The Female Gothic: From the Second-Wave to Post-Feminism

Ellen Ledoux

Ellen Ledoux

In her groundbreaking ‘Literary Women’ (1976), Ellen Moers introduced the term “Female Gothic” to describe how eighteenth and nineteenth century women novelists employ certain coded expressions to describe anxieties over domestic entrapment and female sexuality.

The term touched on something vital to women’s experience, generating robust feminist scholarship exploring the urgency and persistence of these themes in women’s writing and lives. Moers’s work and that of many other-second wave feminists (Margaret Doody, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Leona Sherman, et al.) reclaimed a wealth of textual material written by women and created a place for it within the canon.

Gothic writing by authors such as Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and the Brontës played a central part in that movement. The institutionalization of “Gothic Studies” within academies is due, in large part, to those pioneering second-wave critics (Fitzgerald, 2009: 13–20). So, I entitled this piece, ‘Was there ever a Female Gothic?’ with a sense of hesitation. It seemed ungrateful to question a literary category that made my scholarship and that of many of my peers even possible. Yet, I have wanted to write this article for some time, because categorizing a work as part of the Female Gothic seems to create more problems for analysis than it solves.

Other critics have examined closely the categorical problems inherent to a term that links a stable notion of gender to a notoriously slippery literary mode. This discussion takes a slightly different tack and questions why such a problematic term has had such a sustained and profound impact on feminist literary criticism up to this day. It addresses the reception history of women-authored Gothic texts from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, suggesting that the category “Female Gothic” more accurately reflects the ideological goals of second-wave feminist literary criticism than it represents the narratives of early women Gothic writers, such as Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee and Charlotte Dacre.

While critics, including Robert Miles, Alison Milbank, Emma Clery, and Diane Hoeveler among many others, have attempted to refine the term Female Gothic, its usage has limited the ways in which scholars approach women’s Gothic writing.

Women-authored texts that do not feature “Female Gothic” tropes — a distressed heroine, domestic incarceration, threats of sexual violence, anxiety about monstrous or absent mothers — are often given little critical attention.

As I and others have argued elsewhere, however, women’s early Gothic writing — a great deal of which is only accessible to us because of the recovery work of feminist scholars — is much more aesthetically, politically, thematically, and generically diverse than the Female Gothic categorization suggests (Kelly, 2003, Wright, 2003, Potter, 2005, Coykendall, 2005, Ledoux, 2013).

This essay does not wish to disqualify the important work done on the Female Gothic. The themes this work has identified (women’s domestic incarceration, sexual violence, economic disenfranchisement and spectral maternity) are central to the Gothic mode. Rather, this essay attempts to explain why the discrepancy between available primary textual material and textual analysis exists and how it came to be.

The essay also gestures towards the critical consequences of this discrepancy, highlighting how it limits our understanding of women’s writing. In short, I hope to move the conversation about women’s Gothic writing in new directions by pointing out the ways nineteenth and twentieth century political conditions shaped the Female Gothic as a category that does not fully reflect the richness of women’s early Gothic material.

I argue that the origins of this discrepancy can be traced back to how Gothic women’s writing was received in the early nineteenth century and how that reception history shaped the discursive strategies of second-wave feminist literary critics.

I use the career of Ann Radcliffe as my central example, because her writing was central to nineteenth century critics’ attempts to legitimize the novel and twentieth century feminists’ attempts to canonize women’s writing.

In the late eighteenth century, Radcliffe’s ability to garner an artistic reputation within a commercial genre de-stabilized vulnerable literary hierarchies and accepted notions about professional female authorship. By presenting Radcliffe as an anomaly — a special case — critics such as Walter Scott could acknowledge her artistry without having to re-evaluate the aesthetic contribution made by women authors in the emerging Gothic. These critics also aimed to squelch the groundswell of women’s creativity during this period by branding any woman who wrote Gothic narratives as a “servile imitator” of Radcliffe.

When feminist critics in the 1970s sought to create a female canon — to which the Female Gothic was integral — they reproduced nineteenth century critics’ rhetoric of Radcliffe’s originality and influence.

Feminist critics leveraged Radcliffe’s reputation, solidified by Walter Scott’s and others’ endorsement, to legitimate their claims that Gothic romances by women merit serious study. However, by treating Radcliffe’s novels as the first, the best, and sometimes the sole example of the genre, academic criticism did not represent the ideological diversity of women writers, especially those who used their work to reinforce conservative politics, engage with issues outside of gender, or to address the concerns of working-class women.

Clara Reeve, for example, made important contributions to the developing Gothic mode. However, since her work is ideologically conservative, establishing what James Watt calls the “loyalist gothic” (Watt, 1999), feminist critics often exclude her novel ‘The Old English Baron’ (1778) and her important literary criticism ‘The Progress of Romance’ (1785) from work on the Female Gothic even though both have been seminal to the development of a women’s literary tradition.

On the other side of the spectrum, Sarah Wilkinson’s chapbook ‘The Count of Montabino’ (c. 1810) forms a working class critique of the bourgeois domestic entrapment theme so central to the Radcliffean narrative (Ledoux, 2013). Although Wilkinson was a prolific author who enjoyed consumer name recognition, her work in “pulp fiction” has been virtually ignored in part because it does not promote women’s writing as high art.

In some ways, the term “Female Gothic” has been a victim of its own success. The important work achieved by second-wave feminists to create a more inclusive canon and to “recover” women’s writing, reveals that women authors’ relationship to the burgeoning Gothic mode was richer and more nuanced than previously thought in ways that demand that we widen the lens with which we approach women’s Gothic productions from the eighteenth century to the present.

Ellen Moers’s initial generative suggestion galvanized a whole body of criticism that explores the coded expressions in women authored Gothic texts, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s ‘Madwoman in the Attic’ (1979), a volume of essays edited by Julian Fleenor entitled ‘The Female Gothic’ (1983), Kate Ferguson Ellis’s ‘The Contested Castle’ (1989), Eugenia DeLamotte’s ‘Perils of the Night’ (1990), Diane Long Hoeveler’s ‘Gothic Feminism’ (1998), Helene Meyers’s ‘Femicidal Fears’ (2001), Donna Heiland’s ‘Gothic and Gender’ (2004), Andrew Smith’s and Diana Wallace’s collection ‘The Female Gothic: New Directions’ (2009), and Avril Horner’s and Sue Zlosnik’s recent Edinburgh’ Companion on Women and the Gothic’ (2016) among other monographs and essays too numerous to name.

Each of these studies qualifies Moers’s initial formulation in meaningful ways and asks some pressing questions about gender in relation to the Gothic mode. One discussion elaborates on whether the gender of the author correlates with a specific aesthetic.

“The Female Gothic” has been closely associated with the “explained supernatural style” made famous by Radcliffe, in which supernatural events are threatened but later rationalized.

This style is in opposition to the “Male Gothic,” made famous by Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, in which ghosts, devils and other supernatural phenomena demand a willful suspension of disbelief from the reader (Milbank, 1998: 54 and Hogle, 2002: 9– 10). Yet important Gothic practitioners, such as Clara Reeve, Charlotte Dacre, and Mary Shelley all write in the so-called “male” style. While it is rare for male authors to write in the “female” style, an author’s gender does not typically align with the “female/male” aesthetic binary (Miles, 2000).

A second discussion explores whether women’s Gothic writing consistently coheres around the principal characters and thematic issues Moers identified. As many scholars have noted, women authors often create Gothic worlds that symbolize patriarchal power in which a virginal heroine attempts to overcome an exaggerated version of the subjugation women face in everyday life. However, a critical mass of women’s Gothic writing exists that addresses very different themes and characters.

The works of Clara Reeve and Charlotte Smith, for example, often focus their energies on issues related to the public sphere and center their narratives on a male protagonist (Bowstead, 1986, Fletcher, 1992, and Coykendall, 2005). Narratives that focus on the struggles of a virtuous heroine often portray her as not only suffering, but also exerting agency, displaying physical courage, and gaining empowerment within Gothic spaces (Ledoux, 2011). Further, as Angela Wright argues, “[w]hen one goes beyond the textual examples of Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen during the Romantic period… the qualities of heroinism… become less clear-cut in terms of uncompromising virtue, beauty, and age” (Wright, 2016: 17).

In Zofloya (1806), Charlotte Dacre creates a Byronic heroine who sadistically kills a Radcliffean heroine without hesitation or remorse. In short, women do not exclusively write about distressed virtue and the domestic sphere, and even when they do, the female characters represent a diversity of experience.

Finally, scholars have also considered whether the gender of the reader contributes to a text being labeled as Female Gothic. Satires and critiques from the early nineteenth-century frame the readers as girls and women. Yet as I will discuss, part of the impetus behind those critiques forms around the notion that these narratives are unsuitable for women. Walter Scott and other critics clearly earmark Gothic novels as men’s reading. However, book historian Jacobs’s (2000, 2003) work demonstrates that most texts were produced and consumed by women. Again, the readership does not fall neatly along gendered lines.

The discussion about gender’s relation to the Gothic mode becomes further complicated when one considers genre. As with most Gothic Studies, discussions of the Female Gothic have disproportionately focused on one genre, the novel, and one novelist, Ann Radcliffe.

Within the Gothic novel, many scholars’ choice to begin their discussions of the Female Gothic with Radcliffe distorts a more robust genealogy of women’s literary history. For example, Diana Wallace demonstrates the profound influence that Sophia Lee’s brand of historical ‘Gothic in The Recess’ has on Radcliffe and the historical novel generally (Wallace, 2013: 25–66). At the same time, as several critics have noted, the Gothic mode transcends traditional genres and extends well beyond the novel (Williams, 1995 and Gamer, 2000).

Women wrote important Gothic poetry (for example, Mary Robinson’s ‘Haunted Beach’), plays (for example, Joanna Baillie’s Orra), and chapbooks too numerous to name. Women’s Gothic novels — including Radcliffe’s — also served as rich fodder for adaptation, some of which is written by men, leading to a whole host of other generic questions (Saglia, 2014).

For all the reasons discussed above, a robust meta-discussion about linking a gendered signifier to an aesthetic mode continues. ‘Women’s Writing’ and ‘Gothic Studies’ devoted entire volumes to the topic in 1994 and 2004, respectively. Others have sought to broaden the term’s reach; Pauline Palmer’s ‘Lesbian Gothic’ (1999) examines closely women’s homoerotic relationships.

Emma Clery’s ‘Women’s Gothic’ (2000) discusses women authors who wrote in the “male” and the “female” style. Pickering and Chatto published a 5-volume series ‘Varieties of Female Gothic’ (2002), which represents women’s engagement with genres beyond the novel.

‘Postfeminist Gothic’ (2007), edited by Benjamin Brabon and Stéphanie Genz, provides readings — mostly of contemporary film and television — that examine depictions of female characters through a feminist/postfeminist dialectic.

‘The Female Gothic: New Directions’ (2009), edited by Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, expands upon the 2004 special issue of ‘Gothic Studies’ and updates the discussion of Fleenor’s original.

Smith’s and Wallace’s collection indirectly asks a question that is more pointedly posed in the original ‘Gothic Studies’ introductory essay: how does the Female Gothic continue to resonate as a means of critical inquiry despite poststructuralism’s influence, through which essential categories such as “female” have been largely destabilized? (Smith and Wallace, 2004).

Avril Horner’s and Sue Zlosnik’s recent ‘Edinburgh Companion on Women and the Gothic’ (2016) offers a “big picture” re-evaluation of women authors and women characters in relation to a wide variety of genres within the Gothic mode. In their introductory essay, Horner and Zlosnik suggest that:

“Despite the considerable economic, social, and legal progress (at least in the Western world) made by women, Gothic texts still convey anxiety and anger about the lot of women. Many of the works analyzed in this volume reflect back women’s lack of agency; the continued polarization of women through patterns of antithesis such as good/bad, saint/sinner and virgin/whore; a continued use of stereotypes; and the pathologization of women who fail to conform to traditional expectations… [T]hey are depressingly constant and suggest that women have been and still feel disadvantaged and disempowered.” (Horner and Zlosnik, 2016: 1)

Thus, the rich scholarly tradition focusing on the tropes that Moers initially identifies still resonates today, as Horner’s and Zlosnik’s companion addresses everything from eighteenth century novels to twenty-first century videogames.
This point is where my essay intervenes by offering a historical, rather than theoretical answer to the question “was there ever a Female Gothic?” For my purposes, I want to sidestep the significant issues that poststructuralism poses for analysis of the Female Gothic and the notion of women’s writing more generally. I also want to reiterate the importance of working on the themes for which Horner’s and Zlosnik’s companion demonstrates a continued relevance.

This essay’s call to rethink how we approach women’s Gothic writing seeks a more expansive, more nuanced understanding that builds upon previous scholarship. However, because my arguments hinge on how nineteenth century critics — who operated mostly within stable gendered binaries — continue to influence twentieth and twenty-first century criticism, I focus my attention instead on an important concept from feminist thought: strategic essentialism.

Gayatri Spivak invokes this term to describe moments in which scholars put aside their critiques of essentialism to inspire political change (Spivak, 2012). In the broadest sense, I am suggesting that, for pragmatic reasons, second-wave feminists were required to define narrowly women’s contribution to Gothic writing.

They did not have the luxury, early on, of questioning what it meant to be female or to choose an obscure author as their champion. Instead, they rigorously and effectively made a case for women’s writing by leading with their strongest example, who had long been accepted by a fully enfranchised male critical establishment: Ann Radcliffe.

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