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Laurence Talairach. Gothic Remains. Corpses, Terror and Anatomical Culture, 1764–1897

Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru: University of Wales Press, Gothic Literary Studies Series, 2019, 290 p. ISBN: 9781786834607
Charlotte Chassefière
Bibliographical reference

Laurence Talairach. Gothic Remains. Corpses, Terror and Anatomical Culture, 1764–1897. Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru: University of Wales Press, Gothic Literary Studies Series, 2019, 290 p. ISBN: 9781786834607

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1In Gothic Remains, Laurence Talairach develops her analysis of various Gothic motifs in several novels from both canonical and humble authors between 1764 and 1897, showing how medical literature and the Gothic cross-influenced each other, to the point of sometimes blurring the limits between fiction and reality. The book itself mirrors the themes of fragmentation dear to the Gothic literature it offers to analyse: in each of the five chapters, the author dissects a particular Gothic motif, linking close readings of literary texts with the culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, and its attraction to anatomy as a way to simultaneously understand and define the human body and its nature.

2This collusion between the (dead) body and identity is developed in the first chapter, analysing the motif of the skeleton in the trunk. After presenting the punitive value of dissection in the eighteenth century, and showing how the surgeon came to be seen as a figure of medical authority, Talairach proceeds to show how unburied human remains in narratives such as Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest and Reeve’s The Old English Baron are closely linked to the resolution of the main plot. Retrieving the identity of the lost bones allows the restoration of social order through proper burial, while other Gothic narratives such as The Animated Skeleton (published anonymously by a surgeon) use human remains as mere props, fragmented pieces of bodies merely used to convey horror through macabre aesthetics. This materiality of the dead body also allows authors to play with anatomical fears, and the quite disturbing image of dead body parts being manipulated, assembled together or animated by human agency—much in the way the Gothic itself came to be seen as an assemblage of fragmented clichés manipulated by the author’s hand.

3The second chapter of Gothic Remains offers an analysis of the motif of the anatomical wax model, and its shift from a forensic tool to a piece exhibited in a collection, offering sensational opportunities for anatomical knowledge. Talairach shows how travel narratives, and their accounts of the visits of various museums and cabinets provided Gothic writers with a symbol for a thirst of scientific knowledge, thereby equating travels with an accumulation of knowledge as a means of erudition. The chapter then turns to an analysis of the close link between the female body and wax models: opened, fixed in a sleep-like death, female wax models embodied an ideal of female passivity, and their displaying of the workings of the female body raised the questions of their propriety for ‘the gentler sex’. This exhibition of female bodies, although they provided women with an opportunity to acquire physiological knowledge, came to strengthen the association between the wax model, femininity, and sensationalism, as the fainting of many women was reported during guided tours. The importance of the wax model as a learning tool and a defining cultural symbol, as the author shows, hints at the growing reification of individuals in mid-Victorian society.

4Chapter three is dedicated to the practice of body-snatching, and its literary representations. Talairach links this theme to ethical debates regarding the construction of the image of the medical professional. As anatomy as a discipline continued the enlightenment project towards better knowledge, the rise in the number of surgeons led England to a shortage of cadavers for students to practise on—anatomical knowledge is therefore actually indebted to the illegal practice of body-snatching, and sometimes the murders that were committed to supply for this shortage. Gothic Remains's third chapter shows how the death of the body came to be equated with knowledge in the popular psyche. As many popular tales of terror were written by surgeons, or other types of people with a medical background, they participated in a shift of perspective in the depiction of human suffering, from the voice of an authoritative medical professional, to that of the subject of this suffering. Chapter 3 of Gothic Remains also shows how economic and social circumstances were sometimes presented as factors leading to the necessity of crime, and mentions the debates surrounding the responsibility of body-snatching murders: who between the thief stealing human remains, or the surgeon needing them for his practice, is the actual criminal?

5Chapter four on the motif of the medical museum prolongs chapter two and its analysis of wax models. The display of body parts provided culture with a locus of discussion about the limits defining normality and monstrosity. These ideas of normality, of what is proper and improper and especially the place of women as spectators of such collections takes up again the questions of female sexuality tackled by chapter two. The medical museum is seen as a place where the fragmented human body can be collected, preserved and displayed, hinting, according to the author, at the Victorian consumer culture and a taste for collection and accumulation. The blurring of the limits between the real and the fictional at the core of the book is exemplified by a mention of the works of Catherine Crowe, whose ghost stories were reworkings of actual reports of supernatural events, and is echoed in the differentiation between knowledge and entertainment: such a place as a medical museum, first intended as a place of learning, could turn, under the public’s untrained gaze, into a form of morbid entertainment. If the first part of this chapter seems very close to what was already discussed in chapter two, Talairach’s telling of the spectacular careers of actual nineteenth-century doctors in charge of medical museums and the scandals around their practice reveals itself, as if to illustrate her point, at the same time entertaining and a crucial tool for understanding the importance and the fascinations of medical disciplines in the long nineteenth century. Chapter four ends on sensation novels and the efforts put in by such authors as Wilkie Collins to describe monstrous bodies and putrescing corpses as faithfully as possible, to unveil the reality of the body and invite the reader to this exhibition of the diseases of humanity. Both sensation literature and its gruesome scenes, and the medical museum are exposing the ‘nakedness of truth’ and illustrate the century’s ‘dissective’ way of understanding.

6The last chapter of Gothic Remains, ‘Death Misdiagnosed: Gothic Live Burials’, focuses on the anxieties of misdiagnosis of death and premature burial. The first part of this twofold analysis focuses on medical literature, and how diagnosing and clinically defining death was a part of a will to assert British medical supremacy over the French and their ‘unnatural custom’ of burying the dead too early, leading to a high number of recorded cases of live burials due to misdiagnosed deaths. Talairach presents the medical landscape of the late nineteenth century and shows how the interest in the symptoms of catalepsy, often mistaken for those of death, were part of a growing interest in mental illness. Mental afflictions, as Talairach shows, were even exemplified in some medical reports or treatises using characters from Gothic novels; this close link between the patient suffering a cataleptic trance and the stereotypical Gothic victim is developed further in fictions of the second half of the nineteenth century, such as Stoker’s Dracula that the second part of the chapter offers to analyse. The figure of the vampire can be read as a Gothic version of the cataleptic patient, as the author shows through her analysis of Lucy Westenra’s transformation, and of her passivity. The theme of sleep pervading the novel is also analysed, showing how the novel likens it to death, and through the unnatural preservation of the undead’s body, offers a bleak version of the sleeping beauty myth, where the death-like stillness of the passive woman is no longer a source of wonder and artistic inspiration but of anxieties about the nature of death and afterlife.

7Talairach’s Gothic Remains is an excellent read, both for its very close readings of literary texts we thought we knew, and for its constant back-and-forth movement between literary analysis and historical details. It is also very pleasing to notice that both canonical and humble authors are analysed side by side, and all equally comprised in the cultural complexity of the long nineteenth century. If at first sight, the clear-cut division between the chapters can give some sort of fragmented effect (that should however not bother any fan of the Gothic), the multiplicity of themes and motifs tackled in the book branch out throughout many aspects of English literary culture, and every part/chapter is constantly re-attached to the larger body of nineteenth-century culture so as to keep clear in the reader’s mind the ways in which fiction and reality walk hand in hand.

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Electronic reference

Charlotte Chassefière, Laurence Talairach. Gothic Remains. Corpses, Terror and Anatomical Culture, 1764–1897Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 92 Automme | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 24 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Charlotte Chassefière

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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