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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #64 Haggerty 2010 “Women Beware Women: Female Gothic Villains and Victims”

Full citation: 

Haggerty, George E. 2010. “Women Beware Women: Female Gothic Villains and Victims” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

Haggerty, George E. “Women Beware Women: Female Gothic Villains and Victims”

Not all the articles in a collection will hit the theme dead-on. This is another example where it feels like a certain stretch was made to tie the analysis in to the larger theme of the volume. (I'm always curious to know -- in cases like this -- whether the article was written or solicited specifically for the collection, or whether it was something the author had lying around and was looking for a home for.)

* * *

Haggerty examines several examples of female villains in gothic romances to develop what strikes me as a rather weak theory of homoerotic attraction as subtext in the stories. Identifying a number of stories in which the heroine is persecuted and abused by a female villain (rather than the default male villain), he finds that they “suggest that the relations between women can be played out as potentially erotic, just as sado-masochistic relations between men and women are.”

While the analysis is detailed and interesting, it is unclear to what extent he posits that readers of the time would have seen these fictional interactions as erotic or whether this is being offered as a modern interpretation. The examples of female-female persecution that he offers up always involve a man at the center -- the evil prioress punishing a nun for wanting to run away with a lover, the smothering mother who persecutes the fiancee who isn’t good enough for her son -- and provide no overt evidence for desire directed by the villain toward her victim. In the absence of even a trace of evidence for the “evil lesbian” trope, it’s hard to see how this thesis fits into the theme of the collection (much less my project).

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