Review: Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion

Posted by Donna Mitchell on August 09, 2016 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion

Edited by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

ISBN: 978-0-7486-9912-4

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

A welcome addition to the field of Gothic criticism, decease Horner and Zlosnik’s Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion mixes established classics of the canon with recent films, novels and video games, and examines them through the lens of feminist and/or post-feminist theory. The main purpose of this study is not only to explore how the representation of women and identity in the Gothic has evolved over time, but also to emphasise how issues relating to women’s lack of agency remain a steady component of these narratives. Defining itself as being very much a part of fourth-wave feminism, the book is divided into three sections that collectively highlight how Gothic texts either ‘mimic the polarisation of women in Western society or seek to challenge damaging stereotypes and constricting practices – sometimes both in the same text’ (2). In doing so, they offer a concise account of the ‘new feminist energy’ (2) that underlies recent women’s writing within the Gothic genre.

Women and the GothicEntitled ‘Family Matters’, the first section focuses on how patriarchal ideology can lead to the confinement of women either through psychological containment or actual physical incarceration. Using Mary Alcock’s ‘A Recipe for Writing a Novel’ as a means of illustrating the stereotypical traits of the early Gothic heroine in Chapter One, Angela Wright analyses how Gothic texts of the 1790s taught their female readers the importance of maintaining values and virtue through their spectralisation of the transgressor. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas uses a mix of classic Gothic literature that includes Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, and Bram Stoker to examine the figures of female spectres and madwomen in Chapter Two. She traces how the madwoman changed from being a sentimental icon to becoming one of the most potent images within a genre that moved her to the attic and positioned her somewhere between the Good and the Evil woman. In the next chapter Ginette Carpenter analyses two contemporary films through the prism of women’s Gothic. She presents Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin as texts in which mothering is presented as an inherent performance of femininity and pays special attention to the relationship between the maternal and the monstrous. Chapter Four presents Lucie Armitt’s careful study of the girl child in ten fictions published between 1845 and 2009, and illustrates how the Gothic canon’s depiction of this figure has remained stagnant despite various shifts in women’s sociocultural expectations. Diana Wallace closes this section with her discussion of the home as ‘a woman’s place’ (75). She investigates how Gothic narratives such as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always lived in the Castle and Sylvia Plath’s poetry expose the terrors of this space by using themes such as ‘possession, confinement, penetration, [and] loss of identity’ (75) to explore women’s experience of domestic space.

Anne Williams opens the ‘Transgressions’ section with a study on witches. She explains that the link between the history of wicked Gothic women and the history of rebellion and subversion demonstrates that a revolution in literary form is needed before sociocultural female subjectivity can be achieved. Defining Alexander Pope’s Eliosa as the prototype for generations of wicked women within the Gothic trope, she discusses the merging of female vampire and witch before moving onto an examination of the link between villainesses and hysteria. The female Gothic body is dissected by Marie Mulvey-Roberts in Chapter Seven as she explores how its historical association with monstrosity is reflected in Gothic texts. Mixing traditional heroines from Ann Radcliffe’s literature with contemporary figures such as the patchwork monster of Shelley Jackson’s hypertext, she disputes the demonisation of woman as reflected in literature. Rebecca Munford analyses the various ways in which femininity has been susceptible to spectralisation in Chapter Eight. She uses the Gothic works of Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Ali Smith to trace the link between female subjectivity and spectral femininity in terms of how the spectre’s (absent) presence can destabilise all categories of identity including those of gender and sexuality. Female Gothic and the law is the focus of Chapter Nine as Sue Chaplin investigates how this sub-category of the genre has been used to conceptualise how patriarchal legal systems facilitate the mistreatment of the female subject. Early Gothic texts such as Sophia Lee’s The Recess are combined with Stephanie Meyers’ postmillennial Twilight series in order to present the Female Gothic’s concern with women’s struggle to protect themselves from violent men and the legal system’s failure to guarantee justice or safety. The final chapter of this section relates to female vampires as Gina Wisker defines them as being an ‘embodied oxymoron’ (150) that undermines conventional notions of women’s societal and sexual passivity. She supports this notion by tracing the evolution of the female vampire using a selection of Victorian literature such as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the more recent texts of Angela Carter’s short stories, and popular vampire films by Moira Buffini, Neil Jordon, and Ana Lily Amirpour.

The final section, ‘New Directions’, begins with Ardel Haefele-Thomas’ queering of the Female Gothic. Exploring the genre through the lens of second-wave feminism, post-second-wave feminism, and trans feminism, she considers the dynamic of the woman-woman relationship in contrast to that of the woman-man relationship. In Chapter Twelve, Horner and Zlosnik focus on the figure of the old woman for their discussion of ageing within the Gothic. They examine the treatment of older female characters in a selection of texts including Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and Rider Haggard’s She. In doing so, they deliberate factors such as older childless women and older women’s sexual desire in order to depict how various anxieties about ageing are presented in the genre. Virtual Gothic heroines are the main concern of Chapter Thirteen as Catherine Spooner considers both the gendering of virtual space and the Gothicisation of new technologies. She traces the link between spiritualism and woman’s position as medium and examines the female subject as conduit between worlds in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Plan before moving onto William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y in order to explore the development of virtual Gothic femininity across three decades. The final chapter of this section relates to digital games as part of today’s popular culture. Tanya Krzywinska discusses how game development companies are largely populated and led by men but notes that a high percentage of Gothic games are being designed by women. She then explores the various reasons why aspects of the Gothic are being used to create a new market that may increase the number of female gamers.

A thoroughly comprehensible (and enjoyable!) study of women and the Gothic, this book brings old and new texts together to explore how the Female Gothic offers a dialogue to voice the concerns of the Other. Issues pertaining to female identities and the way in which women are conceptualised in many cultures are considered through the many texts within this study in order to demonstrate how they portray the anxiety and anger about the lot of women that still exists today. This ensures its status as a must-read for any researcher of women and the Gothic.

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