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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 268 – Lesbian Gothics, Gothic Lesbians

Saturday, September 23, 2023 - 18:41

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 268 – Lesbian Gothics, Gothic Lesbians - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/09-23 - listen here)


I feel like I should have opened the episode with spooky music, because today I want to talk about gothic literature, both past and present. There are ways in which the gothic genre is a natural fit for sapphic stories. One might immediately think of works like Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, which introduces fairly blatant lesbian desire into a vampire story, but Carmilla isn’t necessarily typical of the gothic genre, and the sapphic potential has much deeper roots. When talking about gothic literature being written today, we need to consider how that label has expanded beyond its origin and what that means for identifying something as a “lesbian gothic.”

Like many fiction genres, the gothics existed before the genre was identified and labeled. Whether we’re talking about the earliest gothics of the late 18th century, or the later development which expanded to encompass horror and paranormal stories—before those split off to become separate categories—the essential feature of a gothic is “the vibes.” Gothic literature is about giving the reader a particular emotional experience involving mystery, fear, and being haunted by the consequences of the past.

The Origins of the Gothic Novel

The gothic genre is generally credited to have begun with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, but it quickly became associated with female authors such as Ann Radcliffe, among whose many titles are The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Dominant themes in the early gothics include characters who are haunted by the past—either by their own past experiences, or by a more distant family heritage. The past intrudes onto the present of the story in the form of ruined buildings, family ties and heritage, and framing devices such as lost manuscripts or fictitious histories. The supernatural is a presence, but not always a reality, as apparently supernatural experiences may be resolved by explanation. And over it all is the threat of everyday experiences being twisted into the unnatural or the forbidden.

The label “gothic” comes from common features of the setting, involving decaying castles, sinister monasteries, underground crypts, and other features of medieval architecture that represent the link to the past. The setting is often a foreign land—perhaps unspecified—with the action similarly displaced from the reader’s reality, though often nebulously. The atmosphere is claustrophobic—perhaps literally in the case of crypts and underground passages—but often due to the inescapable presence of figures with power over the protagonist. For female protagonists, the claustrophobia may be the threat of being trapped in marriage to an abusive man. This theme of claustrophobia may be echoed in convoluted and non-linear narratives that conceal understanding both from the protagonist and from the reader. Violence and the threat of it is a frequent motif: vengeance, imprisonment, murder, and rape or at least forced marriage. Other common tropes are character doubles and concealed identities including the revelation of hidden family connections, unnatural sounds and nocturnal landscapes or dream journeys. The motif of dangerous secrets may be present in the physical setting (with hidden rooms or secret passages) and reflected in the form of concealed information.

The Female Gothic

Although the early gothic novels written by male and female authors share many of the defining characteristics, some gendered themes emerge. Male authors often focus on male characters who break social taboos: forbidden sexual relationships such as incest or bigamy, and sometimes veiled hints of homosexuality.

Female-authored gothics can often be read as reflections of the claustrophobic nature of women’s lives, their lack of power over their own fates, and the risk that the domestic sphere—rather than being a place of nurturing and comfort—can become a source of danger especially from men who ought to be their protectors, such as fathers and brothers. The heroine may be abandoned and persecuted, fleeing from a villainous father-figure and searching for an absent maternal figure. The gothic novel became a context for critiquing male power, violence, and predatory sexuality. It created a context for the female protagonist to come of age and achieve a goal that—while it might include marriage—was not centered around marriage.

Furthermore, gothic novels offered a means for female authors to express extremes of emotion. Heroines are allowed to dread their situation – because the situation is removed from the everyday – in a way they would not be permitted to express toward everyday threats and suffering. In some ways, the heroine’s primary defining feature as a character is suffering and vulnerability. The familial structures she should be able to rely on are instead closed to her, and the women who should be her allies are either absent or dead.

Another gendered tendency among early gothic novels is for male authors to include genuine supernatural elements—hereditary curses, malevolent spirits—while female authors have their female protagonist eventually identify a rational explanation for what had seemed to be supernatural. The mysterious and supernatural is invoked to create a frisson of terror and possibility, which is then managed back into the knowable and rational. The vulnerable isolated heroine, cast into a mysterious and terrifying environment, is an exaggeration of women’s vulnerability in the real world.  In the end, the true threat to our heroine is rooted in the social systems and power structures of the real world. But her education and rationality enable her to resolve her fate.

Another curious theme in many female-authored gothics is the passivity of the putative male love interest with regard to how the dangers are resolved. Ambiguously threatening father figures overlap with the “demon lover” motif provoking a sense of sexual dread. The terrors and anxieties the heroine experiences are not a displaced erotic titillation, but a manifestation of realistic and genuine fears surrounding the situation of an isolated woman in a world of male predators. The “safe” hero—the prospective lover that the heroine must win through to, is absent, feminized, and envisioned by the heroine as being in similar peril to her own. In this way, an entirely different alternative is offered to capitulation to male threat in order to obtain safety.

In Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, the love interest spends significant periods offstage and irrelevant as the heroine escapes various threats. Time and again, the heroine saves him, first from illness, and in the final climax, from execution. Similarly, in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the putative love interest disappears while the heroine resists abduction, forced marriage, and imprisonment and has successfully escaped and reclaimed her proper inheritance while her lover has lost everything until reunited with her. One can see a similar theme in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

These gendered tendencies are not absolute, and just because female authors used gothic themes to critique the state of women’s existence doesn’t mean they felt able to change their heroines’ fates entirely.

Gothic Development in the 19th Century

The 19th century saw several developments in the gothic genre. Or rather, several expansions of the scope of gothics. Contemporary settings were added to the fictional geography, as we see in the works of the Brontë sisters. Genuinely supernatural elements become more of a feature rather than being given rational explanations at the end. The “ghost story” emerged as a genre. Vampires joined the cast of characters, though today vampire stories have emerged as an independent genre.

With the rise of decadent literature toward the later part of the century, supernatural elements combined with gothic themes tying together physical and moral decay. Rather than gothic heroines prevailing though virtue, courage, and rationality, now they might alternately embrace their “demon lover” and become a lesson in the consequences of depravity.

Lesbians as Antagonists

What place do lesbian characters have in this complicated history of the gothic novel? Only in contemporary writing do we find explicitly self-identified sapphic characters featuring as gothic protagonists, but we can expand to include intimate friendships that are not explicitly erotic. This allows us to trace two roles for the lesbian character: the suffering heroine and the threatening villain who makes up part of the menacing gothic landscape.

We can trace the origins of the sapphic villain in 18th century queer-coded characters such as Harriot Freke in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, who represents the lure of sexual transgression and immorality that the heroine must resist, along with what might be thought of as “henchwoman” figures assisting the sexually threatening male character while echoing his predatory aura, such as the housekeeper in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. If the gothic heroine’s primary peril is that environments that should be safe and nurturing have turned dangerous, then the female friend who offers sexual betrayal rather than allyship strikes close to the heart.

But as intimations of lesbian desire become more overt in the later 19th century, the threat to the gothic heroine can be made clearer—and we find it sharply in focus in Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla. Set in that favored gothic location, a solitary castle in a remote foreign location, our heroine Laura encounters supernatural peril in her own home and bed from the vampire Carmilla. In something of a turn-about, Carmilla has all the hallmarks of being the gothic heroine. She is stranded due to a carriage accident and left among strangers. But this is not her story. The motif of ancestral secrets being revealed manifests in an ancient painting that is an exact likeness of Carmilla, contributing to the discovery of her true nature.

One can see a gothic inheritance in a number of decadent novels that involve a woman’s struggle between the allure of a lesbian seductress and the male protagonist, though typically these fall in the “male gothic” tradition of focusing on transgressive sexuality and its consequences for men. One of the articles I read for this podcast identifies gothic themes in Molly Keane’s 1934 novel Devoted Ladies in which a female couple’s relationship devolves into a dysfunctional gothic mess when one partner takes up the role of “demon lover” as the other refocuses on a potential heterosexual relationship. The lesbian-coded gothic villain can appear simply as one of the options for oppressing the heroine, as in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the female protagonist is menaced, not by lesbian desire, but by second-hand jealousy.

As we move into the era of the pulps, the dynamic of a gothic heroine and a semi-predatory lesbian antagonist-lover begins to soften into sympathy, though publishing conventions of the time required something resembling a moral lesson to be retained. But in the later part of the 20th century, we can finally achieve gothic novels where a lesbian antagonist can provide conflict without being forbidden any other potential role in the story.

Lesbians as Protagonists

It's more difficult to find early examples of a sapphic gothic heroine, unless one chooses to interpret the “passive boyfriend” motif as a feminized love interest. Perhaps the closest one might come is Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 Ormond: or the Secret Witness which verges on the gothic with its seductively predatory villain from whom the heroine rescues herself in order to be reunited with her beloved female friend. Further, the protagonist feels not simply a particular passion for this friend of her youth (with whom she is reunited) but regularly feels romantic attractions to other women she interacts with. I’d love to find some more 19th or early 20th century examples of gothic heroines whose escape or rescue is enabled by a close female friend, where there is no marriage plot to elbow her out of the way in the end.

But when we come to contemporary publishing, we can find a wealth of gothic plots where the female protagonist faces down all perils and threats and gets the girl in the end. Given the focus of this podcast, I’ll be looking at books with historic settings—which is perfect for the gothic tradition, which always did like to set stories in the past.

In some ways, the structure of early gothic novels adapts itself easily to sapphic plots. The heroine typically finds herself in a hostile or dangerous domestic atmosphere. Either she is a stranger, or the familiar has been made strange by a change of relationships or personnel. Typically, she is under pressure by male figures to participate in an unwanted marital arrangement—or something less formal. She feels trapped and constrained. The female figures who she ought to be able to turn to for help are either disastrously missing or are allies of the antagonist. She sees peril all around her—a peril that may be denied or ignored by other characters. The heroine currently has no social, economic, or political power to aid her, but must rely on her wits and her ability to elicit the help of strangers—strangers who may turn out to be keys to her past and heritage, or may resolve into romantic connections or at least allies.

While the traditional gothic looks to the past and moves the protagonist past a dysfunctional and abusive family structure to re-establish her in a “proper” version of her ancestral family (via inheritance, being reunited with lost relatives, or marriage), lesbian gothics expand the possibilities to include the creation a new (found) family. And while the traditional gothic acknowledges the inherent constraints and hazards of patriarchal society, but finds resolution by enduring and outwitting them, the new lesbian gothic gives heroines permission not merely to resist toxic patriarchy, but to reject patriarchy in all its forms—a permission she may not always take, but one that is on the table. Furthermore, the new lesbian gothic allows sapphic characters to inhabit all the roles—the protagonist, the antagonist, the demon lover, the failed parent, the ally, the romantic interest—and, as desired, to bundle those roles into new combinations, instead of being predestined to play the roles assigned by heteronormative narrative structures.

Some Lesbian Gothics

And how are authors exploring those possibilities? This is the part where I talk about some books I’ve encountered that fit reasonably into the category of lesbian gothic. Some of them clearly embrace the gothic label, while others may fit the themes while playing somewhat with the structures.

One thing I discovered when pulling books for this section is that my spreadsheet of sapphic historical fiction doesn’t have a coherent way of identifying gothics. Relatively few use that word in the cover copy, and my thematic coding has been haphazard enough that only one or two got tagged as gothic. So I make no claims that this list is in any way comprehensive, or even necessarily representative.

Let’s start out with the earliest publication on my shelves: The Marquise and the Novice by Victoria Ramstetter, published by Naiad Press in 1981. Viewed from a distance, the story is somewhat awkward, trying to stuff too many tropes into too small a space. But like many early lesbian novels it has the joy of an author expanding into a literary space that hadn’t previously been friendly. A young (but not entirely innocent) convent-educated girl is hired as a governess by a dashing but chilly widowed marquise. There are secrets and dangers around the marquise’s castle, not least of which is the protagonist’s crush on her employer who appears to be otherwise attached. The air of mystery is maintained more by people simply not talking to each other than by genuine secrets and the major threat is external rather than being part of the domestic space. But the book sets out to be a genuine lesbian gothic and succeeds at that.

Stories that fully embrace all the tropes and motifs of the early gothic romance aren’t as plentiful as one might expect, but a classic example is Shadows of the Heart by Patty G. Henderson. A respectable young woman who has been orphaned in scandalous circumstances is connected with a post as companion to the frail and invalid wife of the bullying and indifferent Lord Blackstone in a sinister castle filled with old family servants of questionable loyalties. Someone—apparently—wants to do away with the invalid and our heroine must untangle the mysteries and dangers (both to her mistress and herself) before it’s too late. The heroine is presented with two potential romantic interests. Her mistress fills the role of the ineffective character-in-distress that was sometimes filled by the male romantic lead in early gothics. But there is also Lord Blackstone’s transgressively dashing and lascivious sister, who occupies the role traditionally given to a lesbian-coded antagonist. This being a sapphic story, being lesbian-coded doesn’t automatically make one a villain, so the plot structure doesn’t predict which romantic path our heroine will follow, but the climax includes the usual chases, escapes, and near-death experiences.

Jane Eyre is a classic gothic of the Victorian era, and for reasons that may be obvious, it’s popular in sapphic adaptations. The gothic motifs are obvious from the source material, and if one slightly shifts the protagonist’s romantic fascination from Mr. Rochester to the madwoman in the attic, then the possibilities open up. And once you view the imprisoned Mrs. Rochester through a sapphic lens, it’s easy to see that she makes a natural gothic heroine, following the theme of being trapped in a claustrophobic, decaying, menacing environment in which family connections are enemies, not allies, and psychological warfare is employed to make her compliant to patriarchal goals.

A truly superb example of this group is Rose Lerner’s The Wife in the Attic, which doesn’t flinch from depicting the titular wife as emotionally disturbed—though who wouldn’t be given what she has endured? The viewpoint protagonist, as in the inspiration, is a young woman employed as governess to a girl in the household—in this interpretation the legitimate daughter of the Rochester-analogues, rather than a girl of less regular parentage.  The book works the dual romantic attractions of our heroine’s employer and of the imprisoned woman, both of whom partake of the “demon lover” trope in their own ways. The claustrophobic atmosphere and sense of being trapped is present for both female characters. Our viewpoint character is constantly tormented by the unreliability of the versions of reality that are presented to her. And the climax, in some ways, only increases the feeling of looming dread. Lerner isn’t simply re-writing Jane Eyre, but rather borrowing the structure and adding several features of her own, including religious prejudice as an underpinning to the wife’s treatment.

Elizabeth Hart’s novel The Lily in the Tower takes the bones of Jane Eyre in a different direction. The parallels are lighter: the emotionally troubled character confined “for her own good” is not also encumbered by marriage, and the Jane Eyre analogue who is drawn to her appears to have no trouble choosing between this friendship and the questionable attractions of a male suitor. (I confess I haven’t read this one yet, so I’m working from the cover copy.) We see the traditional setting of an ancestral home in its decline, and a protagonist driven there by forces outside her control.

Betsy Cornwell’s novel Reader, I Murdered Him has the most direct connection with the source material. The playfulness of the title is misleading. This is definitely on the darker side of gothic, drawing in the themes of the threat of sexual violence and unwanted forbidden relationships. The protagonist is the young girl, Adele, from the original novel, now grown to a young woman and full of rage for the plight of her sex in a world where predatory men get a pass, leaving ruined lives in their wake. We see Jane Eyre after the end of her love story, resorting to denial and chosen ignorance to maintain her illusions of happiness, leaving Adele with no ally in her own quest for happiness and justice.

Many novels begin with the tropes of a young woman, cast adrift in the world in financial need, who travels far from the world she knows and what friends or family she may still have, to take employment in an isolated household, usually one decaying from a former grandeur, and then encountering mysterious and sinister people and events.

This is the framework we find in The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe, where the protagonist takes up a teaching position at a remote Yorkshire boarding school. Yorkshire is also the setting for Cathy Dunnell’s Beulah Lodge, where a young woman staying with relatives before her marriage finds mutual attraction with an orphaned housemaid, both suffering under the cruelty of the mistress of the house. In Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, the isolation is legal rather than geographic, as our protagonist finds herself sent by her brother to an insane asylum that seeks to strip away not merely her personality but her very identity, even as she clings to the one ally she finds there. I’ll note that I haven’t yet read any of these three books, so I’m absorbing the gothic vibes from the cover copy and—in the case of Marianne Ratcliffe’s book, from talking with her on the podcast.

All the previous books fall in the category of “explained mysteries” like many of the early female-authored gothics. But there are also stories that cross over to the true supernatural, such as Harkworth Hall and its sequels, by L.S. Johnson. The protagonist’s remote residence is her family home, not a place she has been sent, and the gothic figures that enter her life intrude on her territory rather than the reverse. The intruders have a peculiar interest in supernatural events and carry a sense of forboding menace. We have secret societies, strange hidden creatures, and potential romantic interest who partakes at least a little of the “dangerous demon lover” motif.

Another gothic with overt supernatural elements is Lianyu Tan’s The Wicked and the Willing. Here we have a literal demon lover in the vampiric mistress of the mansion, as well as the secondary figure of the loyal servant who might be expected to be hostile to the protagonist. But the heroine, who comes to the household as a lady’s companion, is drawn to them both. The author came on the podcast previously to talk about the gothic elements and how they play well with the colonial setting.

There are several other books that I thought fit reasonably well into the gothic category, though perhaps crossing genres a bit more. Molly Greeley’s Austen-inspired The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh sets her titular heroine in the claustrophobic and confining mansion of Rosings Park, where her day-to-day life is an opium-tinged dream with no chance of escape from her mother’s smothering concern. Many gothic trappings are present, but the plot strays a bit from the usual path. The story is less concerned with how the protagonist perseveres within her perilous situation, than in how she must escape that environment in order to have a chance of freeing herself form the physical and emotional bonds imposed on her.

Another book that intersects the gothic somewhat tangentially is The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence. The gothic tropes include an isolated and sinister manor house, mysterious prisoners, a convoluted family history that is key to the protagonist’s past and future, and a game of “is it or isn’t it” around the mechanical chess-playing device. Does the device have supernatural powers? Or is it an elaborate hoax?

The Ghost and the Machine reminded me greatly of two Sarah Waters novels that also partake of the gothic atmosphere: Fingersmith (about an elaborate inheritance scam) and Affinity revolving around the world of seances and spirits. Both could be analyzed from a gothic point of view, though they stray more broadly from the core themes.

I hope this show has convinced you that lesbians and sapphic themes are intertwined in the deep history of the gothic novel, as well as being a natural fit for more overt representation in recent historical fiction. If I didn’t have quite so many stories on my to-do list already, I’d be tempted to tackle one myself!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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