Development of the Gothic Heroine from Innocence to Experience

Réka Tóth
Réka Tóth

Janice Radway asserts that ― each romance is, in fact, a mythic account of how women must achieve fulfilment in a patriarchal society where fulfilment is engendered by transformation, metamorphosis.

Since the gothic novel, as Walpole also claims, relies heavily on the romance tradition, Radway‘s assertion is a case in point: the gothic heroine must inevitably go through transformations of personality in order to formulate a separate and independent identity.

In Radcliffe, transformation and development find their objective correlative in physical spaces; in the polarisation of the safe, harmonious pastoral world as opposed to a frightening, urban gothic world.

The tender, delicate pastoral world is not only associated with the past, but also with the female sphere, whereas the modern gothic world with its castles and ruins exists in the present and demonstrates restricting male power.

The complexity of this pattern is made even more complicated by the introduction of the aesthetic principles of the sublime and the beautiful: as in Burke, these two principles have clear-cut gender associations; the sublime with the male, the beautiful with the female (Kilgour 116).

Adeline‘s past, that is her childhood, cannot be related to her biological parents, as she is taken away as an infant from her real father through the machinations of gothic villainy, and deposited into the hands of one Jean d‘Aunoy who, together with his wife, actually raises the infant Adeline, which he confesses only at the present Marquis‘ trial:

“When the murder [of the then Marquis de Montalt] was perpetuated, d’Aunoy had returned to his employer [the present Marquis], who gave him the reward agreed upon, and in a few months after delivered into his hands the infant daughter of the late Marquis, whom he conveyed to a distant part of the kingdom where assuming the name of St.Pierre, he brought her up as his own child, receiving from the present Marquis a considerable annuity for his secrecy.”

In spite of the fact that we know very little of the conditions in which Adeline was brought up, we may assume that she spent her childhood in a rural world isolated from the corrupt influences of urban life and characterised by the safety and protection of parental love — it is d’Aunoy’s wife who gives the little infant the name Adeline.

Rousseauian ideology plays an essential role in Radcliffe’s fiction, which counsels that the child be brought up in isolation, “away from the corruption of society, to become secure in [her]self, so that when [s]he enters the public sphere [s]he will be able to withstand its evil influences” (Kilgour 115).

As such, Adeline’s childhood appears to resemble William Blake’s world of innocence, characterised by parental care. After her mother’s death, Adeline is forced to enter the convent, then to adapt to a commercial, mechanical gothic present governed by individualistic feudal tyranny; she is torn out of her familiar/familial world of innocence to be thrown into the dungeon of experience (in Blakean terms) without any parental care to protect her.

According to Maggie Kilgour: “This is the opposition between the natural, simple, happy and loving country, a private realm of the family governed by sentiment and sympathy, and the artificial, cruel, mercenary, and hypocritical city (especially Paris, seen as the centre of decadence), inhabited by isolated individuals who are ruled by self-interest. [The heroine’s] movement from an isolated world into a social one, from a situation of detachment from social relations to an involvement in them, is a gothic process of education Rousseau imagines in Émile (117).”

As we see, Radcliffe‘s adumbration of the ― gothic process of education interestingly corresponds to certain states of Blake‘s fourfold vision.

In Susan Fox‘s interpretation, in Beulah (the vales of Har, idyllic, pastoral realm of innocence) females are both powerful and constructive: they are mothers or nurses who find, comfort and love children. However, the female state is a limited one here; Beulahic valleys are inhabited by females unable to transform: Thel flees at the sight of the grave, incapable of enduring changes brought about by experience which is inevitable in the formulation of a mature personality.

Generation, as Fox states, is the realm where females are either passive or pernicious (508); a dichotomy clearly discernible in some gothic novels: Lewis’s Antonia-Matilda (ravished and murdered innocence versus demonic female villain) in the Monk or Eliza Parsons’ dyad of Matilda Weimar and Mademoiselle de Fontelle (the conventional virtuous young lady in distress versus the evil gossip and conspirator) in ‘The Castle of Wolfenbach’ display the psychological motif of the virgin-whore syndrome.

Radcliffe resides with a relative passivity in female attitude — relative because her heroines unlike those of Walpole, for instance, do take the initiative in certain instances; a notion we shall come back to later.

She does not employ an evil woman to confront her heroine, but places her in a gothic present dominated by an individualistic and anti-social if not misanthropic villain, which is juxtaposed to her childhood pastoral, one inhabited by caring and loving adults.

Radcliffe’s representation of past and present as a continuation from innocence to experience is closely related to female development in ‘The Romance of the Forest’.

In the state of experience, Adeline has to withstand the evil influences of a gothic present, ― a bourgeois marketplace of adult individuality (Kilgour 117) which lacks the protection of a familiar community, where Adeline finds herself the archetypal gothic heroine: helpless and hopeless amongst the labyrinthine pursuits of tyrannical male power.

Released from the severe and hypocritical world of the convent and the captivity of banditti, Adeline is placed under the care of Monsieur and Madame La Motte to whom she is devoted with tender filial affections.

Her new abode in the forest, though first reminds her of “the late terrific circumstances”, soon gains her admiration; furthermore, by establishing a tender parent-child relationship with the La Mottes, Adeline manages to create another seemingly idyllic private world.

However, at the appearance of the usurper Marquis, harmony shrinks as Adeline is exposed to the absolute authority of a despotic lord who first only plans to violate the virtue of the innocent maid, then he orders La Motte to assassinate her.

The Marquis de Montalt, the archetypal gothic villain, therefore, hinders Adeline in a number of ways from returning to a state of paradise; in addition, he is enabled to transform or rather distort the idyllic world Adeline is striving to create.

By holding La Motte in his power, who on account of his past misdeed committed against the Marquis’ person and property dares not oppose his will, the Marquis spoils the vulnerable parent-child relation and intends to transform the tender father-figure into a self-concerned, mechanical individual.

Nevertheless, the narrative ends with the eradication of evil and the rightful distribution of property: Adeline is returned her father’s usurped heritage and is married to Theodore, who fills the conventional role of the inefficient hero of female gothic fiction.

Radcliffe describes the couple’s habitation as follows:

At the distance of a few leagues, on the beautiful banks of the lake of Geneva, where the waters retire into a small bay, he purchased a villa.

The chateau was characterized by an air of simplicity and taste; rather than of magnificence, which however was the chief trait in the surrounding scene.

The chateau was almost encircled with woods which forming a grand amphitheatre, swept down to the water’s edge, and abounded with wild and romantic walks. […] In front of the chateau the woods opened to a lawn, and the eye was suffered to wander over the lake, whose bosom presented an ever-moving picture, while its varied margin sprinkled with villas, woods, and towns, and crowned beyond with the snowy and sublime Alps, rising point behind point in awful confusion, exhibited a scenery of almost unequalled magnificence. (263)

Simplicity and magnificence, beautiful and sublime are unified where male and female spheres do not contradict but live together in peaceful harmony.

By marrying Theodore, Adeline has reached the higher state of innocence — to continue using Blakean terminology — and its corresponding space, Eden where the female merged with its male counterpart has no dependence (Fox 508); in which innocence and experience equally contribute to the birth of a mature female identity or as Jane Spencer calls it ― a pastoral world where female virtue and patriarchal authority [that of the husband] are not in conflict.

Clara Reeve does not employ veiled spatial imagery in the heroine’s identity-building as Radcliffe does; ‘The Old English Baron’ seems to make use of a Walpolean construction: the step-by-step remembering of the past and the hero’s identity.

First, it is crucial to understand our interpreting Edmund as the “melting pot” of masculine and feminine attributes. His androgyny lies in his state of dependency: he is mistaken to be a peasant but because of his virtuous and sentimental character he lives in Lord Fitz-Owen’s castle.

His virtue and the baron’s filial affections towards him breed envy in Lord Fitz-Owen’s other relations, which leads to his being shut up in a chamber of the castle, which is believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the former inhabitants who eventually turn out to be Edmund’s real parents.

Spatial confinement, though mostly affecting women in the gothic novel, cannot be restricted to female confinement only, since the trope can also be found in Walpole.

In ‘The Castle of Otranto’ Theodore also suffers from entrapment: first under a huge helmet that dashes Manfred’s son into pieces at the very beginning of the narrative, then in a turret-chamber from where he is liberated by a female character.

In spite of his confinement, however, Theodore is ready to defend female virtue (he escorts Isabella from the underground labyrinth and protects her in the cave, as well) and does not rely on the help of wealthy male companions.

Whereas Edmund, in fact, has no efficient, individual action with regards to his own safety: in his search for a legitimate identity, he is aided by a priest, when he is shut up in the haunted apartment two faithful companions stay with him and when it comes down to upholding his rights against the usurper, it is Sir Philip, an old friend of Edmund’s real father, who challenges and fights the wicked Lord Lovel.

Edmund’s curiosity (a characteristic feature of the gothic heroine) however, leads him to explore the haunted apartment, which paves the way toward discovering and recovering his true identity.

As was indicated above, Walpole employed the device of a step-by-step remembering of the past: the recovery of the past runs in parallel with the remembering of the statue of the poisoned father; as soon as Alphonso’s statue is constructed, the illegitimate line becomes fragmented and the legitimate line with its true heir, Theodore is recovered.

Reeve begins the process of recovery and the confirmation of Edmund’s true identity similarly with the bloody armour of Edmund’s father he finds in a secret chamber, which is followed by the gradual discovery of fragmented clues such as his father’s seal in the possession of Edmund’s foster-parents, the testimony of his foster-mother, the accounts of the servants, the confession of the usurper and finally the corpse of the murdered Lord Lovel under the floor-planks of the secret chamber.

In Radcliffe, we may witness an identical pattern of identity-building: Adeline finds a manuscript that holds the record of her father’s sufferings when he was imprisoned by the Marquis de Montalt. Her reading of the manuscript is constantly interrupted; therefore, her and the reader’s acquisition of knowledge together with the recovery of truth and the past appears in a fragmentary form.

Wollstonecraft’s gothic narrative is a completely different matter. In comparison with Radcliffe or Reeve, where the heroine’s development leads from unknown childhood origin to the establishment of a mature personality that culminates in marriage, Wollstonecraft’s Maria takes the end of earlier female gothic narratives as a starting point.

As such, she deconstructs the achievement of the gothic heroine and continues her quest implying that marriage is far from being a satisfactory termination in women’s lives in the eighteenth-century.

Female development, however, remains an issue in Wollstonecraft. As she claims in her famous political treatise, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’: “If women are kept in a state of ignorance or perpetual childhood, they are no different in character or nature from a dependent slave”.

She counsels women to base their marriages on rational love, mutual affection and also propagates curbing sexual desire in women. These adult qualities stand in direct juxtaposition to Maria’s passion and idle romantic imagination on the basis of which she chooses not one but two partners. Her first mistaken choice is George Venables: “Whither did not my imagination lead me? In short, I fancied myself in love — in love with the disinterestedness, fortitude, generosity, dignity, and humanity, with which I had invested the hero I dubbed.”

It is the choice, suggested by “the romantic turn” of her thoughts that leads to her being shuts up in a lunatic asylum deprived of property and her child alike.

Her second choice amounts to no better than her first: Maria singles out Darnford as the embodiment of the romantic hero she has been craving after; an affection simply based on some marginal notes Darnford scribbled into the books lent to Maria, and it is his form she spies from the window of her prison.

Although the end of the narrative is fragmented, in one conclusion Darnford takes a mistress and abandons Maria who loses Darnford’s child — whether of miscarriage or abortion it is not clear.

Although some claim (Johnson, Poovey) that the novel is a celebration of female sexual desire, the outcome of both her passionate relationships tells us otherwise: romantic imagination and passionate love are associated with ignorance and childhood, which, if cherished, have disastrous consequences. Hence, Wollstonecraft seems to highlight the importance of a proper education for daughters, as well; a notion that receives special emphasis in female gothic narratives.

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