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  • “Bending her gentle head to swift decay”: Horror, Loss, and Fantasy in the Female Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and Regina Maria Roche
  • Anna Shajirat (bio)

While gothic ruins are typically discussed in terms of moldering castles and crumbling historical monuments, the Female Gothic tradition of the long eighteenth century calls attention to another set of ruins: the physical and mental decay the Gothic heroine undergoes on the path from childhood innocence to adult experience. As exemplified in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Regina Maria Roche’s lesser-known Clermont (1798), the Female Gothic does not depict female maturation as a form of progress, as a series of tests from the supernatural world that the heroine must overcome to emerge as an enlightened adult fortified by moral reason and sensibility. Instead, these novels stage their heroines’ development in terms of irrevocable disruption in the dangers they experience from the world of reality, from men in positions of power who perpetually threaten their autonomy and integrity with sexual violence.1Through these constructions of female subjectivity as simultaneously regressive and progressive, as unstable as any decaying castle or monument, the Female Gothic locates horror not in supernatural monsters and spectacularized violence as in other Gothic works of the period, but in the mundane realities that women must learn about their subjugation in worlds dominated by men. What Emily St. Aubert and Roche’s protagonist Madeline Clermont find on the path from innocence to experience is [End Page 383] not the promised bloom of female maturation, but trauma and decay.2This trauma and decay that come with maturity form the foundation for a fantastic temporal framework in the Female Gothic based on a conjoined sense of horror and loss: horror of, and in the present incites a retroactive fantasy of a lost past of innocent perfection.

Ellen Moers’s coinage of the term “Female Gothic” was limited in its application simply to authorial gender.3However, the term has persisted in scholarly accounts of gender in the Gothic despite significant concerns about its essentialism and its reductive framing of women’s Gothic as a response to the ‘real’ Gothic originated by male authors. “Female Gothic” is further problematized if we take Ann Radcliffe as its originator and primary producer, as some critics have, considering the gendered politics of respectability that led to her contemporary success and eventual canonization.4Taking the lead from queer theorists who have reclaimed and reappropriated “queer” as “a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings,” my understanding and use of “Female Gothic” conjures its “abjected history” in order to “signify a new and affirmative set of meanings.”5As queer is “redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage...inthe direction of urgent and expanding political purposes,” Female Gothic can be used to acknowledge histories of gendered violence and struggle—including those which still occur even as they are critiqued in and through literary studies today—and to reassert the radical agenda of women’s Gothic writing in the long eighteenth century. Finally, Female Gothic can be used to gesture towards future possibilities for equally radical analyses of gender in literary studies of the period.6Udolpho and Clermont are not exemplars of the Female Gothic tradition because they were written by women, or even because they tell stories about women, but because they highlight the [End Page 384] gendered horrors that structure their heroines’ maturation to expose the trauma of the ordinary for women in eighteenth-century Britain. Roche’s and Radcliffe’s Gothic renderings of the “painful realit[ies]” of British culture in the late eighteenth century represent a specific category of writing that takes as its point of departure the “interrogation of paternal models of power... [by] articulating the dire predicament of alienated, disempowered female subjects.”7

Jacques Lacan’s reformulation of Freud’s das Ding in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959–1960) provides one framework for understanding Roche’s and Radcliffe’s Female Gothic depiction of maturation and its relation to gendered horror and fantasy.8In Freud’s German, die Sache is a nameable thing while das...


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pp. 383-412
Launched on MUSE
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