Feminism and the Gothic: A Brief History

Dr Claire Knowles, Lecturer, La Trobe University.

One of the most interesting things about the rise of gothic fiction in the late eighteenth century is that it coincided with the emergence of what we now recognise as modern-day feminism. Although Horace Walpole’s (1717–1797) The Castle of Otranto (1764) is widely considered to have been the first gothic novel, it was a female author, Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) who popularised the form in the final decades of the eighteenth century.

Radcliffe was a bone fide literary star. Her books were so popular among her eighteenth-century audience that she was paid the remarkable sum of £500 for the copyright of her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1792). Her publisher, Thomas Cadell, then paid her £800 for her follow-up novel, The Italian (1797). To put these figures into context, the authors of the three-volume Minerva press novels published by William Lane (1746–1814) typically received £10–20 for their efforts, while Jane Austen (1775–1817) was paid only £10 for her gothic parody, Northanger Abbey (1818). The success of Radcliffe’s novels inspired countless others into print, and began a fad for the gothic that shows no sign of waning.

Radcliffe wrote her fiction with the interests of a growing female readership in mind. One of the main effects of the emergence of a nascent consumer culture in Britain during the last decades of the eighteenth century was the growth of an increasingly powerful middle-class and an important side-effect of this general rise in affluence was an unprecedented increase in female literacy across class boundaries. The significance of this increase in female literacy in the latter part of the eighteenth century cannot be underestimated. Literacy allowed large numbers of women to participate more actively in the public sphere than they had been able to at any other time in the past. By the end of the century, numerous female authors had established their own readership in a competitive literary marketplace, while growing numbers of female readers could gain access to literary works through the circulating libraries that were appearing in ever-increasing numbers in British towns and cities. Gothic fiction was, then, associated from its inception with female readers and writers—from the critically acclaimed work of writers like Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith (1749–1806), to the hastily produced novels of the Minerva Press.

Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft

Two of the most influential books in the history of women’s writing, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman,were published in the same year (1792). Wollstonecraft aimed her famous feminist treatise squarely at the same predominantly middle-class women who read Radcliffe’s gothic fiction, and there are a number of similarities between the philosophies espoused by the two writers. Wollstonecraft believed that middle-class women had been encouraged to be ‘weak, artificial beings’ by a society that discouraged female intellectual endeavor and bodily strength, and encouraged the cultivation of emotional responsivity (sensibility) at the expense of reason. In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft suggests that women ought to cultivate their rationality in order to be more productive members of society. Radcliffe’s fiction reflects a similar belief in the importance of female rationality. Novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho reflect Radcliffe’s belief that the imagination has powers that can potentially be very useful for young women. However, like Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe believes that this imagination needs to be tempered by reason and by rational thought in order to be most effective. The tempering of the powers of imagination and sensibility by rationality is at the heart of Radcliffe’s ‘terror’ gothic fiction, where the supposedly supernatural phenomena encountered by her heroines turn out to have perfectly rational (and earthly) explanations.

Contemporary gothic and feminism

It should be no surprise given the history of the genre that powerful, clever and cunning heroines remain a key element of the gothic. Buffy, the eponymous heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), is a postmodern version of the Radcliffian heroine, trained to channel her powerful emotions into kicking demon and vampire arse. In the X–Files, a 1990s TV series revived in 2016 and 2018, Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully is a model of feminine empowerment. With her belief in the power of scientific method, and her Radcliffian investment in rational skepticism, she is every bit the equal of her partner, the ardent believer, Fox Mulder. More recently, characters like Eleven and Nancy, the heroines of Netflix’s gothic phenomenon, Stranger Things (2016–7), continue in this feminist tradition. Nancy is a better shot than any of her male friends, while Eleven’s telekinetic abilities mean that she is the most powerful character in the show’s world, eminently capable of saving her friends from the dangers unleashed by the ‘upside-down.’ Shows like Stranger Things remind us that some two decades into the twenty-first century, the gothic retains its fascination with exploring questions of female agency and power.

Further Reading

  • Knowles, Claire. ‘Sensibility Gone Mad: Or, Drusilla, Buffy and the (D)evolution of the Heroine of Sensibility.’ Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Benjamin A. Brabon and Stéphanie Genz. Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2007. 140–153.
  • Norton, Rictor. Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. London and New York: Leicester University Press, 1999.