Written by Tina Jackson

Arts

Mothers of Monsters: Women and Gothic Fiction

As a new exhibition devoted to all things goth opens at the British Library, Tina Jackson shines a light on the women writers that shaped the shadowy subculture.

Mothers of Monsters: Women and Gothic Fiction

Without Mary Shelley, 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein wouldn’t have existed.

Women in gothic literature have often been depicted as terrifyingly seductive creatures who, in various ways, drain men’s powers – the world of the imagination expressing cultural fears. Perhaps they have a point. In an often transgressive, subversive genre, women writers have had a profound influence.

Terror and Wonder by Dave McKean, 2014

Letter from Ann Radcliffe

* Ann Radcliffe may not loom large on today’s goth scene, but in the 18th century this little-known literary figure was a pioneer of the gothic novel, using a technique now called ‘the explained supernatural’, where apparently ghostly phenomena are given perfectly reasonable explanations by the end of the novel. 1794’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was such a popular success that it was parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, demonstrating that there is a long history of cocking a snook at the likes of 50 Shades of Grey and sneering at ladies who love lowbrow literature.

* Mary Shelley, the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, was 19 years old when she accepted literary lion Lord Byron’s challenge that the members of his house party at the Villa Diodati each write a ghost story. Mary outwrote the flamboyant Byron, penning the first draft of classic gothic novel Frankenstein, which would be published in 1818 and become one of the definitive texts in the gothic canon. The tale of Frankenstein’s creation, incorporating leading characters from the Romantic and radical scenes, a castle on the shores of a lake beside the mountains and a young genius recovering from the death of child, had its own gothic dimensions, and was made into a film of that name by grand schlock-maester Ken Russell in 1986.

* Charlotte Bronte may not be quite as gothic as sister Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights – Cathy, out there on the windswept moor, pining for her demonic lover Heathcliffe after one of the most hideously masochistic relationships in literary history – but she is much more feminist. Her best-known creation Jane Eyre, often seen as a symbol of quiet self-determination, is a small, strange, inexplicably seductive creature, whose story includes childhood traumas, madwomen descending from their attics, burning buildings, and a love affair with a dark, devilish man who is conveniently diminished by blindness so that Jane can have a happy-ever-after ending. In the real world, the lives of all the Brontes, who all lived in benighted conditions on a bleak North Yorkshire moor and died early of tuberculosis (except their brother Branwell, who drank himself to death), were as gothic as anything written by anyone ever.

* Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a 19th-century American feminist and writer whose semi-autobiographical novella The Yellow Wallpaper – which she wrote in two days after suffering severe post-natal depression – defined the domestic gothic, where female fears of entrapment in their conventional roles take on dimensions of heightened alarm. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is shut in her room by her husband for a rest cure, which was then an accepted treatment for female mental illness. The narrator, in her prison, becomes increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper in one of the most brilliantly unsettling short works ever written.

Terror and Wonder by Dave McKean, 2014

Terror and Wonder by Dave McKean, 2014

* With goth now as mainstream as a subculture is ever going to be, women writers have taken it firmly into popular culture. Anne Rice of Interview with the Vampire fame drew on sold-school vampire lore to create her decadent Lestat, but sequels increasingly brought him into the modern world. Charlaine ‘True Blood’ Harris took gothic sex and terror into small-town malls and diners, and Stephanie Meyer’s Bella in Twilight demonstrated that drippy romance with a dead pretty boy was high on the wish list of emo princesses worldwide. An antidote to these increasingly saccharine spectres came last year from Joyce Carol Oates, whose The Accursed, an account of a cursed American family, is as dark and shady and full of intelligent horror as anything that might be found in Morticia Addams’ library.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is at the British Library, London. from 3 October to 20 January

All images reproduced with kind permission of the British Library

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Written by Tina Jackson

Tina Jackson is a Leeds-based writer and journalist with a parallel existence as a dancer and variety performer.