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)