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  • Emerging Transgothic Ecologies in H. Rider Haggard’s She
  • Gregory Luke Chwala (bio)

Recent scholarly work on H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure has encouraged readers to think beyond the ways in which its representations of atavism, reverse colonization, and what Patrick Brantlinger describes as the “diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world” (230) serve to exemplify the sub-genre of the Imperial Gothic.1 Ardel Haefele-Thomas, for example, has argued that She is “infused with anxieties about shifting—read as morally degenerating—gender roles and identities” that underlie “moral panic about all manner of racial otherness, gender diversity, and queer sexualities”—panic that suggests “genderqueer, transgender, and even queer heterosexual modalities” (72). This approach to Haggard’s novel leads me to ask, What can trans studies offer to an analysis of the different intersections found in She among gender, sexuality, race, nature, and the human? And what new ontologies can be discovered by using transgothic studies to critique and queer human ecologies in ways that more readily consider trans identity? To answer these questions, I suggest examining how Haggard’s novel refashions the Gothic to explore new possibilities of what is “natural” or “unnatural” about the human body, human sexuality, and human relationships with the land. Haggard, I argue, uses the novel to imagine a transgothic ecology, a semiotic system in which the landscape is populated by bodies transitioning from something known to something possible and new. The constituent feature of this ecology is its affinity for what Elizabeth Freeman calls “erotohistoriography,” a mode of representation that demonstrates how transitioning, becoming, and/or transforming might serve as modes for the reuse and recovery of the past.

situating transgothic ecologies

My term transgothic ecologies borrows from two fields—transgothic studies and queer ecologies—both of which critique and challenge identity categories, explore possibilities for becoming and unbecoming, and recognize transient bodies. The “trans” in transgothic connotes a temporality or transience, not unlike the way in which queer ecologies emphasize the variation and non-fixity of organisms as they transition toward something new. The Gothic, of course, has always foregrounded concerns for uncertainty and [End Page 69] ambiguity in its representation of sexual identity and gender. As George Haggerty points out, “The cult of Gothic fiction reached its apex at the very moment when gender and sexuality were beginning to be codified for modern culture. . . . Gothic fiction offered a testing ground for many unauthorized genders and sexualities” (2). Similarly, Paulina Palmer argues that the Gothic’s use of uncanny motifs, including those related to secrets and mysteries, dislocations of space and time, and the figure of the double, encourages readers to consider queer and trans identity (6). Palmer’s framework for exploring the queer uncanny offers a way for readers to understand how Haggard’s representation of imperialism is “transgothic”—a term used by Jolene Zigarovich in her introduction to TransGothic in Literature and Culture.

While scholarship on Gothic literature has often demonstrated how the genre queered the boundaries of sexual identity, Zigarovich argues that transing the Gothic can

open up a space that both intersects with but also disturbs non-trans feminist and queer readings of the Gothic . . . [to] explore categories such as transgender, transhumanism, and transembodiments, but also broader concepts that move through and beyond the limits of gender identity and sexuality, such as transhistories, transpolitics, transmodalities, and transgenres.


Haggard’s She, for instance, might be critiqued through a trans lens by reevaluating the relationship between Leo Vincey and Horace Holly as one that is not reducible to either the homosocial or the homosexual. Readers might also consider the transformation of Ayesha as a metaphor for transembodiment. Additionally, the doppelgänger motif, in which Leo is both a modern Englishman and the reincarnation of an ancient priest of the cult of Isis, might be explored as a metaphor for trans identity. Such analyses can be further enriched, however, by considering how the fields of queer ecologies and transgothic studies come together.

Queer ecologies offer a useful starting point for understanding trans identity in the imperial Gothic. First, queer ecologies investigate nonheteronormative, nonbinary multiplicities of gender and sexuality...


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