Gothic Doubles: Feminine Identity Formation in Mrs. Isaac's Ariel, or The Invisible Monitor (1801)

Michelle Landauer, PhD student, University of Melbourne

Ann Radcliffe popularized the technique of exploring the heroine's internal, psychological states of mind through the creation of an external double. She did this through the missing mother in The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Italian (1797), and the mysterious spectres that haunt the text in A Sicilian Romance (1790) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).

This duality in feminine identity became one of the most popular tropes in first-wave Gothic fiction. It is often employed as a vehicle through which to explore the limitations placed on women by patriarchal imperatives and to promote sentimental values, particularly sentimental codes of identity formation for women, highlighting the manner in which female Gothic novels were influenced by the sentimental tradition. The Gothic double typically presents in these novels as a ghost, or as a ghostly figure, the other-worldly nature of her identity embodying the marginalized position she typically holds, and representing the heroine’s own disjointed subjectivity.[1] Often the mystery inherent to the text is the need to uncover the identity or story behind this seemingly supernatural figure. A sense of unity is then achieved through the truth that emerges. Mrs. Isaac’s Ariel, or The Invisible Monitor (1801) exemplifies the significant role these ghostly doubles play in the Gothic.

Ariel recounts the trials experienced by the heroine, Rosaline—a penniless orphan who has been exiled without adequate protection from her adopted home when it is discovered that she and the second son (Adolphus) are in love. Throughout the novel Rosaline must fight the attentions of unwanted suitors, especially those of the libertine, the Count de Pollini, who lacks the ability to properly respond to Rosaline’s entreaties or the image of feminine purity that she represents. Thus, her Gothic-like flight and other Gothic happenings occur because of the pride, vanity and uncontrolled sexual passions of men. While attempting to escape Pollini, Rosaline meets other women who are victims of a similar fate: both the prejudices of patriarchal tyrants who want their sons to marry heiresses, and the evil machinations of libertines like Pollini. In each case, the female character is introduced into the novel in a Gothic manner—described as a spectre-like image that seemingly hovers between this world and the next. They are Gothic visions of ideal femininity – women who have been abused by dominant male figures who refuse to recognize or respect the sentimental values that these women embody. While the spectral nature of their identity serves to highlight the marginalization these young women experience, it also serves to draw attention to them and position them more forcefully as signs to be read. One example of this can be found in the character Adila, who is introduced into the text as an ephemeral image bent over a grave. Rosaline is drawn to this mysterious figure (as are we, the reader), encouraging her to learn about Adila’s story which directly parallels Rosaline’s, including the fact that she, too, is being harassed by Pollini. The difference is in the ending: Adila’s lover is killed by Pollini in a duel, whereas Rosaline and Adolphus are allowed to marry when Adolphus’ father, Sir Walter, repents his vain actions.

Another example of a gothicized version of the feminine ideal is when Rosaline is confronted by Angelina St. Alvars. Interestingly, Rosaline’s first encounter with this tortured woman mirrors Jane’s introduction to Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), suggesting that Bronte was familiar with Isaac’s text:

“[Rosaline] suddenly awoke, and perceived a light in her chamber. The confusion of first waking would not for some minutes allow her to recollect herself, till, convinced the light proceeded from a candle, and that it was not yet daylight, she listened, and heard steps close by her bed. An impulse of fear would not at first let her move; but, reproaching herself for so readily giving way to alarm, and hearing the steps continue, she at length pushed aside the curtain, and beheld a female figure in a long white wrapping gown, standing at a little distance from the bed, holding a lamp in her hand, and staring wildly around the room. . . when her eye caught the countenance of Rosaline, who, holding back the curtain with her hand, though deprived by amazement of the power of speech, watched in silence the motions of her midnight visitor. At the sight of her face the stranger started, and for an instant stopped, but again hurried on and precipitately left the chamber.”[2]

Like Bertha, Angelina suffers from a “derangement, to which she has for many years been subject”[3] and, until several seemingly supernatural encounters are explained by a proper introduction, Angelina initially holds a dubious position within the text, described as a “beautiful shadow”,[4] “no earthly being” and a “fair spectre.”[5] The emphasis on her phantasmic beauty combined with descriptions of her piety serve to enlist her as a gothicized version of ideal femininity; as such she is both a source of inspiration and fear: “[Rosaline] beheld the sweet form of [Angelina] kneeling before the sofa, with her hands clasped, and her eyes cast upwards; but the horror and despondence her look betokened, made Rosaline shudder.”[6] As this and other passages attest, Angelina enacts an injured sentimental subject position and is thus defined largely through the process of objectification: most of what we learn about her is through second-hand narratives and repeated descriptions of how others (mainly Rosaline) interpret the striking sentimental poses she presents. This positions Rosaline as a primary reader within the text whose identity is being defined through the act of interpretation, and Angelina emerges as a sign, one that is both enticing and repulsive - representing the passive power and beauty of the sentimental feminine ideal while simultaneously embodying the rejected nature of those ideals. Rosaline “shudder[s]” because she recognizes the traits that bind her to Angelina, a connection that is made apparent through repeated comparisons of the two women:

‘Poor Angelina!’ said Lady Delford; ‘you see in her, Rosaline, a melancholy picture of insanity, which no art or medicine has been able to remove … You will hardly credit, from her present dreadful appearance, that Miss St. Alvars was once one of the most lively girls I ever saw. When I was first introduced to you … you struck me as greatly resembling her, and I find the likeness has been observed by all this family.’[7]

Angelina thus serves as a double for Rosaline. Like Adila and Rosaline, Angelina is unable to marry the man she loves. Her lover, Henry, is later killed in a duel by the man she is being forced to marry. This leads to Angelina’s insanity and early demise.

In Isaac’s text this doubling happens several times through various characters. All of these women emerge as ghostly figures because they are victims of unrefined masculine passion; the repetitious nature in which Isaacs introduces these marginalized characters allows for a reassessment to be made in the master narrative dominated by Rosaline, for it is through repetition that the limitations of ignoring sentimental values can be more fully exposed and subverted. In fact, this type of repetition is common in female Gothic fiction where the heroine often becomes the vehicle through which the cycle of abuse and repression is finally broken. In this way the Gothic double does not just represent a repressed and unrecognized sentimental subject position, but she often also functions in female Gothic fiction as the site of negotiation -- the symbol through which attempts to implement, refine and sometimes redefine the sentimental feminine ideal are enacted. The result is almost always the triumph of sentimental values over patriarchal restrictions, ensuring a unified subject position for the heroine—in this case by validating the heroine’s passions through her celebrated nuptials to Adolphus.

Works Cited

  • Isaacs, Mrs. Ariel, or The Invisible Monitor. London: Minerva Press, 1801.
  • Smith, Charlotte. Marchmont: A Novel. Ann Arbor, MI: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, (1796) 1989.


  1. The notion that the ghosts serve as a double for feminine identity is highlighted by the many references, like the one found in Smith’s Marchmont (1796), where the heroine compares her own image to that of a revenant: “chilled by the profound and dead silence around her; while her single candle … threw over her own figure, as she saw it in the glass, a dim obscurity. ‘I look,’ said she, hardly trusting her eyes to survey it, ‘surely I look like a ghost myself.’” (Smith, Marchmont 67–68)
  2. Isaacs, Ariel I.150–151
  3. Isaacs, Ariel I.158
  4. Isaacs, Ariel I.159
  5. Isaacs, Ariel I.157
  6. Isaacs, Ariel I.175
  7. Isaacs, Ariel I.163–164