- The New Woman Gothic: Reconfigurations of Distress by Patricia Murphy
Patricia Murphy’s The New Woman Gothic: Reconfigurations of Distress is a welcome addition to both New Woman scholarship and the field of Gothic studies. Her skillfully written book investigates “the narrative employment of the Gothic as a valuable tool for investigating the New Woman” (4). She does not argue for a distinct subgenre of New Woman literature, nor does she attempt a comprehensive theorization of the fin de siècle Gothic; rather, she explores the presence of Gothic elements in both pro- and anti-New Woman texts. After carefully contextualizing her arguments within the larger field of Gothic studies, she proceeds to organize her study into three main parts: The Blurred Boundary, Reimagined Conventions, and Villainous Characters.
Murphy’s first and most extensive section looks at blurred boundaries—an element of the Gothic that she applies to a variety of non-Gothic texts by authors like Linton, Paston, Gissing, Dixon, Grand, Caird, Allen, and others. She looks at how and why the boundaries between the figure of the prostitute and the New Woman become blurred and proceeds to analyze their shared spaces, feminist orators, speech [End Page 393] patterns, analogous lodgings, and, of course, their demonized sexuality. Even fictional New Women who married, according to Murphy, were associated with prostitution. She points out the language of commerce surrounding both and the ways in which New Women were often talked about as being bought or sold into marriage. Murphy concludes that the New Woman faced a double bind in regard to sexuality: “If she participated in sexual activity outside of marriage, she was likely viewed as a predatory monster like Lucy Westenra seeking male victims” (101). Yet, if the New Woman was married, her “inherent eroticism could drive her to adultery and shameless sexual aggression” (101).
Some of the most unique arguments in the book are found in the next section, which looks at the reshaping of four key Gothic conventions: the labyrinth, live burial, entrapment, and ruins. The city was often constructed as a place where New Women could escape more conventional lives elsewhere in fin de siècle fiction. Yet, in response to her move to urban spaces, according to Murphy, masculinized city spaces were configured “in a metaphorical sense, into a labyrinth that would thwart, repel, and entrap” the New Woman (106). The theme of entrapment continues as Murphy discusses anxieties over live burial found in New Woman novels. As she admits, when “one ponders the motifs threading through New Woman novels, the Gothic convention of live burial does not immediately come to mind” (129). However, Murphy argues persuasively that the “motif takes on multiple permutations in the fiction, affecting both the single and the unmarried female, whether residing in the heart of London or in a rustic locale” (129). She conducts a fascinating extended reading of Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) in which she configures London as a vast graveyard in which the New Woman protagonist struggles to find fulfillment (133). Murphy also reads the “suffocating weight of tradition” as a smothering coffin lid in Mona Caird’s The Wing of Azrael later in the same chapter. This section ends with a final chapter on “The Body As Ruin” in which Murphy makes the intriguing argument that in the New Woman Gothic “ruins move inside the female form” (171). These gothic environments and themes of entrapment are common in both Gothic fiction and New Women novels and Murphy makes a compelling argument that these differing genres inform one another in interesting ways.
The final section of the book looks at villainous characters. Murphy devotes chapters to the figure of the bad husband, “The Mother as Agent,” and the New Woman herself as a Gothic menace. Murphy points out that while evil fathers were common in earlier Gothic fiction, in New Woman fiction fathers are either “dead (his typical fate), ineffectual, or invisible” (200). Instead, husbands often adopt paternal roles and abuse their positions of power...