Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion

By Kamm, Frances A. | The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Autumn 2016 | Go to article overview

Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion


Kamm, Frances A., The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies


Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion, ed. by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

One of the many strengths of Women and the Gothic is its timing. Edited by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, the book has emerged as 2016 unfolds as a period of tremendous change, particularly in respect to politics and women. Women have recently gained significant political power, and the chance to alter the course of Western history dramatically. Women and the Gothic therefore appears at a crucial time, and is an excellent contribution to the ongoing conversations concerning women, feminism, and gender.

The above events may appear unrelated to gothic literature but, as Horner and Zlosnik outline in the book's introduction, the analysis presented here is contextualised within wider political discourses. The editors muse upon the changing face of feminism, with recent online activities such as the Everyday Sexism Project reflecting a general movement to 'revive feminism' (p. 2). The events listed above very much contribute to this, as discussions about feminism are evident within mainstream debate. It is against this backdrop that the book reengages with the gothic and seeks to analyse women's place within it. The central argument in Horner's and Zlosnik's introduction - which is reinforced by every chapter - is simple: the gothic provides a highly effective mode through which writers can interrogate women's (dis)enfranchisement within patriarchal systems of power.

Horner and Zlosnik invite us to explore the gothic from a woman's perspective on all levels: the book focuses on gothic texts written by women, about women, and for women. This fact is one of the reasons the book is a pleasure to read; the collection is very much a celebration of literature's gothic women in all their guises. Inevitably, this focus begins by engaging again with the term 'Female Gothic', as coined by Ellen Moers and, indeed, Moers's work is influential for much of the analysis in the book, including Lucie Armitt's essay 'The Gothic Girl Child' and Gina Wisker's 'Female Vampirism'.1 However, along with the notion of feminism itself, the essays move beyond any simple definition of the 'Female Gothic' in order to interrogate and, in the end, complicate the ideas associated with it. This movement is indicated by the book's structure, which organises the chapters into three sections. The first, 'Family Matters', examines collectively the conventional identities afforded to the gothic heroine, identities which reflect her status within a family structure, such as 'orphan' or 'mother', and how this enables her literal or psychological confinement. 'Trangressions', the second section, focuses on gothic or monstrous women, such as the vampire or witch, who push against such rigid identity and behavioural boundaries. The final part of Women and the Gothic, entitled 'New Directions', then posits fresh ways for analysing the gothic heroine - through an engagement with 'queer Gothic', and by analysing representations of age - or alternative forms through which she may experience the gothic, such as the virtual spaces created by new technologies, including computer games.

Several trends emerge across the chapters which, together, highlight the book's key strengths. First, the importance of historically and politically contextualising the gothic text is underlined regularly within the collection: for example, Laurence Talairach-Vielmas outlines the medical thinking behind locking up women in the nineteenth century, and Sue Chaplin reflects upon women's changing legal status from the eighteenth century onwards. Across the book's various sections, a particular emphasis on new readings is also evident, whether this takes the form of revisiting classic texts from new perspectives (such Ann Radcliffe's works or Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898)) or analysing less famous stories (like Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire (1897) and the figure of the soucouyant, a transformative figure from Caribbean and African folklore often compared to Western ideas of the witch or vampire). …

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