From the Female Gothic to a Feminist Theory of History: Ann Radcliffe and the Scottish Enlightenment

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After the phrase "female gothic" entered feminist consciousness thirty years ago with the publication of Ellen Moer's Literary Women, readings of Ann Radcliffe's fiction began to focus almost exclusively on the absent mothers, overbearing fathers, and suffering daughters who compose the dysfunctional families of her novels. (1) Although these early readings productively interpreted gothic doppelgangers, repetitions, and lacunae as symptoms of psychological trauma, they have been roundly criticized in recent years for producing universalizing, reductive, and ahistorical portraits of women's experience. (2) Like these earlier feminist readings of the female gothic, this essay also examines the uneven and repetitious qualities of Radcliffe's novels; instead of seeing these characteristics as disruptions in psychological development, however, I see them as attempts to theorize gaps in eighteenth-century narratives of historical progress. One antidote to the universalizing and ahistorical tendencies of the female gothic can be found in the fragments of Scots poetry reproduced in the epigraphs of many of Radcliffe's novels. For example, the poetic interludes in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) create a temporal disruption or unevenness that invites readers to leave the main narrative and enter a distant Scottish past recreated in the 1740s, 1750s, and 1760s by Scots poets such as James Thomson, James Macpherson, and James Beattie. These poets resurrected Highland bards in an effort to process the 1707 Act of Union, the failed Scottish Rebellion of 1745, and the disappearing culture of the Highlands. Macpherson and Beattie were also active participants in the Scottish Enlightenment, and their poems engage with Scottish stadial history, which was the first theory of history to link what Karl Marx would later call a society's mode of production to the development of social attitudes and behaviors. These early materialist histories created new connections between economic development, imperial expansion, and the status of women in particular societies and in different geographical locations. Far from generating a singular or universal account of women's experience, this essay finds an uneven and non-linear feminist historiography sensitive to depicting different relationships between women's experience and British imperial and commercial growth in the tension between The Mysteries of Udolpho's representations of female sensibility and its Celtic paratext--what Gerard Genette calls a "boundary," "border," or "threshold." (3)

Although there is no way to know if the biographically elusive Radcliffe ever read much conjectural history or Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, her novels betray a pressing awareness of the way in which Scottish historiographers used women's social status to gauge historical progress and the health of economic and imperial development. (4) One of the best examples of Radcliffe's interest in Scotland is her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), which depicts a clan battle in the Highlands of medieval Scotland. The conflict within the novel revolves around two men: Malcolm of Dunbayne, a clan chief who "suffers" his lands to "lie uncultivated" and finds himself "torn by conflicting passions" he cannot control, and the more refined and civilized Earl of Athlin, a peer of Scotland who possesses a heart that "glowed with all the warmth of benevolence." (5) The different manners of Malcolm and the Earl of Athlin exemplify the two poles of the Scottish Enlightenment's stadial theory of history, which posits the existence of four stages of social and economic development, ranging from the rude manners of hunting and gathering societies to the refined and polished sentiments of more commercial cultures. Progress was measured in Scottish historiography by women's influence, which was minimal in the brute world of hunters and gatherers, but a significant civilizing force in the world of commerce. …