Generic Restrictions and the ‘Female Gothic’

Posted by Deborah Russell on April 22, 2013 in Deborah Russell, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

James Gillray's 'Tales of Wonder' (1802), © National Portrait Gallery, London

I’ve been thinking about genre lately – about the boundaries of the Gothic genre as a whole and about the ongoing currency of definitions of the ‘female Gothic’ in particular. I have never been especially worried about whether any given text met enough Gothic criteria to ‘count’ as a Gothic novel, but the question of generic definitions is one I’m used to answering. And I have always hated the category of the ‘female Gothic’, for all the usual reasons about its tendency to encourage ahistorical gender essentialism. Overall, I have a strong sense that over-reliance on generic demarcations is confining, but I remain curious as to whether this is countered by the usefulness of such classification.

This question was brought into focus for me partly because I have recently been writing about The Children of the Abbey (1796), a novel by the Irish writer Regina Maria Roche. This was a bestseller in its time, with sales figures rivalling those of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Now, however, it is an obscure text – Roche’s claim to fame for modern readers is that Austen mentions her in Northanger Abbey and in Emma, and may have taken the name ‘Charles Bingley’ from The Children of the Abbey. Given changing tastes, it is not particularly remarkable that Roche’s novel is not popular today, or even that it is out of print, but it is noteworthy that it is relatively unknown even among scholars. In an Irish University Review article on ‘Forgotten Fiction’, Christina Morin attributes Roche’s absence from narratives of the Gothic to the effect that her Irishness has had on her generic positioning; for Morin, “critical concentration on the regional novel [and] the national tale” has led to a “short-sighted understanding of late-eighteenth-century Irish Gothic fiction”.

Regina Maria Roche's 'The Children of the Abbey'

Morin also argues that “scholars of British Gothic fiction generally ignore the fact that two Irish Gothic novels were published before The Castle of Otranto”, the most significant of which is Thomas Leland’s Longsword (1762). Here, though, the picture gets slightly more complicated. Leland has not been forgotten in narratives of the Gothic to the same extent as Roche, and it is not only (or even, perhaps, primarily) his nationality that has minimised his impact. In fact, Longsword usually gets a passing mention as an influence on Clara Reeve in particular: Jim Watt’s Contesting the Gothic, for example, points out that it “contributed towards establishing the component features of the Loyalist Gothic”. Watt also, though, carefully describes the novel as having “connections to another emergent genre, the historical romance”. It seems that Leland’s tale of the adventures of the illegitimate son of Henry II just isn’t quite Gothic enough to shift our sense of the origins of the genre.

There is, of course, a long critical history of trying (and failing) to separate the Gothic from the historical novel. Take Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783-5), which is about the tribulations of the fictional twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots. The text’s atmosphere of persecution has ensured that it is now included in most accounts of eighteenth-century Gothic writing, but in 1969 Robert D. Hume argued that the novel’s “Gothic trimmings” were merely “added for savor”, coming to the famously epigrammatic conclusion that, “If wearing a wool tie makes me a sheep, then The Recess is a Gothic novel.”

Is Hume completely wrong? Is The Recess, devoid of supernatural elements, more or less Gothic than a text like Anne Fuller’s Alan Fitz-Osborne (1787), which would seem to be an exemplary inheritor of Leland’s “historical romance” brand? Fuller’s subtitle explicitly describes the text as a “Historical Tale”; it is set in the reign of Henry III and deals directly with the political turmoil of the thirteenth century. Its account of the public power struggles between the royals and the barons, however, is paralleled by a private narrative of usurpation, murder, and disinheritance, featuring several appearances from the ghost of the hero’s murdered mother wielding the bloody, dripping dagger that killed her. Are these appearances “Gothic trimmings” or generic markers? Is this text wearing a wool tie or is it a sheep?

Obviously there are a variety of reasons that current narratives of the Gothic focus on Sophia Lee rather than Anne Fuller, on Radcliffe rather than Roche, and on Walpole rather than Leland, but such decisions are also indicative of what we want from the genre. Think about the ‘female Gothic’. Lee’s fiction takes liberties with history to concentrate on female suffering, depicting and evoking heightened emotional states. (The heroine of Elizabeth Sophia Tomlin’s The Victim of Fancy [1787] reads The Recess and is “confined three days in consequence” of the fit of weeping it produces.) Fuller’s novel, on the other hand, wants to think about duties, responsibilities, and rights in ‘real’ narratives of national history. Both texts can be seen as precursors of a Radcliffean approach: the tactics of The Recess foreshadow the feminine interiority of Radcliffe’s 1790s novels, while the tone and historical detail of Alan Fitz-Osborne are echoed in Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826; written c.1802). Only one of these lineages, however, fits into the mould of the ‘female Gothic’. For me, that’s a problem: I find it hard to get behind a definition of gender and genre that is organised around Ann Radcliffe’s work but that cannot even take into account her first and last novels.

Coined by Ellen Moers in 1976 in Literary Women, the term ‘female Gothic’ was originally defined (deceptively easily) as “the work that women have done” in the genre; its history is intertwined with second-wave feminism’s rediscovery and valorisation of female traditions. As a critical category, it has received a fair amount of censure: Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall, for example, are scornful about the implication of “some invariable female experience or of the archetypal ‘female principle’” that “leads straight out of history into […] timeless melodrama” (‘Gothic Criticism’, 2000). More recently, however, there are signs of a resurgence of the term; in Female Gothic: New Directions (2009), Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith are interested in reclaiming its feminist potential: “we need to retain a sense of history, of the line which runs from even further back from Radcliffe […] down to Toni Morrison and to the new ‘post-feminist Gothic’ of Buffy and her peers”.

Certainly there’s a marketable attraction about the category and the ‘feminine’ tradition it represents. The theatre company Dyad are currently touring a production entitled Female Gothic, which was a success at the Edinburgh Festival last year. In publicity material and interviews, the writer / actor Rebecca Vaughan emphasises that the performance is about the rediscovery of works by women writers. This is valuable cultural currency. Vaughan also, however, reproduces the gender essentialist narratives that make ‘female Gothic’ writing problematically dependent on biology: “‘Whereas male writers tended to produce stories with immediate, visceral impact […] those written by women concealed the horror, revealing their truths in a more subtle and, I believe, terrifying fashion.’”

Rebecca Vaughan in 'Female Gothic', © Dyad Productions

This calls up a vision of a homogenous group of women using similar tactics of misdirection in the service of a common purpose. It tells a useful story, but it would be great if an exciting production like this one could also take into account other models of women’s writing. If Fuller’s didactic historicism is too boring, how about Charlotte Dacre’s deliberate provocativeness in Zofloya (1806), in which the heroine literally consorts with the devil, commits a rape, and throws her rival off a cliff? After all, eighteenth-century ideas about what the ‘female Gothic’ might mean are productively complicated. Gillray’s famous Tales of Wonder, pictured above, is dedicated to Matthew Lewis, the archetypal representative of the ‘male Gothic’, but is equally a commentary on female literary taste. And contemporary expectations about gender and genre presumably lay behind Sir Anthony Carlisle’s decision to call himself ‘Mrs Carver’ when publishing The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797), a text that is very definitely ‘horror Gothic’ (complete with rotting corpses and body snatchers).  All of which is to say that I don’t know if it is possible to combine an awareness of generic hybridity and multiplicity with a coherent, publicly digestible narrative, but I do know that challenging expectations about the binaries of gender and genre increases the richness of our picture of the Gothic.

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