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LHMP #389 Palmer, 1999 Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions

Full citation: 

Palmer, Paulina. 1999. Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions. Cassell, New York. ISBN 0-304-70154-8

This is one of several articles that I’m reading for the podcast on lesbian gothic literature. These articles will not necessarily focus on pre-20th century material.

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Note the publication date (1999) which means that this study of lesbian gothic literature will be far from up-to-date, and will reflect a previous generation’s ideas and experiences (as well as not reflecting the boom in queer literature that the e-book revolution has enabled). The introductory material suggests that the study’s scope will focus strongly on what today might be classified as paranormal (witches and vampires) rather than more classical gothics.

She notes the difficulty of defining exactly what the gothic genre is, but quotes one definition as the intersection of themes of inheritance and claustrophobia. From its origins structured around tropes of archaic settings, suggestions of the supernatural, the experience of terror, and the popular motif of the naïve heroine and wicked villain, the genre expanded in the 19th century to encompass vampires, ghosts, the search for illicit knowledge, and the figure of the “wanderer.” By the 20th century, Palmer’s definition of the scope of the gothic seems to include most of the genres of horror, thrillers, and the paranormal. Gothics often appear to challenge realist viewpoints in embracing the supernatural and social or sexual transgression, while at the same time often reinforcing the values of the dominant culture. From its roots, there have been separate strands of the “female gothic,” focusing on women trapped in a castle or mansion, and a gothic flavor more associated with male authors involving persecution, guilt, obsession, and dislocation.

From there, Palmer moves on to explore what she means by “lesbian gothic” within this study. Rather than gothic tropes being used to “decorporealize lesbian desire” (per Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian), these works written in the 1970s to 1990s [note the book’s publication date] “emply them to explore…erotic female relations and their transgressive dimension.” [Note: in choosing this timeframe, Palmer is focusing on stories that do not feel a need to conceal the lesbian nature of the characters and themes.] In the context of the early history of gothics, she notes that (especially) female authors treated themes that lent themselves well to lesbian contexts, including women’s problematic relationship to their bodies, the inherent transgressiveness of female sexuality, and the complications of female friendships and antagonisms, including mother/daughter relations. Women “haunting” other women is a common trope. Also noted is the contradictory role of the figure who is both courageous heroine and persecuted victim. The focus of gothic fiction on creating an emotional response in the reader blends easily with the depictions of repressed emotions and desires. There are structural parallels to closet/coming-out narratives in the themes of secrets, frustrated desire, shame, and persecution. The family/domestic sphere is depicted as a source of danger and claustrophobia, and heterosexual family structures are often viewed as threatening and the peril that must be escaped.

In traditional gothics, the lesbian-coded figure is typically assigned the role of villain and predator, but in contemporary lesbian gothics she becomes a protagonist, or the point of view shifts such that her vengeful and predatory actions are vindicated. Traditional gothics typically focus on an ominous history, either in terms of a family legacy or the physical reality of crumbling ancient monuments. History is the enemy. But lesbian gothics may be concerned with rediscovering and reclaiming a history that had been denied.

The individual chapters of Palmer’s book examine specific works within specific genre themes: the witch, the ghost, the vampire, and the thriller.

[Note: Palmer’s book has a certain historic interest as a study of the state of lesbian genre fiction as of the late 1990s, and an example of an academic work taking that field seriously as a subject of study. I personally found it a bit too all-encompassing to have a coherent take on the concept of “lesbian gothic,” at least from a current viewpoint. But the introductory material has been quite useful.]


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