Gothic/Mystical Cornwall: a review

A spectre haunting the academy? Cornish nationalism and the Gothic gaze: a review of Marion Gibson, Shelley Trower and Garry Tregidga (eds), Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity, Routledge, 2013 and Shelley Trower, Rocks of Nation: the Imagination of Celtic Cornwall, Manchester University Press, 2015

Since the millennium there has been a steady flow of scholarly work looking at the way Cornwall is and has been represented and the consequences of those representations. If not exactly a flood, a trickle has turned into a stream.1 Amidst this growing interest is a sub-genre of literary studies focusing on the Cornish Gothic.2 Wilkie Collins, in his Rambles beyond Railways, published in 1850, is claimed to have located Cornwall as a Gothic location, a place ‘harbouring unreasonable, uncivilised and unprogressive customs or tendencies’. This helped produce a Cornwall fixed on the ‘edge of modern life’. It was an ambiguous space, simultaneously a point of exploration for the Victorian/Edwardian explorer/tourist and a locus of instability and infiltration, the perfect setting for novelists such as Bram Stoker or Arthur Conan Doyle and their tales of horror and mystery.

The notion of the Cornish Gothic clearly feeds into a wider trope of a romantic Cornwall that emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century. This in turn provides a venerable lineage for stereotypes that have converged onto the Lifestyle Cornwall perspective of present times. Work on the Cornish Gothic thus helps us understand how these particular myths were constructed and disseminated. However, it doesn’t stop there. Those fascinated with Gothicised Cornwall have also dallied with the Cornish ‘Revival’ and the Cornish identity, which are often treated interchangeably with Celtic and Cornish nationalism. It’s not just dominant stereotypes that are deconstructed but revivalist/nationalist ones too.

In the 2000s, this interest culminated in a major Arts and Humanities Research Council funded enquiry into ‘Mysticism, myth and Celtic identity: a case study of Cornwall’, which resulted in the two books reviewed here. The project looked at the ways a mystical past and broader spiritual practices, including ideas of druidry and ghosts, were taken up by ‘Celtic nationalism’ as well as imposed as stereotypes of the Celts. Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity sets out to deconstruct the mysticism and myths that lie behind perceptions of ‘difference’. It transpires that Celticity is a mythical and mystical discourse and words like ‘Cornish’ and ‘English’ just ‘signifiers without clear signified, names without self-evident tribes, let alone nations’ (p.16).

Despite the title of the research project that gave rise to it, the book Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity actually contains only a few chapters specifically concerned with Cornwall. In a stimulating intervention, Carl Phillips suggests that in the late twentieth century a ‘Cornish alternative archaeological subject’ emerged in a spectral space between the official and alternative, authentic and inauthentic, orthodox and oppositional. Shelley Trower reconstructs Robert Hunt, the nineteenth-century folklorist, geologist and statistician, as a cultural entrepreneur who helped to produce an equation between geology and the idea of distinction. Jo Esra provides a piece on the impact of spells of Barbary captivity in the seventeenth century and the unsettling presence they had. Finally, Garry Tregidga contributes a less literary analysis of efforts to link early twentieth century Cornish revivalism to Wales to further a more Liberal and nonconformist agenda.

Despite the insights of these specific chapters, Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity can itself have a haunting effect on the reader, unsettling them by its obsession with resolutely postmodernist concepts such as liminality, uncertainty, contestation, malleability, fluidity, gaps and absences. Instead of power structures or institutional inertia, we find mystical and mythic discourses. This is all very well, but the editors straddle an uncomfortable gap of their own – that between deconstructing the temporally specific and culturally produced myths that underpin identities on the one hand and on the other diminishing and, by implication, demeaning the beliefs and self-identities of those who are committed to the ‘myths’ being examined. Pointing out the ‘fictive’ character of Celtic nationalism can easily look like an attack on the confidence it might give rise to or the hopes and dreams its proponents hold. Trembling under such an academic gaze, those being gazed at might be forgiven for thinking that everything solid has melted into air, or assuming that their identities have been siphoned out, leaving … what?

Curiously, this academic gaze is less likely to alight on some other myths. For example myths and stereotypes subscribed to by the media, politicians, academics, bureaucrats, developers and others are tellingly never discussed under the umbrella category of ‘mysticism’. Yet their commitment to traditional stereotypes of Cornwall or their boundless faith in the tenets of neo-liberalism appear to be just as spiritual as beliefs in Celtic Cornwall. While deconstruction of potential ideologies of resistance or emancipation proceeds, ideologies of dominance or exploitation tend to remain taken-for-granted. This is of course precisely the sign of a successful ideology, which is not recognised as ideological. Here, truth is not being spoken to power, which in any case doesn’t particularly want to hear it, but to the powerless.

The mystical Cornwall paradigm also enjoys its frisson by dabbling with the ideas of ghosts and haunting, which are claimed to have a special place in Cornish life. Others might point out that, if textual haunting means ‘an unsettling presence which is often marginal, off the page, or under erasure’ (p.156), then Cornwall is haunted by another unsettling presence. This is the transformation of its social and cultural landscapes since the 1960s.3 Transformation is actually perhaps too neutral a term, focusing attention on symptoms such as the counter-urban migration that has proceeded apace for half a century. It removes agency from the equation and feeds a perspective that views this transition, involving a rupture with ‘traditional’ Cornwall, as natural, even benign, certainly something we are powerless to resist, an inevitable part of progress and modernity. It might be more appropriately called re-engineering, which has the advantage of re-inserting agency.

While we look in vain for any appearance of this particular haunting in the pages of Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity, Shelley Trower, in her Rocks of Nation is haunted by the presence of something else. She investigates how geology has intersected in Cornwall with national consciousness. Cornwall’s rocks have structured Cornish nationalism in two ways. Materially, they allowed the emergence of a mining economy contributing to a sense of difference. Metaphorically, they were the raw material from which nationalist writers elided ‘primitive’ rocks with ‘primitive’ people, leading to a revivalist re-romanticisation in the twentieth century.

But, according to Trower, this produced less inoffensive consequences. Apparently, the Cornish nationalist imagination has deployed ghosts in order to drive English visitors away. Their rocks ‘belong essentially to their national identity, while the ghostly presence of rocks themselves appear to be actively hostile to non-Celtic strangers’ (p.5). Indeed, Trower seems exercised by the idea that ‘the Cornish, then, haunt rocks in order to retain exclusive possession of a land that seems to be sold increasingly to outsiders, but once promised great riches to its natives’ (p.19). Moreover, this leads to ‘twentieth century claims of Cornish mysticists that their Celtic ancestry gives them special, spiritual connection with the motherland’ (p.225). MK’s turn to civic nationalism in the 1970s might never have happened as she claims to uncover a ‘history of racial nationalism in Cornwall’ and an ‘exclusive ethnicity’ that lurks menacingly behind every rock. Nationalists, we are informed, claim ‘exclusive, ancestral belonging’ (p.226) which has no place for those who ‘do not have Celtic ancestry’. Cornish nationalism is no friendly spiritual presence but a spectre haunting the fevered academic imagination, a ‘problematic’ exclusive ethnicity grounded in irrational blood and soil (or in this case rocks) nationalism that leads to ‘separation’, ‘division’ and hostility to outsiders.

We can thus detect a rather familiar narrative emerging from the Gothic Cornwall gaze. It stems from that mid-twentieth century modernist suspicion of nationalism. While this is plainly justified on the evidence of the genocidal twentieth century, its gaze abysmally fails to distinguish between nationalisms, lumping minority, stateless nationalisms in with aggressive state nationalisms. Simultaneously, it defines ‘nationalists’ exceptionally widely. Humphry Davy and Robert Hunt would no doubt be surprised to find themselves in Rocks of Nation re-defined as ‘proto-nationalist’ while New Age mystics of the 1970s and 1980s would be alarmed to discover they were in fact ‘eco-nationalists’. In a similar way, any perception of Cornish nationalism as emancipatory is lost as it gets bracketed by implication with the far right British/English nationalism of the BNP and Ukip.

The Gothic/mystical academic gaze on Cornwall offers some mildly diverting speculation about the relationship between imposed and internalised representations but its lack of subtlety and the over-simplified and jaundiced approach to nationalism ultimately betrays it. Following the wave of revolutions that convulsed European capitals in 1848, Marx came up with the memorable phrase that a spectre (of communism) was haunting Europe. Similarly, we might conclude that a spectre seems to haunt the corridors of academia – the spectre of Cornish and Celtic nationalism. Marx went on to write that ‘all the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre’. Let’s hope that academics are not, wittingly or unwittingly, joining a similar alliance.


1 See, among others, Bernard Deacon, ‘Under construction: culture and regional formation in south-west England’, European Urban and regional Studies 11 (2004), 213-226; Robert Dickinson, ‘Changing landscapes of difference: representations of Cornwall in travel writing, 1949-2007′, in Philip Payton (ed.), Cornish Studies Sixteen, University of Exeter Press (2008), 167-182; Gemma Goodwin, ‘Cornwall: An alternative construction of place’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2010); Alan Kent, The Literature of Cornwall: Continuity, Identity, Difference, Redcliffe, 2000; Richard Tresidder, ‘What no pasties!? Reading the Cornish tourism brochure’, Journal of Travel and Tourism Marketing 27 (2010), 596-611; Joanie Willett, ‘Liberal ethnic nationalism, universality and Cornish identity’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 13 (2013), 201-217.

2 Shelley Trower, ‘On the cliff edge of England: Tourism and Imperial Gothic in Cornwall’, Victorian Literature and Culture 40 (2012), 199-214; Paul Young, ‘Rambles Beyond Railways; Gothicised place and globalised space in Victorian Cornwall’, Gothic Studies 13 (2011), 55-74.

3 For a very different approach that directly addresses this particular absence see Neil Kennedy, ‘Employing Cornish cultures for community resilience’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Exeter, 2013).

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