One of my first introductions to the history of women in the world was through the anti-suffrage propaganda poster ‘A Woman’s Mind Magnified’. A mind-bendingly offensive insight into the machinations of the political and social elite, this sort of propaganda has always accompanied efforts by marginalised groups to escape the confines into which their entire identity has been consigned. The idea that any person can be reduced to a series of limited images is laughable – let alone the depiction of an entire gender as wholly focused on a world consisting of marriage, babies, and fashion. While we might be tempted to view this sort of propaganda through the lens of its time – perhaps even allowing it some truth based on the restricted roles for which women were trained from birth – the history of women, particularly as literary figureheads, says everything about our continued relevance as people of explosive imagination.
Throughout history, social and political convention have come together to limit the role of women in any sphere that occupies itself outside of domestic concerns. Battles over literacy, suffrage, and the right to self-determine both inside and outside of marriage have dominated so much of the female space for the past few centuries. Where the debates have evolved to encompass a general concern for what ‘feminism’ means – particularly in light of the understanding that gender exists on a spectrum* – we are still, in many respects, feeling the effects of the historical limits placed on the female role. In the world of literature, low literacy rates impacted a woman’s ability to engage with fiction as both reader and writer. Yet with the 18th century and greater attention to female education, women were afforded their first significant opportunity to engage with the literary sphere in a way that would impact the course of reading and publishing trends for years to come.
For a group of people supposed to be too delicate and suggestible for the burden of a self-determined life, women’s earliest engagement in fiction showed quite the opposite. From Ann Radcliffe to Mary Shelley, women in the late 1700s and early 1800s were crushing stereotypes with a triumphantly unexpected turn to supernatural forces, predatory males, and defiant heroines in order to tell their stories. Although the inception of gothic literature is typically credited to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the initial movements of the genre owe everything to women writing for women. It was Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1792) that truly propelled gothic fiction into the centre of popular entertainment. That Radcliffe was paid a remarkable £500 for the novel – compared to the relatively meagre £10 received by Jane Austen for her own take on the fascination with popular gothicism, Northanger Abbey (1818) – says everything about the commercial strength of the gothic movement. From there, the likes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre all carved themselves a place on the path of female literary successes. The history of gothic fiction is fundamentally a woman’s history.
Given the conventional boxes within which female identity was confined, however, the attachment of readers and writers to the supernatural would appear counterintuitive. The world of wealthy, upper-class women was a determinedly narrow one – shaped from birth by the expectations instilled through countless generations of patriarchal oversight. Yet this narrowness of the female experience has everything to do with the popularity of the gothic genre. Playing with the supernatural allowed authors to explore the hidden dimensions of a world with which they were wholly familiar, as well as permitting them to break free of these constraints through the strength of an imagination that transcended the tangible and knowable. That women had been wholly criticised for their tendency to embrace the imagination in place of the rational becomes gothic literature’s most empowering point. A transcendent imagination is the foundation for fictionalisations of the supernatural – the unbidden forces that lurk in shadowed corridors and the rattlings within seemingly impenetrable walls. The authors who pioneered the gothic genre empowered themselves through the stereotypes used to limit them. By also introducing rational explanations for supernatural forces – a key element of Radcliffe’s work – we are offered even more resounding proof of the errors inherent in the misogynistic propaganda of the 1800s.
Women continue to dominate the world of gothic horror. Where popular credit surges in the direction of Stephen King and his contemporaries, women have seized their literary inheritance by carving out space for female voices. With Angela Carter’s exploration of gender and sexuality in the world of gothic fiction, Samanta Schweblin’s horrifyingly surreal short stories, and the work of countless other remarkable creatives, the best of complex gothic horror remains the domain of women. And given our historic relationship with the supernatural, this must surely be of little surprise. Alongside the determined restrictions placed around female identity, the woman has also been inextricably linked to phantom forces. From demonic possession to witchcraft, where subjugation has existed so to has a need to personify female evil as a justification for deviance. If you were childless, too beautiful, too ugly, too friendly, or too reclusive, society demanded explanation for your refusal to conform. And the supernatural has always provided a perfect recourse for a world determined to categorise those who it wishes to exclude from the circles of power and influence. Gothic horror is, in many respects, a reclamation of this peculiar relationship with the supernatural. Where historically an ingredient for suppression, writing the supernatural into fiction offers an opportunity to turn these dynamics into a product for success and entertainment – a reexamination of the female relationship with the supernatural, told for women in our own voices. It is a powerful take on the actions of the earliest gothic writers and one that certainly holds true for contemporary female powerhouses of gothic horror.
Despite this lengthy history, gothic horror – and horror, at large – are popularly viewed as the exclusive domain of male writers. Yet the female potential to imagine horror in the kind of narrative complexity that takes it into the realm of great literature is evident. Whether the product of the countless horrors to which deviant women have been subjected over centuries or the exclusively female encounter with the limits of the body through childbirth, acknowledging the power of women in these literary genres is fundamental. Women – as both the original and the contemporary embodiment of the gothic label – have written gothic horror as a reclamation of, and escape from, all of the injustice to which they have been subjected. In female-authored gothic horror is a tale of superfluous boundaries, defiance, and a refusal to bow to the limits prescribed by a world of restricted imagination. It is a reminder of literature’s potential to challenge conventional notions of identity and populate voiceless spaces with powerful reminders of imagination’s scope.
*For the sake of a historical accounting of women in literature, my references to ‘females’ or ‘women’ are going to be largely heteronormative. This isn’t to exclude the histories of transgender individuals or ignore the ways in which non-binary or trans people have been (and continue to be) marginalised by society. Similarly, the women that I’m referencing throughout this article are those of privilege – western and sufficiently wealthy to be afforded the education necessary to read and write in the 18th-19th century.