Gender and the Gothic Space

Posted by Deborah Russell on April 29, 2013 in Deborah Russell, Guest Blog tagged with ,

After last week’s blog on the critical category of the ‘female Gothic’, this week I’m going to look at the gendering of genres from a different perspective. After all, twentieth-century critics were not the first to connect gender and genre. Eighteenth-century commentary tends to gender the Gothic, too, and this discourse informs the period’s literature.

One of the key markers of Gothic writing is its deployment of Gothic space and place. It is no surprise, for example, that satirical ‘recipes’ for the Gothic novel start with the buildings:

Take – An old castle, half of it ruinous.
A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.
Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.
As many skeletons, in chests and presses.
Mix them together in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any of the watering places before going to bed.

(‘Terrorist Novel Writing’, 1797)

I’m interested in how eighteenth-century women writers could manipulate the gendered expectations that surrounded such architectural settings. It seems to me that Gothic architecture invited gendered readings, but that its gendered status was also hugely ambivalent. That ambivalence was then open to exploitation.

Not far from Belfast, where I live, there is a National Trust property called Castle Ward. Tracy Fahey wrote about it on this blog back in 2008. The story of the house is as follows: in the early 1760s, Lady Anne Ward and her husband Bernard disagreed about the style in which to build their house, and compromised by dividing it between a classical public entrance façade and a Gothic rear. By literalising the divide between husband and wife along public / private lines, Castle Ward thus offers a striking example of the gendering of architectural fashions. This is even clearer in the interior, as (his) imposing hall and staircase at the front are classical, while (her) boudoir and morning room at the back of the house are Gothic.

The classical facade of Castle Ward © National Trust

The Gothic facade of Castle Ward © National Trust

The nature of the division of Castle Ward perhaps picked up on a wider tendency to figure Gothic aesthetics as an alternative to the public sphere; Walpole, for example, placed Gothic architecture in opposition to “the Grecian” style in remarking that the latter was “only proper for magnificent and public buildings” (letter to Sir Horace Mann, 1750). When classical and Gothic designs were set side by side, the Gothic often implicitly occupied the sphere of private amusement, as with ornamental ‘follies’ within classical gardens. And it was in garden design (where structures may have symbolic or aesthetic significance but rarely have a use beyond the social) that the fashion for the Gothic really took off: Batty Langley, author of the popular Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved (1741) was predominantly a garden designer.

In Castle Ward, the Gothic has been further entwined with gendered stereotypes as a result of the reputation of Anne Ward. Visiting the estate in 1762, shortly after work on the house had started, Mary Delaney worried that the building would “not be judiciously laid out”, commenting that “Lady Anne Ward […] is so whimsical that I doubt her judgement”.  The obvious eccentricity of some of the Gothic interiors would seem to back up this assessment, as well as to reinforce the implicit gendering of the two sides of the building (see the picture of the boudoir below, for example). Delaney’s characterisation of Anne Ward has stuck: the Public Records Office’s ‘Introduction to the Ward Papers’ refers to her “whimsical […] personality”, implying that her marriage failed as a result of her capriciousness.

The boudoir at Castle Ward © National Trust

By contrast, the classical side of the house was rather conventionally modelled on the designs of Abraham Swan and forms part of her husband’s public persona; a 1767 portrait of Bernard Ward by Francis Cotes shows him holding the plan of the classical façade. The image he is projecting here is perhaps explicitly oppositional to that of his wife’s feminine ‘whimsicality’, considering that the unhappy couple separated around this time.

Francis Cotes, portrait of Bernard Ward, 1767 © National Trust Collections

This narrative, however, does not quite do justice to the ambition of the Gothic side of the house. The incongruous ceiling in the boudoir pictured above, for example, was based on the ceiling of Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey. A letter from Lord William Gordon to Bernard Ward in May 1764 makes clear that it was Lady Anne who was invested in this aspect of the design: “I left a Commission in England to send Lady Ann drawings of the Roof of Henry the eights Chapel, […] which I hope her La[dyship] has got”. And the Gothic façade seems to have been modelled on the imposing Inveraray Castle, seat of the powerful Duke of Argyll, which the Wards had visited in the 1750s.

Inveraray Castle, designed by Roger Morris and William Adam after an initial sketch by Vanbrugh. Building began in 1746 and finished in 1789.

Given these reference points, it seems that Lady Anne Ward’s ‘feminine’ Gothic does not fit as easily into the public / private binary as one might expect. Gothic architecture, after all, carries some serious political resonances. It was a recurring trope in discussions of national and constitutional issues; most famously, in the 1760s William Blackstone figured the law as “an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry”. That imagery was echoed by many other writers: in 1793 Hannah More’s Village Politics, for example, uses the image of a castle in an extensive patriotic allegory in which the “noble building”, “raised by the wisdom of [our] brave ancestors”, is “glorious” despite an ongoing need for minor repairs. Gothic castles or abbeys are, of course, symbols of the nation’s history. And even neo-Gothic buildings may just as easily be public monuments as escapist follies. Or they may be both, as with the Gothic temple in the famous gardens at Stowe – a folly dedicated to “the liberty of our ancestors”.

The Gothic Temple at Stowe, © Amanda Lewis

Such national historical import is bound up with ideas of public masculinity. Later, Ruskin would say that good Gothic “looks as if it had been built by strong men” and that it offered a “sign-manual of the […] massy power of men” (‘The Nature of the Gothic’, in Stones of Venice, 1853). But it should be clear from the pictures and story above that Castle Ward would not meet Ruskin’s criteria; there is nothing conventionally ‘masculine’ about that boudoir. Instead, it manages to keep both the ‘public’ resonances and the ‘feminine’ gendering.

That’s what makes Castle Ward an instructive point of reference when thinking about how Gothic literature uses its architectural settings. If Gothic spaces can complicate the public / private divide by insisting that they are at once of national importance and peculiarly feminine, then it is worth considering what happens when Gothic edifices in fiction are also imagined as domestic spaces. I would argue that in these cases their potential to act as metonyms for the nation gains specific political force. Since lived-in buildings centre the experience of the individual, often female, subject, these narratives can implicitly write marginalised stories into national history – whether to validate, appropriate, or undermine it.  The associations between the Gothic and private escapism could reinforce stereotypes about women writing and reading Gothic fiction, but the multivalent implications of Gothic spaces also made a mode of political commentary available for women writers.

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