Forbidden romance, vampires, and feminism- the history behind gothic fiction

Said to be one of the pioneers of gothic fiction, Ann Radcliffe published The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 and earned £500 from this publication. With The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe began to present the gothic genre in a way that 18th century readers were unfamiliar with; this genre was new and had rarely been explored the way Radcliffe had done so. This whirlwind gothic romance involves death and destruction after the protagonist, Emily, is orphaned and forced to live with her aunt. During this time, she is held captive by her aunt’s husband in their castle and the novel follows her escape and her search for love towards the end. The novel itself involves key gothic elements such as ruined castles and unrequited, as well as extensive descriptions of the surrounding countryside. I really love Radcliffe and was introduced to her through The Italian, another gothic romance of hers. Her writing is dark and slow but moving. It takes a while for me to fully immerse myself into the narrative but once I do, I love every moment of it. What appears quintessentially gothic is only quintessential because of Radcliffe’s breakthrough with this novel; she helped to define these aspects of gothic fiction that readers see in later, more popularised gothic novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written almost a hundred years later in 1897.

 

Gothic fiction blossomed in the Victorian era, due to Stoker successfully creating the most notorious villain. Stoker draws on Romanian folklore regarding supernatural beings that seduce and then drink the blood of their victims, often turning their victims into vampires as well. Stoker’s novel received very little success but gained more recognition as Dracula and vampirism was adapted in more forms of media such as films and short stories. Dracula involves many notable gothic aspects, similarly to The Mysteries of Udolpho, such as death and decrepit castles. Stoker was particularly brazen with the theme of sex as well, something that alienated readers of the early 20th century, which therefore resulted in little to no success for his novel at the time of publication. Other significant authors in Victorian gothic include Charlotte and Emily Brontë, both of whom had created female protagonists that actively challenge and resist male authority, seen in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Their female protagonists are famously known for possessing a ‘take-no-bullshit’ attitude, which, in Catherine’s case, doesn’t fare well (spoiler alert). Through her death, she’s punished for possessing autonomy as Emily Bronte portrays the complicated family affairs in a patriarchal society in Wuthering Heights.

 

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter provided the late 20th century with gothic fiction centred around feminism and the macabre, one of her influences being Edgar Allen Poe. The collection of short stories were published in 1979 and were loosely based on folk tales where women were portrayed negatively – Carter retells these folk tales with women in positions of power. Whilst Carter dips into magical realism with The Bloody Chamber, it still remains prominently gothic in terms of the supernatural transformations, as well as the explicit feature of blood and gore. I enjoyed reading The Bloody Chamber because of how refreshing Carter’s writing was. She experiments with societal norms and values, whilst also retaining her classic narrative voice.

 

The gothic genre has evolved immensely from Radcliffe’s creation to the surge in the 18th/19th century. Stoker aided the development of the genre through Dracula, but it is evident that women have significantly shaped the genre and expanded it to where it is now. Carter especially provided a twist on the genre through her retelling of fairy tales from a radical feminist viewpoint. If you’re looking to explore the gothic genre further, my recommendations would be: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, The Doll Factory by Eliza Macneal, The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

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