Review: Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-century Britain

Posted by Donna Mitchell on May 20, 2016 in Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-century Britain

Melissa Edmundson Makala

Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013.

ISBN: 978-0-70832-564-3

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

Melissa Edmundson Makala begins her study of women’s ghost writing in nineteenth-century Britain by considering the various reasons for its increasing popularity, most notably its ability to function as a subversive means of discussing political and social issues. She notes that the nature of this genre allowed writers to explore the social tensions and inequalities which existed for certain groups without alienating their reading audience. This meant that the authors of these stories were able to use their ghosts to deliberate the unsafe domestic spaces, gender relations, economic conditions, and consequences of imperialism that were relevant during that time. In other words, their work provided a space for both social acknowledgement and cultural expression. The introduction emphasises her intent to build upon the work of well-known scholars such as Moers, Clery, Milbank, Hoeveler, Becker, and Wallace in order to extend the narrow definition of the Female Gothic as, according to Makala, ghost stories by women writers gain even more critical importance when placed within the women’s Gothic tradition. Her aim to establish a new area of Female Gothic is approached by integrating various literary forms into her study and using the works of both lesser known (and as yet un-rediscovered) authors and well-known women writers. She divides her study into four sections on vengeful revenants, sexualised ghosts, haunted houses, and imperialism in order to analyse how these themes relate to social issues of nineteenth century Britain as well as to the expansion of the Female Gothic tradition.

Female revenants are the ghostly subjects of the first chapter as Makala explores their significance in early ghost ballads by women writers. She asserts that, unlike the stereotypical, helpless heroines of earlier Gothic novels, or the unredeemable, over-simplified evil women of male-authored Gothic ballads, these female revenants were complex figures transformed by death. They return from the grave as empowered and intimidating figures who seek revenge and often have privileged knowledge of the crimes and guilt of the living. Beginning with Anne Bannerman’s Gothic poetry, she details how the female revenant’s ability to exact revenge on the villain and save another women from sharing her deadly fate ensures her role as the true heroine of the tale. She pays particular attention to the woman’s physical body after death and its depiction as an entity that is from all earthly and societal restraints, which defines her as not only spectral body but a speaking body that can vocalise past indiscretions against women. The ghost’s ability to forewarn potential victims of dangerous lovers is explored through Charlotte Dacre’s poetry as Makala explores how the female figures struggle with the causes and often negative consequences of passion. She details how the power of Dacre’s revenants lies in their ability to tell their tale because this practice often prevents the physical and emotional damage of other women. The final author of this chapter is Elizabeth Harcourt Rolls whose poetry relates to social concerns regarding women’s status and gender anxiety. Rolls’ creation of a revenant that can live in a state of in-betweenness (e.g. she can move freely between the traditionally male realm of the battlefield while also retaining her traditional female role as healer) challenges fixed gender definitions of the time. Makala reiterates the significance of these poems by identifying them as the beginning of a ‘split between the Gothic proper and the emergence of the Female Gothic “ghost story” genre’ (Makala 2013, 47).

Ghostly lovers and transgressive supernatural sexualities are examined in the second chapter. Makala identifies them as a class of ghosts that comes back to the living and explores how writers of the Female Gothic appropriated a ‘demon lover’ motif to these figures in order to connect them to the consequences of transgressive desires. Considering the significance of the doppelgänger and the Gothic mirror in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ghost stories, she critiques the text in terms of the hypocrisy of both overzealous religious attitudes and Victorian values, which stifled human (and particularly female) autonomy. The autobiographical elements of Christina Rossetti’s poems are discussed in relation to her Gothic subjects and how they are clearly divided into two categories: the living, who are tied to the past through memory, and the dead/ghosts, who signify the future. Vernon Lee’s fiction is analysed with regard to its role reversal involving ghosts and gender as well as her creation of a Medusa-like femme-fatale in ‘Amour Dure’. She concludes this chapter by reiterating her assertion that these particular texts are connected by their emphasis on the fact that the living must always wrestle with their demons before they can move forward.

The troupe of the haunted house is analysed in chapter three as Makala traces its evolution from a traditional format to one that no longer relied on historical or foreign settings to provide a critique of British life in the nineteenth century. She pays particular attention to how women writers of that time used the motif of the haunted house as a means of commenting on issues pertaining to property, class, and money. The connection between the place of haunting and financial concerns as well as the repercussions of greed are explored through the fiction of Charlotte Riddell, Mary Louisa Molesworth, and Margaret Oliphant. At the beginning of the final chapter, she notes that ‘as the British populace ventured into foreign lands, their ghosts went with them’ (Makala 2013, 132). The subject matter that follows this statement therefore relates to ghostly figures that exist because of imperialism. This chapter in particular, will be of interest to those studying feminist issues in Gothic texts as Makala begins by stressing that, as a group, women writers were some of the first British authors to discuss the effects of colonisation in their works, but also one of the last groups to have it recognised as legitimate. The first half of this chapter details Ellen Wood’s treatment of Victorian society’s concern and fear of sexual violence in colonial regions as well as Victorian misconceptions of violence against women at the hands of the Indian natives. The second half offers a critique of the British presence in India as portrayed in Bithia Mary Croker’s fiction as she considers how these texts expose the potential negative effects of empire on both native people and the British. She pays particular attention to how these texts present the British woman’s position as a double outsider in the foreign land.

Makala reiterates the significance of the ghost story genre in her conclusion by noting its ability to act as a medium for authors to directly communicate with the past while also providing a platform for critiquing social issues of the present. As a whole, the study is extremely convincing in challenging the traditional parameters of the Female Gothic through her careful selection of texts and thorough analysis of women’s ghost literature in nineteenth-century Britain. She offers an extremely comprehensive study of this topic and I would certainly add it to the definitive titles of this subgenre as it is a substantial text for any researcher of the Female Gothic.

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