Female Gothic Histories

Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, Artist Unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen's Novels
Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, artist unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen’s Novels

‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.’ —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), p. 123.

Every year at Cardiff University, the Assuming Gender journal and research group invites a distinguished guest speaker to give a lecture within the broad subject of gender studies. Last year Professor Catherine Belsey delivered a lecture on ‘Women in White’ across cultures and fictions. The year before, Professor Nicola Humble offered a delightful look at gender and the literature of food. This year, Professor Diana Wallace sketched the written tradition of ‘Female Gothic Histories’. Her abstract outlined a bold range of concepts:

If the term ‘historical fiction’ is a kind of oxymoron which yokes together supposedly antithetical opposites (‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘literature’), then adding ‘Gothic’ into the mix complicates it further. This lecture will explore a tradition of Gothic historical fictions which stretches from Sophia Lee in the eighteenth century to Sarah Waters in the twenty-first century. Conscious that women have often been left out of traditional historical narratives, such female writers have turned to Gothic historical fiction as a mode of writing which can both reinsert women into history and symbolise their exclusion.

As the abstract suggests, Professor Wallace began her lecture by bringing together two genres that are often considered distinct: history and Gothic fiction. Dubbing historical fiction a ‘bastard genre’, she categorised it as traditionally female, and cited this as one of the reasons why fictional historiography—especially Gothic historiography—is worthy of deeper study. Wallace relied on a number of psychoanalytical concepts throughout, and she described Gothic fiction as the ‘uncanny return of the repressed past’. In a patriarchal tradition that tends to write women out of history, historical Gothic fiction potentially offers us a window into the way female writers relate to the past. It also helps us to question the distinction Walter Scott helped to establish between this genre and his own historical novels, which he describes in Waverley as being ‘more a description of men than manners’.

Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.
Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Professor Wallace’s lecture delved deep into Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1783-85), Vernon Lee’s Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903), multiple rewritings of Jane Eyre, Victoria Holt’s pulp novels (including Mistress of Mellyn, pub. 1960) and the modern Gothic, before finally coming to settle on Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. In this survey, Victorian fictions were intentionally sidelined, specifically because they already loom so large in discussions of women writers, the Gothic, and historical fiction.

For each case study, Wallace explored the approach the work’s author takes to gender identity and relations. She also suggested how this might be related to the text’s depiction of history. In The Recess, as in many Gothic fictions of the time, the fates of the central female characters are in the hands of a rather sinister collection of men. In Penelope Brandling, the protagonist’s woes stem largely from patriarchal structures, rather than any single man. Mistress of Mellyn and other pulp novels of the mid twentieth century turn their gaze to the other woman. In an article appropriately entitled ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband’, Joanna Russ describes how such fictions enact a Freudian drama, in which the male protagonist is the Father, wrongly accused, and the other woman/first wife of the protagonist becomes the Mother, who must be destroyed in order for the Gothic heroine to achieve her goals.

Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé
Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

At this point, Wallace was interrupted by a mysterious fire alarm—an event that was also, appropriately, to be found among the attributes of the haunted house in Sarah Waters’ work once the lecture resumed. The Little Stranger plays with all of the Gothic stereotypes and traditions outlined in the rest of Wallace’s lecture, giving us a ghost story through the eyes of an unreliable male narrator, who may or may not have committed the crimes attributed to a poltergeist. Within Gothic fiction, Wallace thus sees a progression of thought in the way gender, horror, and history are intertwined.

Wallace closed, fittingly, with one quotation from Luce Irigaray’s monograph Thinking the Difference, and another from Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey:

If the rationale of History is ultimately to remind us of everything that has happened and to take that into account, we must make the interpretation of the forgetting of female ancestries part of History and re-establish its economy. (Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin, 1989, p. 110)

[Y]et I often think it odd [history] should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. (Northanger Abbey, p. 123)

The 5 Stages of Revision

Image taken from page 44 of 'Life's Roses: a volume of selected poems'

About two months ago I had what will likely be the first of many experiences with negative feedback, something that is part and parcel of working in academia (or anywhere, really). I submitted an article to a book collection over the summer of 2014, and after giving it very little thought for the following nine months, it returned to me in May 2015 with a request for major revisions, of the type where you may honestly just as well re-write the entire article. This week, after a very long revision process, I finally (re)submitted the chapter for consideration in a book collection. Maybe those of you who have had children can let me know just how melodramatic I’m being in comparing the revision process to childbirth. Whatever the analogy, a year down the road I’ve developed a whole new relationship with the revision process. While I’m 100% sure I’ll change my mind about this once the experience is no longer fresh in my mind, at this exact moment I’m inclined to say that I’ll never write another article again.

In case I’m not the only one struggling with these emotions at the moment, I thought I would use another melodramatic metaphor and share my five-step journey through the revision process. Writer Jenna Black has described her own five stages of revision upon submitting a manuscript, which include dread, panic, denial, acceptance, and relief. I’ve got my own set of five to add to this list, and they all take place during the re-writing process, crammed in between ‘acceptance’ and ‘relief’. Because the British Library recently shared a massive library of more than a million, copyright-free images on Flickr, I took the opportunity use a few by way of illustration:

Image taken from page 111 of 'Woodland Romances; or, Fables and Fancies'1. Destructive Shock

All work can be improved, and often with just a little reflection it can be improved drastically. You’ve given the comments a few days or weeks to sink in, and now you go back to them only to find that they’re still as upsetting and demotivating as they were the first time. What were you thinking? Everything is pretty much wrong. You’ve clearly got a lot of work ahead of you, and not nearly enough time to do it. You spend a lot of time contemplating backing out, or just starting again from scratch.

Image taken from page 147 of 'The Tragedy of Ida Noble, etc. [A novel.]'2. Bottomless Ennui

You’ve now got a very rough second draft that you can almost live with, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Is it even worth it? Is anything worth it? You put so much effort into the first version, and look how that turned out.

This is the phase where you spend a lot of time staring blankly at the screen, re-reading texts you already know by heart, and writing a lot of sentences that you immediately delete again. Who knows — maybe you’ll never be able to write anything good ever again.

Image taken from page 10 of 'Mount Despair, and other stories, etc'3. Grudging Acceptance

You’ve put too much work into this to  quit now. You spend long, grueling days in a darkened room, muttering to yourself and updating footnotes. It doesn’t matter how awful the end product will be — you’re going to get it finished if it kills you.

You start to develop headaches from the glow of the computer screen, and so switch back and forth between computer and paper editing. You make copious amounts of notes and numerous outlines, most of which you end up discarding.

Image taken from page 63 of 'Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses'4. Tentative Enthusiasm

This stage sneaks up on you slowly and gradually as you struggle to emerge from your revision-induced stupor. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. You’ve actually responded to most of the comments, the main argument is surprisingly coherent, and now the piece just needs some polishing. Unfortunately you’ve now read through it so many times your brain is actually incapable of seeing the typos that still remain. You pass the draft on to a friend or family member and try to forget about it for a little while before you move on to the final read-through.

It will probably all turn out alright in the end.

Image taken from page 80 of 'Nasby in Exile: or, six months of travel in England, ... France, Germany ... Illustrated'5. Submission Panic

As the deadline (official or self-imposed) looms closer, you start to revert back to stage one of the revision cycle. What if your changes haven’t been as good as you thought after all? What if you’ve just created a whole new set of problems? Maybe you should have taken a safer route, and not changed quite so much. You upload a draft of the article to the e-mail you’ve pre-written, then delete it and do just one more last check for typos and formatting glitches. Finally you hit ‘send’, and spend the next two hours agonising over whether you did the right thing. Eventually you get a submission receipt and are left with the paltry consolation that, if you did forget something, it’s too late to change it now.

Does anyone else have memories of a terrible revision process? If so I’d love to hear about them in the comments. I’ll bring the metaphorical tissues.