The Gothic novel was a peculiar and typically feminine genre of the second half of the eighteenth-century. Peculiar in many respects since Horace Walpole claimed his story — ‘The Castle of Otranto’, the very first specimen of a long-lasting tradition — to be a blend of the ancient romance and the modern novel, the sentimental and the realistic tradition.
Peculiar also because it anticipated a psychological interest in characters then unprecedented in literature with regards to psychological motives lurking behind human actions.
It placed much stress on human fears and desires, their causes and consequences. Similarly, the genre’s femininity springs from more than one root: although the writer of the first Gothic novel was a man, and many others of his sex followed his example (for instance, Matthew Lewis, Charles Maturin, William Beckford), the number of female gothic writers far exceeds that of male gothic writers; in addition, the reading audience to which these novels found their way and later became addressed were also women.
Feminine also because it engendered the emergence of the “female Quixote” in the form of the gothic heroine who had the opportunity to engage in “unwomanly” exercises while still maintaining her femininity and almost never violating female propriety.
Nevertheless, the genre bifurcated not much later than it appeared: male and female gothic novels started to be differentiated, where female gothic did not only mean that its authors were women, but also that it ―constructed spaces […] defined, codified and institutionalized as masculine which [female gothic novelists] then attempted to rewrite into literature more benignly as feminine.
Hence, Diane Long Hoeveler states that ― the female gothic novel should be seen as functioning as a coded and veiled critique of all those public institutions that have been erected to displace, contain or commodify women (xii-xiii).
The institutions Hoeveler refers to — family, marriage, church — are given much space in female gothic texts, which obviously necessitates the presence of a female protagonist who stands in the midst of abuses and dangers posed by the said institutions.
Rachel M. Brownstein argues that the female protagonist searches for an ― achieved, finished identity, realized in conclusive union with herself – as – heroine, which means that the female gothic novel is typically the genre that facilitates the voicing of female experience and female identity as seen in the second half of the eighteenth-century.
The present study aims at focusing on the unique figure of the gothic heroine: to what extent she conforms to eighteenth-century conceptions of femininity compared to seminal female representations of the century like Pope‘s ― softer man, Richardson‘s sentimental heroine or Blake‘s liberated woman.
Texts from these writers may help us define in what the unique position of the gothic heroine stands and how gender distinctions are represented in the gothic novel.
We shall focus on gothic novels written by female writers towards the end of the century: Clara Reeve’s ‘The Old English Baron’, Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Maria’, or the ‘Wrongs of Woman’ and Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Romance of the Forest’, each of which gives us different insights into the character of the gothic heroine, but there shall be also occasional references to other narratives written under the aegis of eighteenth-century gothic fiction.
Clara Reeve claims in the preface to ‘The Old English Baron’ that her 1778 text is the ― literary offspring of that prototype of Gothic stories, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, only it is devoid of its deficiencies that endanger its credibility with the readers.
Interestingly, while Walpole introduced two female characters who represent the “damsel in distress” — a stock feature of all Gothic novels to come — Reeve has no principal female character.
Why then should we include her in a study concerned with the development of the gothic heroine? As we shall see, her “hero”, Edmund Twyford can be read as a curious mixture of Walpole’s Theodore of unknown origin and his Matilda or Isabella, the helpless victims of tyrannical abuse. Hence, though Reeve seems to have omitted a female protagonist, her principal male character does fit the role of the victimised heroine central to Radcliffe.
‘The Romance of the Forest’ (1791), albeit an oft-overlooked text living in the shadow of Radcliffe’s often-studied and quoted novels, ‘The Italian’ and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, is an early precedent of many fine female gothic novels.
Besides the presence of all the characteristic features of the genre — the tyrannical villain, the castle, the labyrinth, the usurped property, the first concealed but then gradually disclosed identity of the heroine — the novel displays the development of the gothic heroine.
Despite the fact that Radcliffe owes much to Reeve; for instance, Radcliffe’s “explained supernatural” might be traced back to Reeve’s critique of Walpole and her conscious attempt to make her fiction as realistic as possible, ‘The Romance of the Forest’ must be regarded as a huge step forward in the treatment of the heroine, since Radcliffe’s heroine is no longer male.
Wollstonecraft’s attempt at defining femininity in a quasi-gothic world is a further improvement of the genre. Though Mary Poovey apostrophises Maria, or the ‘Wrongs of Woman’ (1798) a sentimental novel and the text is traditionally not labelled as “gothic”, characteristics of the gothic novel as established by Walpole, Reeve and Radcliffe proliferate in Wollstonecraft’s writing.
Wollstonecraft, however, seems to be removed from the individual plight of the distressed female, and through incorporating legal discourse into an originally fantastic genre she elevates the text to a social if not political level.
Though the three woman-writers’ treatment of the genre seems extremely diverse, we shall attempt to adumbrate how these women interpreted female experience in the last decades of the eighteenth century through their depictions of the gothic heroine’s quest.