Wallace, Diana, and Andrew Smith, eds.: The Female Gothic: New Directions.
Wallace, Diana, and Andrew Smith, eds. The Female Gothic: New Directions. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 219 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-230-22271-7. $80.00.
In The Female Gothic: New Directions, Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith collect twelve essays that explore numerous aspects of the Female Gothic, both as a literary genre and as a field of academic study. Relying heavily on the work of Ellen Moers, the progenetrix of the term, they argue that the Female Gothic is shaped by issues including "national identity, sexuality, language, race and history" and that its significance lies precisely in how it "challenges and complicates" these issues (10). As should be obvious from this list, they believe that the Female Gothic is ultimately about identity--both that of the author and the (female) characters in the stories--and the included essays support this.
The editors note that their intentions for compiling this anthology were twofold. First, they wanted to prove the many critics who feel that the Female Gothic is outdated wrong and that it "remains a fertile field for investigation" (6). Second, they wanted to "retain a sense of history" in the face of the rapidly expanding numbers of Female Gothic works (11). While one might think that this focus on history would have resulted in the essays being arranged in some form of chronological order, this is not the case. Instead, the essays are merely numbered 1 to 12 and arranged with no discernable logic. This is actually the one major flaw of the book as it makes it somewhat difficult to draw connections between the essays, and could have been easily fixed if the book had been divided into thematic sections like most essay collections. Accordingly, for the purpose of this review, I have divided the essays into four categories: historical explorations, author studies, tropological explorations, and regional/national Gothic.
The four essays that make up the category of what I am calling historical explorations not only highlight the origins of the (Female) Gothic, but also attempt to prove the legitimacy of the Gothic, both as literature and as a field of study. Three of the essays attempt to do this by looking at the Gothic itself. Lauren Fitzgerald, in her article, "The Female Gothic and the Institutionalisation of Gothic Studies," shows how Moer's conception of the Female Gothic rescued the reputation of both Female Gothic writers and Gothic Studies. In a more specific reading, Robert Miles shows how the aesthetics of Anne Radcliffe forever transformed the Gothic in "'Mother Radcliff: Ann Radcliffe and the Female Gothic." Unfortunately, there is nothing new or groundbreaking found in this essay. In contrast, Angela Wright pushes some boundaries in "Disturbing the Female Gothic: An Excavation of the Northanger Novels," even though her subject is just as common in Gothic Studies. She shows how "Austen's Northanger Abbey ... problematises assumptions about gendered reading habits that were already prevalent in the 1790s" since both male and female characters read and discuss Gothic novels (62). These three essays legitimize both Gothic literature and Gothic Studies by focusing on the Gothic alone. In contrast, the final essay in this category, and the most revolutionary, Diana Wallace's "'The Haunting Idea': Female Gothic Metaphors and Feminist Theory," attempts to legitimize the Gothic by looking at the larger academic world. She does this by showing how feminist theory is built around Gothic metaphors, mainly those related to ghosts and haunting, due to women being almost invisible in the historical record. This expands the importance of the Gothic beyond the bounds of the literary, which none of the other essays in the book do: just like ghosts haunt the Gothic, the Gothic haunts feminism.
Through a different utilization of the metaphor of haunting, both of the essays in the author studies category look beyond the scope of their subject's Gothic literature and draw parallels between their fiction and non-fiction works. According to Andrew Smith in his essay "Children of the Night: Shirley Jackson's Domestic Female Gothic," the only way "to appreciate Jackson's reworking of the Female Gothic ... [is to] examine her critically neglected non-fiction writings about her role as a wife and above all as a mother, and to place such writings at the centre of her oeuvre" (153). He shows how Jackson examines and disrupts the images of wife and mother, thus revealing the haunted nature of domestic spaces during her time. Similarly, but less successfully, Anya Heise-von der Lippe argues that the Female Gothic "establishes a dialogue between [Toni] Morrison's literary criticism and her work as a writer" in "Others, Monsters, Ghosts: Representations of the Female Gothic Body in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Love" (178). Although the essay does show how Morrison's literary criticism and fiction reveal that history inescapably haunts the present, Heise-von der Lippe dilutes her argument by including too many ideas; a more restricted focus would have aided clarity.
While the three essays that make up the tropological explorations category each explore different tropes, they all have one thing in common: the distressed and sexualized female body. They all show that through its many permutations this is an important and powerful symbol within the work of the Female Gothic. Two of these essay focus on the image of the bleeding woman. In "Bleeding Nuns: A Genealogy of the Female Gothic Grotesque," Alison Milbank takes up the grotesque, which has received "scant attention" in Gothic Studies (76). Even though she shows how the contradictions that are inherent within the grotesque allow us to view it as a representation of female subjectivity--something that traps both characters and authors--the superficiality of her engagement with the grotesque prevents the article from reaching its true potential. In the more developed "From Bluebeard's Bloody Chamber to Demonic Stigmatic," Marie Mulvey-Roberts shows how blood has both a positive and negative meaning in relation to female sexuality within the Gothic as it functions as a sign of both a rite of passage (positive) and the Fall (negative). Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik take up one side of this double meaning in "Keeping It in the Family: Incest and the Female Gothic Plot in du Maurier and Murdoch." They show that even though du Maurier and Murdoch approach incest from different directions, and for different purposes, both authors ultimately show how (forbidden) sexuality can threaten the stability and formation of identity.
Identity is also an important element of the three essays that make up the final category of regional/national Gothic, but on a larger scale. These essays explore how the elements of the Female Gothic can be used as a tool of resistance. To do this, these authors embrace the state of abjection into which a larger national/imperial power places them, and then use the Gothic to show how their nation/region is actually empowered through this abjection. In an argument reminiscent of Heise-von der Lippe's, Meredith Miller's essay "'I Don't Want to be a [White] Girl': Gender, Race and Resistance in the Southern Gothic" shows how the Gothic is a way for the South to talk back to America regarding its violent past history of slavery. This is achieved by destabilizing traditional gender roles through the presentation of monstrous examples of masculinity and femininity. The other two essays in this category turn to the "repression" England exerts on the other nations of Great Britain. In the somewhat unfocused "'Unhomely Moments': Reading and Writing Nation in Welsh Female Gothic," Kristi Bohata shows how, just like the Gothic heroine has to overcome the repression of an older male, Wales has to overcome the traditions of British patriarchy. A similar idea is expressed in Carol Margaret Davison's "Monstrous Regiments of Women and Brides of Frankenstein: Gendered Body Politics in Scottish Female Gothic Fiction." She shows how two male authors (the only two male authors mentioned in this collection!) embrace the tradition of Scotland as "the domain of female monsters," and will ultimately lead to Scotland becoming its own nation free of Britain (196).
While the title of the anthology purports to explore "New Directions" in the study of the Female Gothic, there is actually little that is new or groundbreaking within this book. Nevertheless, all the essays are well written, interesting, thought provoking and worth consideration. Even though I believe that this volume would make an excellent addition to anyone's library, I cannot recommend it without the following reservation in regards to the price. Currently, this book has a suggested price of $80.00. While these essays, on the whole, are valuable to the field of Gothic Studies, they are not worth this high price, at least for an individual. If you are intending to purchase this book for either a library or department collection, I would encourage you to do so. If, however, you were thinking about buying this book for a personal collection, or adopting it for use in the classroom, I would advise against it. Until the price is lowered, I would encourage you to borrow the book from a library.