Female Gothic Histories

Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, Artist Unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen's Novels
Illustration of a woman reading a Gothic novel, artist unknown, 1833 Bentley Edition of Jane Austen’s Novels

‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. […] I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.’ —Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818), p. 123.

Every year at Cardiff University, the Assuming Gender journal and research group invites a distinguished guest speaker to give a lecture within the broad subject of gender studies. Last year Professor Catherine Belsey delivered a lecture on ‘Women in White’ across cultures and fictions. The year before, Professor Nicola Humble offered a delightful look at gender and the literature of food. This year, Professor Diana Wallace sketched the written tradition of ‘Female Gothic Histories’. Her abstract outlined a bold range of concepts:

If the term ‘historical fiction’ is a kind of oxymoron which yokes together supposedly antithetical opposites (‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘history’ and ‘literature’), then adding ‘Gothic’ into the mix complicates it further. This lecture will explore a tradition of Gothic historical fictions which stretches from Sophia Lee in the eighteenth century to Sarah Waters in the twenty-first century. Conscious that women have often been left out of traditional historical narratives, such female writers have turned to Gothic historical fiction as a mode of writing which can both reinsert women into history and symbolise their exclusion.

As the abstract suggests, Professor Wallace began her lecture by bringing together two genres that are often considered distinct: history and Gothic fiction. Dubbing historical fiction a ‘bastard genre’, she categorised it as traditionally female, and cited this as one of the reasons why fictional historiography—especially Gothic historiography—is worthy of deeper study. Wallace relied on a number of psychoanalytical concepts throughout, and she described Gothic fiction as the ‘uncanny return of the repressed past’. In a patriarchal tradition that tends to write women out of history, historical Gothic fiction potentially offers us a window into the way female writers relate to the past. It also helps us to question the distinction Walter Scott helped to establish between this genre and his own historical novels, which he describes in Waverley as being ‘more a description of men than manners’.

Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.
Cardiff in the mist. Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

Professor Wallace’s lecture delved deep into Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1783-85), Vernon Lee’s Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903), multiple rewritings of Jane Eyre, Victoria Holt’s pulp novels (including Mistress of Mellyn, pub. 1960) and the modern Gothic, before finally coming to settle on Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger. In this survey, Victorian fictions were intentionally sidelined, specifically because they already loom so large in discussions of women writers, the Gothic, and historical fiction.

For each case study, Wallace explored the approach the work’s author takes to gender identity and relations. She also suggested how this might be related to the text’s depiction of history. In The Recess, as in many Gothic fictions of the time, the fates of the central female characters are in the hands of a rather sinister collection of men. In Penelope Brandling, the protagonist’s woes stem largely from patriarchal structures, rather than any single man. Mistress of Mellyn and other pulp novels of the mid twentieth century turn their gaze to the other woman. In an article appropriately entitled ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband’, Joanna Russ describes how such fictions enact a Freudian drama, in which the male protagonist is the Father, wrongly accused, and the other woman/first wife of the protagonist becomes the Mother, who must be destroyed in order for the Gothic heroine to achieve her goals.

Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé
Image © Megen de Bruin-Molé.

At this point, Wallace was interrupted by a mysterious fire alarm—an event that was also, appropriately, to be found among the attributes of the haunted house in Sarah Waters’ work once the lecture resumed. The Little Stranger plays with all of the Gothic stereotypes and traditions outlined in the rest of Wallace’s lecture, giving us a ghost story through the eyes of an unreliable male narrator, who may or may not have committed the crimes attributed to a poltergeist. Within Gothic fiction, Wallace thus sees a progression of thought in the way gender, horror, and history are intertwined.

Wallace closed, fittingly, with one quotation from Luce Irigaray’s monograph Thinking the Difference, and another from Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey:

If the rationale of History is ultimately to remind us of everything that has happened and to take that into account, we must make the interpretation of the forgetting of female ancestries part of History and re-establish its economy. (Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin, 1989, p. 110)

[Y]et I often think it odd [history] should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. (Northanger Abbey, p. 123)

The Uncanny

The default image in the Keynote layout I used. Uncanny, no?
The default image in the Keynote layout I used. Uncanny, no?

This week, teaching Dracula, I had the pleasure of re-reading Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny, a thing described by Freud as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (p.219).*

Why would ‘old and long familiar’ things ever be frightening, you may well ask? Freud puts together a somewhat more comprehensive summary of the term towards the end of his essay, stating:

In the first place, […] among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. […] In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [‘homely’] into its opposite, das Unheimliche [‘uncanny’]; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. (p. 240)

According to Freud, repression is the basis of a great deal of anxiety, and in the case of the uncanny, it is precisely the return of this repressed thing that causes fear. Basically, then, for some of the things we are afraid of, we don’t actually fear them because we don’t recognise them, or because they are completely alien, but rather because we can actually link them to something very familiar, that we can’t quite put our finger on. That makes us uncomfortable.

The haunted or abandoned house: one of Freud's many examples of uncanniness.
The haunted or abandoned house: one of Freud’s many examples of uncanniness.

For Freud, ‘these themes [of uncanniness] are all concerned with the phenomenon of the “double”, which appears in every shape and in every degree of development’ (p. 233). This doubleness can take many different forms. It can be found in reflections, in people and places who look the same, in déjà vu. It can be created by parallel plots and events and spaces. It is coincidence embodied.

Flesh chair by Chinese artist Cao Hui.

Looking at more specific examples of the uncanny, Freud suggests that ‘a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one’ (p. 232). We find Cao Hui’s fleshy chair uncanny not just because it is disturbing to look at, but because we’re not quite sure how it would feel to touch it. It might seem too much like human flesh to the fingers, as well as to the eyes.

In other words, though we know we are looking at a sculpture, we still can’t quite shake the discomfort it instills in us. Freud underlines this point as well, describing how the uncanny resists the power of the rational mind:

There is no question therefore, of any intellectual uncertainty here: we know now that we are not supposed to be looking on at the products of a madman’s imagination, behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth; and yet this knowledge does not lessen the impression of uncanniness in the least degree. (p. 229)

The uncanny draws its power from the repressed and the unconscious. It doesn’t fit within what the rational mind knows, but can’t be shaken off so easily. It is rationally familiar, yet still eerily unfamiliar.

Uncanny robot actress Geminoid F.
Uncanny robot actress Geminoid F.

I’ve always found Freud’s essay to be rather uncanny in itself, with lots of repetition and doubling, and many observations that are just plain weird. Take this gem, for instance:

We know from psycho-analytic experience, however, that the fear of damaging or losing one’s eyes is a terrible one in children. Many adults retain their apprehensiveness in this respect, and no physical injury is so much dreaded by them as an injury to the eye. We are accustomed to say, too, that we will treasure a thing as the apple of our eye. A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. (p. 230)

There’s a lot to unpack in this quotation. My first impulse, however, is just to be terribly curious about the children from whom Freud gained his ‘psycho-analytic experience’, who led him to believe that their fear ‘damaging or losing’ their eyes was ‘a terrible one’. What awful stories did they tell him, and what awful questions did he ask to elicit said stories?

Thanks very much Freud. Now I have a terrible fear as well.

Here you go, have some nightmares. (Photograph by Herbert List, 'Operation des Schielens', 1944/46)
Here you go, have some nightmares (photo by Herbert List, ‘Operation des Schielens’, 1944/46).

Another of the joys of discussing the uncanny was that it allowed me to bring in lots of images, many of which are included in this post. The uncanny is everywhere in twenty-first century culture (just as it was, I imagine, in Freud’s own nineteenth century context).

How did all this relate to Dracula, though? Somewhat tenuously in the case of my seminar, but quite neatly in criticism more generally. Traditionally, monsters like the vampire are uncanny figures – though not the only kind, of course – and they make the texts the appear in uncanny too. We are not sure quite where to place them, and they make us uncomfortable, particularly because the ways in which they are uncanny or other tend to be ‘cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it in his seminal essay ‘Monster Culture’ (p.  7).

This uncanniness disrupts the neatly ordered reality we construct for ourselves, and the neatly ordered texts in which such monsters often find themselves. Cohen describes the potential of monsters as follows:

The horizon where the monsters dwell might well be imagined as the visible edge of the hermeneutic circle itself: the monstrous offers an escape from its hermetic path, an invitation to explore new spirals, new and interconnected methods of perceiving the world. In the face of the monster, scientific inquiry and its ordered rationality crumble. The monstrous is a genus too large to be encapsulated in any conceptual system; the monster’s very existence is a rebuke to boundary and enclosure (Cohen, ‘Monster Culture’, p. 7)

Uncanny monstrosity arguably represents one way that literature can help us to imagine new ways of thinking and being. It represents reality and identity, but never quite. The monster is the dark double of the normal and the rational, the return of the repressed, and the unfamiliar in the familiar.


*All references to Freud refer to ‘The Uncanny’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis & Other Works, 217-256.