Female Gothic and the Institutionalization of Gothic Studies

Article excerpt

Does Female Gothic have anything left to offer? Entrenched in Gothic studies for nearly thirty years and increasingly attacked during the last decade, this critical category seems to many to have outlived its usefulness. Nonetheless, there are still critical lessons to be learned from it, as much about the recent history of Gothic criticism as Gothic works themselves. Indeed, we would do well to contemplate what scholarly reputation not only feminist criticism of the Gothic but also Gothic criticism more generally would enjoy were it not for the intervention of Female Gothic.

Apparently first made public in a lecture delivered in the early 1970s at the University of Warwick (where 'Germaine Greer was a superbly scholarly heckler') and first published in articles for the New York Review of Books in 1974, Female Gothic is best known as the subject of a chapter in Ellen Moers' influential study of women's literature, Literary Women (1976).1 Moers was not the first critic to be interested in the positive connections between women and the Gothic (as opposed to the eighteenth-century disparagement of the form's women readers), nor was she the only early feminist literary critic to express interest in the Gothic.2 But through the telescoping effect of hindsight, her coinage has become a pivotal moment in the timeline often drawn of twentieth-century Gothic criticism, marking the point when, as Anne Williams puts it, 'feminist critics ... recognized that gender is crucial in the Gothic'.3

Female Gothic is less noteworthy as an Original' insight that emerged sui generis from Moers' critical sensibilities than as a product of a specific historical moment. Most important, the formulation of this category was the result of the rise of feminism and feminist literary criticism in the US during the late 1960s and 1970s. Moers herself makes the significance of this historical context clear in her preface to Literary Women. Recalling that though she had once believed it 'futile' to discuss women writers apart 'from the general course of literary history', feminism, and 'the dramatically unfolding, living literary history' of 'women's liberation' in particular, persuaded her otherwise (xi-xii). More specifically, as precisely the kind of singling out of women writers that Moers had initially rejected, Female Gothic was an expression of the 'second phase' of American feminist literary criticism, which focused on uncovering the lost tradition of women's literature, rather than revealing cultural traditions of misogyny as Kate Millet, for example, had done in her 'first phase' classic, Sexual Politics (1970).4

The advantages of hitching the Gothic's wagon to feminism's star by way of Female Gothic were many. As Robert Miles points out, doing so was essential to 'rescuing' the reputation of such women writers as Ann Radcliffe from critics who found her 'childish fantasies', 'gently spooky fiction' and 'concern for external circumstance' lacking the 'deeper implications' available in the work of such male writers as Mathew Lewis.5 Maybe just as important, feminist literary criticism also rescued Gothic studies. David Richter, in an examination of the critical reception of the form, argues that feminism was 'perhaps the most obvious force at work' that transformed 'a field that was once neglected at best - and at worst a bastion of bibliophilie cranks' into 'a very important area of study'.6 Similarly, David Punter and Victor Sage hold that feminist readings were on the cutting edge of late-twentiethcentury criticism of the Gothic, producing 'the most energetic' and 'interesting and important' of these discussions.7 Feminism, in other words, was instrumental in institutionalizing Gothic studies. Reflecting on the 'substantial gains' made since the late 1970s, Coral Ann Howells acknowledges that scholars no longer have 'to argue for the legitimacy of Gothic as a proper subject of literary study'.8

But there were also disadvantages to the feminist connection. …