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Gothic Incest: Uncles, Thefts, Violence and Sexual Threats

Gothic Incest: Uncles, Thefts, Violence and Sexual Threats
© Photograph by Ysbrand Cosijn

The relationships between heroines and their uncles in the Gothic novel are ones in which sexual threats are underpinned by financial entanglements and legal issues, often to a greater extent than is the case with other familial relationships. Representations of family, finance, property, law and ownership are examined frequently by scholars of the Gothic, but within the context of uncle-niece relationships that are complicated by incestuous desires these ideas are embedded in sexual language and meaning.

Incestuous relationships between uncles and nieces abound in Gothic fiction; in fact, even in novels where the primary incestuous focus is on a different consanguineal bond, there is often still an uncle in the background, his presence being part of the plot construction that drives persecution and usurpation. Susan Staves refers to the laws regarding married women’s property in the long eighteenth-century as a patriarchal code “that justified the dominance and privilege of men by deference to their superior abilities to create good order in families and their duty to provide and support for subordinated women and children in their families”.

In the Gothic, this code is revealed as inadequate through its manipulation and enforcement by the figure of the uncle and becomes entangled with the representations of incestuous desires and violence that are equally justified and supported by the familial and social structures that grant male control of female bodies and property. Eugenia C. DeLamotte argues that “the mysterious crime at the heart of most Gothic plots is a transgression of legal barriers as well as, in many cases, a transgression of the stronger barriers of taboo — incest, the murder of a brother, patricide”. Within the realm of uncle-niece relationships these transgressions are combined with representations of property, genealogies and ideologies of gender and sexuality. Through an exploration of these thematics and the manner in which incestuous desires and threats become difficult, if not impossible, to extricate from their presence, a new paradigm of incest as both mutually enforcing and threatening to the patriarchal power structure and hegemony emerges.

Maggie Kilgour says of Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) that the conclusion is “a tidy way of suddenly resolving, in a highly oedipal text, the potential conflict between past and present, or guilt about the representation of the overthrow of a tyrannical father, by showing the father to have been a usurper all along”. If this is true of Horatio Walpole’s work, then later Gothic novels take up this Oedipal drive in a different way, exposing the figure of the uncle as usurper of both the rightful father and the niece.

Although many scholarly accounts claim that one of the hallmarks of the Female Gothic is a tendency to show the father as tyrannical, employing the paternal figure as one who persecutes the heroine to impress upon readers the dangers of patriarchy, more commonly it is the uncle who is the usurper: the tyrannical figure who threatens the lineage, fortune, property and namesake of the heroine. Because of the scholarly trend to view the father as representative of patriarchal dangers, there is a corresponding tendency to overlook the figure of the uncle, who, in fact, more frequently than the father, represents a physical, sexual and financial threat to the heroine. While the conflict between past and present in these novels is still very much a part of the plot, the resolution reveals, not a Walpolean false lineage from a servant who murdered the master, but a brother who murdered a brother and often the sister-in-law as well. The danger is not positioned outside the family line, but within it, not from the serving class but a member of the aristocracy who threatens the women of his own bloodline. Here it is not the heroine who transgress the incest taboo, often viewed as fundamental in maintaining the kinship system of exchange that reinforces the patriarchal power structure, but the uncle. In order to understand how the uncle is capable of violating the tenets of the incest taboo that uphold his power while remaining a figure representative of the dangers of the dominant male hegemony and its corresponding ideologies, it is essential to look at the contexts in which the uncle violates the taboo.

In the previous two chapters I have examined novels in which the incestuous desires between fathers and daughters and brothers and sisters are central; but even in texts that focus on these configurations, there are still uncles looming within the storylines. Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne’ (1789) and ‘The Romance of the Forest’ (1791) feature uncles who either threaten incestuous desires or are murderous, imprisoning heroines and usurping their property.

In Emily Jane Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) Heathcliff plays a dual role, shifting from the brother/lover into the threatening uncle with ease, propelled towards kidnapping, imprisonment and the theft of property from his niece. Angela Wright has recently pointed out that feminist critics have begun to focus increasingly upon the relationship between the law — particularly property law — and the Gothic. The centrality of law is often related in these Gothic novels to the figure of the uncle, the most common predatory or persecutory male figure who appears consistently and often initially makes himself felt as a desirous or lustful force towards the heroine before being revealed as blood kin. Often entrenched in murderous, incestuous plots driven by lust for the heroine, her mother or the familial titles and property belonging to an older brother, the uncle is a shadowy figure within the Gothic that seems representative of the genre itself. An assemblage of motives, desires and drives, a compilation of good and bad, condemned and saved, hideous and handsome, the uncle often acts as the Gothic text: joining together the old and new, the figure of the uncle represents and acts out seemingly oppositional roles. These contrasting positions have often caused scholars to treat the Gothic genre as having a limited ability to be radical or transgressive. As Maggie Kilgour points out, the Gothic novel seems to “denounce precisely the transgressive qualities with which it was associated”, dividing scholars on the question of whether the genre is conservative or radical. Part of what appear to be inconsistencies in the form are mirrored in the figure of the uncle, himself representative of both the older, aristocratic order and the destruction of it. Resembling the genre itself, the uncle adheres to and abuses the dominant cultural structures to usurp powers traditionally denied to his position.

The incestuous desires of the uncle towards his niece are bound up with generations of thefts of property and person. The heroine, frequently herself a physical reflection of her mother, acts as a younger generation onto which the uncle can project his sexual longings, usually thwarted previously by the marriage of her mother to his older brother. With the niece another opportunity is born to rewrite his own history, to use the property, title and wealth stolen from her father to attempt to force a union with the heroine. Sexual desires are consistently tied together with murderous desires, thefts of property and/or title and legal manoeuvrings. Law or legal language is often a recourse to which the uncle retreats, backing himself up with legal documents (real or forged) and legal standpoints (valid or not) in order to try to force his claims on the heroine’s body or property. Binding incestuous desires together with persecutory intentions does seem a way of, as Maggie Kilgour puts it, “cloaking familiar images of domesticity in gothic forms” in order to enable “us to see that the home is a prison, in which the helpless female is at the mercy of ominous patriarchal authorities”.

The combination of incest and law serves also to highlight the vulnerability of the heroine in the face of unwanted sexual desires complicated by questions of legality and the inalienable right of the heroine to make decisions regarding her body. By uniting the persecution of the heroine’s body with concepts of liberty and law, Gothic writers mobilise the female body to enter the typically masculine arena of political rhetoric. Maggie Kilgour points to the association of the Gothic with British freedom from tyrannical laws as capable of being used both to demonise and idealise the past. This notion is examined by Diana Wallace in her analysis of Gothic and legal institutions that traces this association to Margaret Lucas Cavendish’s 1662 ‘Female Orations’. Diana Wallace, while focusing on “the haunting idea” as the Gothic and legal metaphor, makes important connections between legal institutions and the Female Gothic fixation on the loss of female identity and property through the institutions of marriage and inheritance. I argue that because of their frequent positioning as the younger brother, Gothic uncles often inhabit a similar position to the heroines in terms of inheritance and identity, being unable to lay legal claim to familial property or title.

Eighteenth-century legal scholar Sir William Blackstone famously described the English constitution and legal system as an inheritance: “an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry, but fitted up for a modern inhabitant”. Wolfram Schmidgen discusses William Blackstone’s metaphor of law and the Gothic castle as an allusion that “ties together the themes of property, common law, and the English constitution in a single image”. This notion of inherited rights is important in relation to the figures of uncles and nieces, who are both portrayed as being denied their inheritances of property, title or rights.

In contrast to the heroines, the uncles use violence and force to usurp the inheritances denied them and the positions of power and wealth held by their older brothers, displacing them as the bastions of patriarchy. Along with positions of patriarchal power, estates and titles that uncles usurp through their violent crimes, they inherit generations of female bodies from their brothers. In one sense, the figure of the uncle allows a reaffirmation of individual freedom over social contract or law before revealing the ultimate futility of a reaffirmation that results in a mere displacement of power rather than an abolition of its structures. As such, the uncle’s compromised place within patriarchy makes him a useful figure to writers of the Gothic as he becomes reflective of the form and underscores the Gothic’s location at the centre of radical discourse.

Representations of incest place desires, bodies and sexuality within the context of debates on freedom, choice and the ethics of tyrannical laws. In order more clearly to understand how writers of the Gothic used the figure of the uncle to represent a variety of legal and domestic dangers, it is necessary to examine a diverse selection of Gothic novels. ‘The Castle of Wolfenbach’ (1793) by Eliza Parsons precedes the more celebrated works of Ann Radcliffe as well as the scores of Gothic novels written in the latter’s style. It is therefore a useful text to look at both in terms of possible influences on Ann Radcliffe’s works but also as a novel that, in spite of being relegated to a mere footnote in discussions of Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ (1817) list of Gothic novels, is one that deserves recognition for raising questions of ownership, independence and the origins of desire.

Ann Radcliffe’s two most famous novels, ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance’ (1794) and ‘The Italian’ (1797), are essential works to examine in a chapter considering uncle-niece incest and questions of property as both texts explore these topics in divergent ways. In ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance’, Ann Radcliffe uses the figure of an uncle by marriage to depict the implications of property transfer upon marriage and the system of inheritance. While avoiding explicit incestuous situations, she positions the heroine as an object of both persecution and exchange by her uncle, who uses other male figures as proxy sexual threats to force compliance.

In ‘The Italian’, Ann Radcliffe explicitly unites incestuous sexual desire and murderous desire, deploying the uncle as a figure conflicted over whether to rape or kill his niece, whom he has already left without property or title. When the common threads of legality and sexuality that are apparent within these different Gothic narratives by women are unpicked a pattern emerges that links the figure of the uncle with sexual, incestuous threats, creating a subversive commentary on tyrannical persecution, oppression and the hypocrisy of “natural” law.

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