Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley; drawing by David Levine

What I mean by Female Gothic is easily defined: the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic. But what I mean—or anyone else means—by “the Gothic” is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear. In Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare. Not that is, to reach down into the depths of the soul and purge it with pity and terror (as we say tragedy does), but to get to the body itself, its glands, epidermis, muscles and circulatory system, quickly arousing and quickly allaying the physical reactions to fear.

Certainly the earliest tributes to the power of Gothic writers tended to emphasize the physiological. Jane Austen has Henry Tilney say, in Northanger Abbey, that he could not put down Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho: “I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.” For Hazlitt Ann Radcliffe had mastered “the art of freezing the blood”: “harrowing up the soul with imaginary horrors, and making the flesh creep and the nerves thrill.” Mary Shelley said she intended Frankenstein to be the kind of ghost story that would “curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Why such claims? Presumably because readers enjoyed these sensations. For example, in Joanna Baillie’s verse play on the theme of addiction to artificial fear, the heroine prevails upon a handmaiden, against the best advice, to tell a horror story:

   …Tell it, I pray thee.
And let me cow’ring stand, and be my touch
The valley’s ice: there is a pleasure in it.
Yea, when the cold blood shoots through every vein;
When every pore upon my shrunken skin
A knotted knoll becomes, and to mine ears
Strange inward sounds awake, and to mine eyes
Rush stranger tears, there is a joy in fear1

At the time when literary Gothic was born, religious fears were on the wane, giving way to that vague paranoia of the modern spirit for which Gothic mechanisms seem to have provided welcome therapy. Walter Scott compared reading Mrs. Radcliffe to taking drugs, dangerous when habitual “but of most blessed power in those moments of pain and of languor, when the whole head is sore, and the whole heart sick. If those who rail indiscriminately at this species of composition, were to consider the quantity of actual pleasure which it produces, and the much greater proportion of real sorrow and distress which it alleviates, their philanthropy ought to moderate their critical pride, or religious intolerance.” A grateful public rewarded Mrs. Radcliffe, according to her most recent biographer,2 by making her the most popular and best paid English novelist of the…

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