Things That are More Victorian than Victorian Literature: Crimson Peak

I’m back! Though I can’t make any promises about when my next post will be, due to a combination of overwork and my frankly hellish mental state these days.

Speaking of hellish, though: I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about something as obviously Victorian as Guillermo del Torro’s thriller/romance Crimson Peak. I also couldn’t write about it effectively without giving away major plot points, however, so read at your own peril…

I was going to begin this post with something like “I came to Crimson Peak for the incest and stayed for the class commentary,” but then it hit me just how thoroughly the Shmoop writing style has permeated my consciousness, and I began to feel a little bad about the extreme glibness of my writing these days. Though—as you see—not bad enough to resist throwing the line in anyway.

Because, glib or not, it is a fairly accurate overview of my feelings about the film. I’m not sure that I’ve ever passed up the chance to watch a Victorian (or, as we’ll see, quasi-Victorian) costume drama, but I was particularly interested in this one, largely because of the incest plot. It’s hard to type that without feeling the need to shower, though, so allow me to clarify: whenever I toy with the idea of going back to graduate school, my tentative idea for a dissertation proposal centers on the narrative function of incestuous subtext in the 19th-century novel.

(And for all those who think my research interests might still reveal something scandalous and interesting about my subconscious, I’m sorry to say that they only reveal me to be a one-trick pony: both my undergraduate and graduate theses involved the intersection of gender/sexuality and narrative form.)

In any case, I expected Crimson Peak to be a perfectly serviceable Victorian Gothic pastiche, and I wasn’t disappointed. The references to Gothic and sensation fiction are so numerous and frequent that the overall effect is somewhat similar to that of a book like Fingersmith; Crimson Peak feels more Victorian than an actual Victorian novel. And much as it does in Fingersmith, this overabundance skirts the edge of parody, most especially whenever del Torro renders copiously explicit what’s just barely concealed in a lot of 19th-century literature: namely, lots of illicit sex and violence (if you ever thought the Brontës needed to tone the pathetic fallacy down a bit, brace yourself: the mansion in Crimson Peak actually bleeds).

As a fan of Victorian literature, this is all interesting to me (and as someone not put off by melodrama, this is all enjoyable to me). I wasn’t exaggerating, though, when I said that what really grabbed my attention was the class commentary. Underneath the Gothic romance is a second plot line: the clash between the old, landed aristocracy (Thomas and Lucille Sharpe) and a new elite that’s made its money in the Industrial Revolution (Edith Cushing and her father).

To be clear, this tug-of-war between the upper classes and the nouveau riche bourgeoisie is also a staple of Victorian literature, and the way that the film handles it strikes me as Victorian in the extreme. The novel itself might have originated as a middle-class art form, but 19th-century authors can conjure up a surprising amount of sympathy for their aristocratic characters, who often come across as tragically moribund—witness, for example, Bleak House‘s heirless and semi-cuckolded Sir Leicester Dedlock.

Crimson Peak is no exception to this rule. As in Bleak House, outdatedness has a sexual analogue (more on that in a moment), but the Sharpe family’s grim future is most clearly dramatized in Sir Thomas’s dogged but futile attempts to modernize/monetize the family estate via a clay-mining machine.

That these attempts ultimately fail points to a second area of resemblance between Crimson Peak and its Victorian predecessors: the association of the aristocracy with sexual immorality. In point of fact, there was a kernel of truth to this association, since upper class sexual mores traditionally had been somewhat more relaxed. Clearly, however, it served the interests of the rising middle class to depict the old aristocracy as mired in sexual depravity—hence the many 18th and 19th-century stories about vulnerable young women being taken advantage of by upper-class men (see, for instance, basically everything Samuel Richardson wrote).

Crimson Peak largely follows in this tradition, even as it presents the incestuous relationship between Lucille and Thomas in a tragic (rather than wholly judgmental) light. The issue is less the morality of the relationship per se and more its dysfunctionality; to take one of Edith’s lines entirely out of context, it’s just a metaphor for the past. Just as the Sharpes are unable to adapt to life in a modern economy, so are they unable to let go of a comforting childhood relationship, unhealthy though it may be. Like the clay that continually seeps up through the house’s floor, resisting any efforts to submit it to industrialized order, the messiness of the family’s history simply can’t be bracketed off and forgotten. The sexual relationship between the Sharpe siblings becomes yet another marker of class status, and all that goes with it.

There are undoubtedly more parallels, but to cut to the chase: the socioeconomic commentary in Crimson Peak is pitch perfect, and thus another instance of del Torro having his finger on the pulse of 19th-century fiction. But with that said, I’m also struck by the fact that that sense of “too much-ness” that so pervades the movie’s Gothic elements is largely absent from the film’s class commentary. Del Torro plays these scenes simply straight, rather than so deadly straight it comes off as self-aware (if not satirical per se).

Frankly, when I first noticed this, I had no idea what to make of it. I was tickled to see such a serious depiction of 19th-century socioeconomic anxiety, but that’s because it’s my specialty, and I don’t often have the chance to see it so accurately depicted on the big screen. I can’t help but wonder whether the lukewarmness of some of the film’s reviews doesn’t stem from a kind of “why this, why now” question. Period pieces based on classic literature often go out of their way to make their story seem relevant to contemporary viewers. Why write an original screenplay that hearkens back to concerns that are at least a hundred years old? Why, in other words, tell a story that seems tailor-made for an audience living in a different era?

I actually don’t have an answer to that, particularly because every interview I’ve seen with del Torro suggests he was mostly thinking in terms of the film’s Gothic elements—elements that are intertwined with, but not identical to, its socioeconomic concerns. My gut reaction, though, is that those concerns are actually highly relevant to the current state of affairs. Maybe I’ve just been watching too much coverage of the 2016 elections, but I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the transition from an industrial world to a digital one, and all the people who have been left out in the cold as a result. The world that Crimson Peak paints as new and exciting is now on its way out; I was raised in upstate New York, and believe me when I say that Buffalo is no longer a golden land of opportunity. So for me, at least, the movie very much does speak to contemporary anxieties, if not perhaps in the way del Torro intended.

But hey, you can also just treat it as good old-fashioned escapism. I’m all for that, too.

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Filed under Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

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