Frontispiece from The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe / London: G. & J. Robinson, 1803. © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images
With their haunted castles, underground crypts, and catacombs, their derelict abbeys hidden within dark forests and moldering swamps, the gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries promised readers adventure and escape from the values and social expectations of comfortable middle-class English life. No wonder they were so popular with women—and that so many women found fame writing them.
Considering the enduring popularity of the gothic, it is startling to remember that the term started out as an insult. The British Gothic Revival was a response to the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and rationality, seen in the clean-lined aesthetic of classical architecture. The late 18th century left behind that aesthetic for high ceilings and hidden passageways, pointed spires and turrets, all reminiscent of medieval castles and cathedrals. Such architecture was called Gothic after the tribes that sacked the Roman Empire, ushering in what Enlightenment thinkers believed to be an era of superstition and barbarism. The novels that were becoming popular at that time embraced both the gothic aesthetic—its castles and abbeys, as well as other elements of an imagined brutal and superstitious past—with plots that focused on hidden secrets, doomed families, and ancient rites.
Rather than reason and order, gothic novels depicted—even celebrated—the irrational and supernatural, and the naïve English heroines of these novels moved through what scholar Kate Ellis calls “a landscape of imprisoning spaces.” They encountered villains, usually older men from cultures that readers would have considered both exotic and debauched: Italian nobleman and Spanish priests and monks bent on seizing the heroines’ virtue or fortune, often both.
While these narratives put their female protagonists in physical and moral peril, the stories also offered them a chance at what scholar Fred Botting describes as “adventurous, romantic independence,” a reprieve from the buttoned-up morality expected especially of the young women who formed such a large part of their readership. While gothic novels like Matthew Lewis’s The Monk boast violence and sexual content that even some modern readers consider explicit and shocking, many gothic novelists nonetheless used the genre to ultimately reinforce tradition, flirting with transgression only to reinstate the values supposedly embodied in Englishness, Protestantism, and whiteness, and return the narratives’ heroines to a subservient domestic role. In fact, many of the most popular gothic novels were written by women who fulfilled that role, including Ann Radcliffe, who achieved literary success while maintaining her respectable image as the wife of journalist William Radcliffe.
Mrs. Radcliffe, as she was known, is noted for having tamed some of the wilder impulses of the gothic novel and bringing it into the mainstream. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, her most famous work, young Emily St. Aubert is first orphaned and then preyed upon by her aunt’s husband, the evil Montoni. Montoni tries to force Emily into marriage with the dissolute “Count” Morano before imprisoning her in the isolated castle Udolpho in an attempt to steal her inheritance. At Udolpho, Emily experiences strange echoes and visions that are all explained by the end of the novel when she escapes the castle, eventually to marry her soulmate, the young and noble Valancourt. In Radcliffe’s books, the virginal heroines might have adventures among the catacombs and their virtue might be threatened by villains with Italian names, but in the end the dark secrets and strange sounds are always explained away, and the heroine is married off to a suitable young man.
As the English novel developed throughout the 19th century, writers employed gothic elements to create new and more challenging narratives. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the (again) orphaned heroine shows more grit than Radcliffe’s heroines (and also faints less). Jane arrives at the suitably ancient and isolated Thornfield Hall to serve as a governess for the ward of the brooding but suitably English Edward Rochester, a fusion of the threatening older man and the young lover of the early gothic. At Thornfield, Jane hears screams and laughter in the night while the surrounding woods exude a supernatural effect on the reader, suggesting that the house and its owner harbor dangerous secrets. As in Radcliffe’s work, the supernatural noises are eventually explained, but unlike in Radcliffe, the air of shame and scandal persists. Just as she is to marry Rochester, Jane discovers that he’s been keeping his wife Bertha, who is mentally ill, locked away in the attic. The supposedly ghostly laughter Jane has been hearing is Bertha’s. With her “madness” and Creole heritage, Bertha represents Rochester’s secret shame, and scholars have argued that her death and Jane and Rochester’s eventual marriage represent a reinstatement of the values of Englishness, reason, and whiteness. (Are we seeing a pattern here?) Still others argue that Jane’s marriage to Rochester, who is now blind, represents less a happy ending for Jane than her acceptance of a social system that cannot be overcome. It depends on how we hear the words that open the final chapter: “Reader, I married him.”
The gothic continued to evolve during the 20th century while retaining its haunted aesthetic and preoccupation with the supernatural and irrational. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor Vance becomes a tragic parody of the gothic heroine. A kind of orphan, naïve, and (probably) virginal, Eleanor, who dreams of adventure, stone lions, and a “cup of stars,” is also thirty-two years old and has spent the past decade caring for a mother she hates and whom she may or may not have purposely let die. When Eleanor arrives at Hill House, ostensibly to work with a group of researchers documenting psychic activity, we find a sprawling mansion with a dark history. Hill House is described in the novel’s perfect first paragraph as “not sane,” another echo of gothic madness and irrationality. The house soon fills the role of the charismatic villain of the early gothic novels, seducing Eleanor (or does she seduce herself ?) with the promise that “journeys end in lovers meeting.” The novel does not end in marriage but in a terrible consummation, as Eleanor crashes her car into Hill House rather than being forced to leave it.
As we move through the 20th century, the gothic finds its place in an ever increasing variety of stories, and the easy resolution of Radcliffe’s novels becomes ever more elusive. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the author employs the gothic fundamentals of the haunted and hidden to force into the open a cruel and oppressive history. In it, the haunted house is not an ancient ruin but the simple Ohio home of escaped slave Sethe, who is plagued by the specter of her dead child—known only as Beloved—whom she was forced to kill rather than return her to the horrors of slavery. Though initially banished, Beloved returns in the form of a human woman, a representation both of Sethe’s guilt and of the trauma she has escaped but that haunts her still. With the help of others, Sethe is eventually able to send Beloved away, but Morrison makes clear that the scars of slavery are not so easily erased. Sethe and her family will carry them forever. While set in a gothic framework of hauntings and dark secrets, the issues that Beloved brings to light are not the kind that can be exiled with a marriage or an inheritance. Beloved is a gothic novel that uncovers the cruelties of the past but recognizes them as beyond resolution.
Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is in some ways a novel in the tradition of Radcliffe. A young woman, Noemi, travels to an isolated mansion inhabited by an old aristocratic family, the Doyles. There she investigates a mystery (in this case, the disappearance of her cousin), is threatened, and is subjected to trauma and strange visions, not to mention sexual assault, all orchestrated by a powerful older man. She also discovers that the Doyles seek to use her to rescue their decaying bloodline. A strange fungus that gives the Doyle family long life but also oppresses them with wild hallucinations recalls the representations of hostile nature in the gothic tradition. With its ancient decrepit English family, Mexican Gothic questions the values and structures that writers like Radcliffe championed and subverts early gothic novels’ emphasis on a particular set of cultural and ethnic norms. At the same time, Noemi, a university student with a sharp sense of humor, is a far more sophisticated heroine than Radcliffe’s sentimental orphans. Noemi eventually escapes and unites with a suitable love interest, but while the novel ends with the resolution of a love story, the continued presence of the fungus leaves open the possibility of further threats.
The gothic survives and continues to evolve. And the women who found escape and power in these novels will continue to shape their narratives—as heroines, readers, and writers—as long as there are houses to haunt.