otherwise eluded the attention of traditional literary scholars. Yet I also stress that the particular use of the topics differs for each individual setting or (author) nationality, and that it is vital that the analysis of the trends in topic use is combined with a qualitative approach of close reading and contextualisation. I discuss the topic of Religion in relation to the Irish and Scottish Gothic novels. In the former category, the corruption of religious figures linked to a (Continental) European setting is an omnipresent use of the topic – provided that the setting is not Ireland, where religious sites denote a shared historic national identity instead. The Scottish Gothic also utilises the topic of Religion to a large degree, but in this case conflates Religion with barbaric superstition. TheWelsh Gothic is read in light of the sentimental ‘imperial Romance’, where a focus on emotions and (unbalanced) relationships expresses an anxiety over the loss of Welsh autonomy. This Welsh topic ties in with the final topic of Empire - as does much of the use of Religion for Ireland and Scotland. When used by English authors, the topic of Empire expresses an anxiety surrounding their own national identity. The English imperialists are portrayed as superior to, yet utterly out of touch with, other national identities. Throughout the analysis of all texts and topics, the influence of the British (English) Empire on the other nationalities is visible as a leading cause for friction between different nationalities.
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