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Female empowerment: the secret in the Gothic novel.

The word "terror" as an emotion entered popular vocabulary in the last decade of the 18th century when tens of thousands of suspected counterrevolutionaries in France were summarily guillotined in what was called the Reign of Terror. The violent ramifications of the French Revolution exposed the underside of the struggle against wide-ranging tyranny imposed by monarchs: a terrifying era, indeed.


At the same time, the century that celebrated the triumph of Enlightenment over the superstition and irrationality of the "dark ages" also gave rise to a fascination with the latter epoch's medieval or "Gothic" past and the dark (as in tempestuous, even murderous) emotions that responded to it. The word "Gothic," derived from one of the German tribes (the Goths) that had destroyed the Roman Empire, acquired a new meaning to describe a particular kind of novel, one in which terror helped drive the plot.

Writer Horace Walpole (1717-97) launched this genre. A member of the British aristocracy and Parliament, Walpole built an imitation medieval castle, Strawberry Hill, complete with aesthetically pleasing "ruins," that spawned a corresponding architectural and aesthetic movement known as the Gothic Revival.

His novel The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, is set in an equally imaginary medieval castle that the tyrannical Prince Manfred usurped by murdering its rightful owner. When Manfred's son, Conrad, is killed by the falling of a helmet from a castle statue, Manfred tries to compel Conrad's fiancee, Isabella, to marry him to produce a legitimate (i.e., male) heir and prove false a prophecy that his reign over the castle will be short-lived. Manfred kills his daughter, Matilda, thinking she is Isabella trying to escape. But eventually a neighbor, a noble who became a friar after his wife had died in childbirth, reveals that his heretofore long-lost son Theodore, a handsome but humble peasant, is the rightful heir by virtue of his long-deceased mother, the sister of the castle's previous, murdered owner. Thus, aristocratic lineage is restored, but along a matrilineal line of descent.


Even if Walpole can hardly be called a closet feminist, the women in The Castle of Otranto gain from the demise of Manfred. Hippolita, the wife whom Manfred disdained because she produced only a sickly male heir, breaks free of her husband by seeking solace in a convent for the rest of her life. His unfortunate daughter, Matilda, equally dismissed since under the prevailing system of primogeniture only males could be heirs, nonetheless displays a type of autonomy before Manfred mistakenly kills her: She rejects an aristocratic marriage that Manfred has arranged for her and instead falls secretly in love with Theodore. Perhaps most importantly, Isabella falls for Theodore too, escapes the pursuit of Manfred, and marries this man she loves, the rightful heir of the castle, where the couple lives happily ever after.

Thus, the genre that Walpole launched, whose themes of terror, intrigue, mystery and grotesquery play out in ancient castles, does not symbolize the destruction of the old, aristocratic order but rather suggests its restoration after having been appropriated from below, usually by a younger, murderous brother. Yet it is restoration with a difference because in a patriarchal society women bring to an end the usurped control of the castle. And by doing so they gain a degree of power and control that the prevailing social order could not otherwise permit.

Given the determined spirit of these female characters in a male-dominated culture, it's not surprising that women writers took up the Gothic genre. The most celebrated was Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), whose five Gothic novels earned her the epithet, "the Shakespeare of Romance." A middle-class Englishwoman married to a newspaper editor/owner, Radcliffe frequently used passages from Shakespeare as epigraphs to her chapters, and her flawless heroines spontaneously produce elegant verses as a testament to the beauty of their minds. A related indicator of their virtue is their intense response to the natural world that surrounds them. This is not the formal nature made regular and symmetrical in the gardens connected to the classically styled English country houses of the wealthy but rather nature run wild, as seen in panoramas of soaring mountains, plunging rivers and atmospheric forests: sights that lifted a virtuous mind to thoughts of the creator and that served as a metaphor for the heroine's inherent goodness.

Scenes of spectacular natural beauty are a feature of the Gothic novel of this period. Actions are not set in or limited to the constrictive world of the readers back then, a world that became fictional subject matter for the first major 18th-century English novelists, all of whom were male and focused on realism: Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. In that world women were not allowed to go off on their own, period. If they did, they did not live happily ever after. (For instance, Richardson's Clarissa leaves home rather than marry the unattractive suitor her parents pick for her so that they can control some money she has inherited. But she is raped by the man she runs away with and dies.) Resistance to parents or husbands, no matter how malicious these seeming pillars of patriarchy may be, leaves a typical heroine no alternative than to die with her virtue intact.


But the Gothic heroine is not so restricted. Her story unfolds in a "dark" past, the 15th or 16th century, and in a Catholic country, specifically Italy or France. Gothic writers could draw on the fervent anti-Catholicism prevalent in England into the 19th century to gain reader support for a heroine's defiance of a father who placed his daughter in a convent when she refused to marry the man he has chosen for her. After all, marriage in England then was still very much under the control of parents despite lip service paid to the Protestant ideal of love between spouses. Walpole claimed that Otranto was a true story discovered as a manuscript "in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England" and "printed at Naples ... in the year 1529" and that the saga must have occurred during the Crusades. Radcliffe's novels are all set in this same mythical Middle Ages, and, except for her first, in Italy or France.

This setting allows her heroines to reject the controlling demands of men: manipulative uncles, putative fathers, actual fathers who want to marry them off for financial gain. For in 19th-century England, rebellion against parents was incompatible with female virtue. And, of course, rebellion did not always result in happiness, as Jane Austen shows in Pride and Prejudice through Lydia Bennett, who, against the wishes of everyone connected to her, makes what turns out to be a disastrous marriage to a handsome fortune-hunting soldier. But in the Gothic world, the heroine's rebellion was possible against the threats by villains like Manfred.

Male heads of families are villains in Radcliffe's novels, as they could not be in the world of fictional realism of Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. Baron Malcolm, as a younger son in The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), is not in line to inherit his family's estate, so he solves this problem by murdering both his elder brother and the owner of a neighboring castle and demanding the daughter of that household as his wife. In A Sicilian Romance (1790), another baron, the father of the heroine Julia, imprisons his wife, takes off with his mistress, and tries to force Julia to marry a wealthy count who is his friend. The mistress kills the baron and herself in a fit of jealous rage and Julia marries the man of her choice. The father of the heroine Mathilda in The Romance of the Forest (1791) has been murdered by his scheming younger brother, who then tries to seduce and then murder his beautiful niece. She finally inherits the fortune and marries her more humble true love.

The pattern is thus set for the women in the Gothic world to win not only romantically but economically as well. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847) becomes the prototypical Gothic heroine, arriving at the home of a wealthy man as a caretaker for some member of that man's family and ending up marrying the owner of that "castle." By the end of Bronte's novel, Jane marries Rochester, her true love. He is blind and his ancestral home has burned to the ground, but Jane leaves the servant class and spends the rest of her life caring for her true love. Rochester appears to occupy the position of Gothic villain since he has imprisoned in the attic his Jamaican wife, whose destructive behavior brings the novel to a crisis that delays and almost prevents his marriage to Jane. But under Bronte's hand he becomes a prototypical romance hero: dark and brooding and victim of his own admitted womanizing and of his father's desire to marry him, the second son and therefore the offspring not entitled to the main inheritance, to a rich woman from Jamaica.

The fictional form that features terror is still with us in a variety of forms almost 350 years later. For instance, "drugstore" Gothic novels, featuring houses haunted or possessed by mysterious forces against which a terrified, good woman struggles, reached the height of their popularity in the pre-feminist 1960s. In the decades since then, horror movies have continued many of these Gothic motifs. But we know who will win this battle. And because women in our culture can acknowledge terror in ways that could be detrimental to a man's manliness, the Gothic genre lets us experience terror by way of a strong woman who can overcome it.

Kate Ellis, Associate Professor of English at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, specializes in 18th-century literature, gender and sexuality. Her books include The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (University of Illinois Press, 1989) along with Crossing Borders, A Memoir (University Press of Florida, 2001). She's contributed numerous chapters to scholarly books on gothic themes, including A Companion to the Gothic (edited by David Punter; Blackwell Publishers, 2000) and The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein (edited by Audrey Fisch, et al.; Oxford University Press, 1993), and her articles have appeared in academic publications such as The Feminist Review; College English; Feminist Studies; and The Radical Teacher. As a book reviewer, Ellis has written for The New York Times and Psychology Today. She earned English degrees at Columbia University (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) and The New School for Social Research (M.F.A., fiction writing). Email her at

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Author:Ellis, Kate
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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