Transgressive Fictions in Lesbian Gothic Literature

Paulina Palmer

Paulina Palmer

The topic of my article is a newly categorised form of fiction known as “Lesbian Gothic.” In fact, it is a form that I myself recognised and named. I investigate it in my book ‘Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions,’ published with Cassell & Co in cooperation with Continuum International Publishing Group in 1999, and have explored it further in recent publications.

My interest in it was motivated by noticing the number of contemporary lesbian novels and story collections structured on gothic motifs in the lesbian section of the Silver Moon Bookshop in London.

Silver Moon Bookshop was one of the most prominent of the bookshops that sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom in the wake of the feminist movement. Sadly now, like other such bookshops, it has been forced to close due to the recession and the rise of commercial chains.

Dame Daphne du Maurier in her 1930s novel Rebecca and Shirley Jackson in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ published in 1959 wrote gothic fiction with lesbian resonances. However, it was in the 1980s and 1990s, in the context of the lesbian feminist movement, that “Lesbian Gothic” emerged as a specific form. During this period Anglo-American writers moved from prioritising realistic forms of fiction, such as the “coming out” novel and bildungsroman, to experimenting with the recasting of popular genres, some involving fantasy.

Gothic fantasy is one form that attracted them. Novels and stories of this kind, while differing in narrative line, have featured in common. They all employ gothic motifs and imagery as a vehicle to represent and explore lesbian sexuality and experience.

Well-known motifs that they utilise include the witch and the vampire, as well as different forms of spectrality, including the ghost, the spectral double and the haunted house.

Contemporary writers who contribute to “Lesbian Gothic” include the Scottish American writer Ellen Galford and the British novelists Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters and Scottish author Ali Smith. Other noted writers include the American Paula Martinac and the African American Jewelle Gomez.

A question that people unfamiliar with “Lesbian Gothic” frequently ask is, why do lesbian writers choose to utilise Gothic? What attraction do the genre and its motifs hold? In fact, they hold a number of attractions.

To start with, gothic fiction has had, from its advent in the eighteenth-century, notable feminine and feminist associations. Some of the earliest contributors to the genre, including Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstone Shelley were women. The themes they treat have female relevance.

The labyrinthine passages and castle vaults in which Ann Radcliffe portrays her heroines losing their way have been interpreted by critics as symbolically representing, in an age when upper-class girls were often kept ignorant of sex, female sexuality and the body.

The plot structure of Mary Wollstone Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ with its brutal erasure of the female characters, is read by Mary Jacobus as representing an image of patriarchy and its tendency to suppress and even annihilate women.

In addition, certain key gothic concepts and motifs, in particular, the uncanny and the ghost, are metaphorically applicable to lesbian existence.

Rosemary Jackson describes the uncanny, a concept discussed by Sigmund Freud and Hélène Cixous, as expressing “drives and desires which have to be repressed for the sake of cultural continuity.”

Lesbian eroticism, regarded by hetero-patriarchal culture as transgressive, is one such desire. Rosemary Jackson also examines the way in which the ghost story, a literary form cited by Sigmund Freud as illustrating the operations of the uncanny, “helps to make visible that which is culturally invisible” such as topics that society regards as unspeakable and taboo.

Topics of this kind include, of course, lesbian and male gay sexuality. It, therefore, comes as no surprise to find motifs with uncanny connotations, spectrality and the vampire, in particular, infiltrating lesbian and queer theory.

Terry Castle in her study ‘The Apparitional Lesbian’ interprets the ghost as an image for lesbian invisibility and the secret, closeted life that lesbians have often been forced to lead. The theorist Diana Fuss in her collection ‘Inside / Out’ also employs spectral metaphors in the discussion of lesbian and queer existence.

She describes the way society attempts to suppress homosexuality by relegating the lesbian and gay man to the invisible domain of the “phantom other.” She also portrays homosexual and heterosexual economies co-existing uneasily in a form of mutual “haunting.”

Sue-Ellen Case utilises the vampire, with its associations of transgressive sex, its secret nightlife and victimisation as an image for lesbian transgression and eroticism. She states, “The vampire is the queer in its lesbian mode.”

Another concept that connects gothic interests with the lesbian is the cultural-political one of “excess.” Just as the world of the supernatural and the uncanny that Gothic fiction treats is excessive too, and can disrupt the rational, material world, so lesbian identification and desire, as Bonnie Zimmerman writes, exceeds and is surplus to the conventional roles of the object of exchange and specular other than man that hetero-patriarchal culture conventionally assigns to women. It can also prove disruptive.

Having indicated how gothic motifs furnish writers with a vehicle for representing lesbian sexuality and experience, I will now briefly discuss some contemporary novels exemplifying the use of “Lesbian Gothic.” One of the earliest motifs to receive attention was the witch. Ellen Galford centres ‘The Fires of Bride,’ published in 1986, on it.

She employs it as an image for the lesbian feminist, foregrounding her links with women’s community and her strength and ingenuity in challenging male oppression. She also utilises it satirically, to humorously critique female egocentricity and bossiness.

In addition, Michèle Brigitte Roberts introduces the word “coven” (a meeting of witches) as a synonym for the feminist consciousness-raising group.

The motif of the spectral infiltrated lesbian fiction slightly later, influenced by the discourse of feminist psychoanalysis pioneered by Luce Irigaray and Jacqueline Rose.

Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Passion,’ a work of historiographic metafiction set in eighteenth-century Venice, is particularly rich in spectral imagery. As well as referring to the ghosts of family ancestors haunting the canals, Jeanette Winterson gives her lesbian protagonist Villanelle a spectral double. Or this is how I read the mysterious woman with ghoulish green hair ornamented with a crown of rats’ tails whom Villanelle meets when out rowing at night.

The woman has made her home in a nook in a canal wall. She has an uncanny habit of materialising at crisis points in Villanelle’s life. Villanelle associates her with “the spirits of the dead” who haunt the city “speaking in tongues.”

She can be interpreted as a grimly parodic image of carnivalesque festivity or, alternatively, as the monstrous image that hetero-patriarchal society assigns to the lesbian. She also prefigures Villanelle’s own isolated situation in the novel’s concluding chapters.

Sarah Waters too structures ‘Affinity’ on an aspect of the spectral. She sets the novel in Victorian London, focusing on the Spiritualist movement that flourished in the 1870s. She illustrates how the role of the medium provides the working-class character Selina with a route to achieve upward social mobility — that is, until she comes to a cropper and finds herself incarcerated in Millbank prison, accused of causing the death of one of her clients.

Sarah Waters forges metaphorical links between spectrality and female same-sex desire. She utilises the spirits with which Selina claims to converse to represent lesbian invisibility. The jargon esque terms associated with the Spiritualist Movement, such as “affinity,” also assume lesbian import. Selina tells Margaret, the woman she claims to love, “You are my own affinity.”

Spectrality is especially well suited to articulating ideas of lesbian invisibility and the capacity of lesbian desire to survive oppression and “return” in the manner of the Freudian concept of the repressed. The vampire, in contrast, is employed to foreground the erotic, transgressive aspect of lesbianism. Anna Livia and the African American Jewelle Gomez both utilise it.

They radically remodel the image of the vampire, replacing the bloodthirsty monster with a portrayal that is psychologically complex. They utilise it as a signifier of an alternative lesbian economy of erotic pleasure that they depict as more emotionally intense and fulfilling than its heterosexual counterpart. They also highlight the connections between sexuality and the body, exploring its boundaries, flows, and exchanges. Jewelle Gomez in ‘The Gilda Stories’ focuses on the vampiric network or “family,” investigating its connections with the alternative lesbian parenting formation. She also utilises the vampire to explore racial issues.

The protagonist Gilda is black, and Jewelle Gomez employs her vampiric longevity to examine the changing lifestyles of African American woman and the black community in the United States of America. And, in portraying Gilda and her companions struggling to escape the clutches of the vampire hunters, she exposes the bigotry and acts of violence that lesbians and black people can encounter.

This discussion of Jewelle Gomez’ recasting of the vampire motif brings me to the end of my discussion of Lesbian Gothic. Perhaps you yourself will find time to continue exploring the fiction that it comprises.

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