Gothic Feminism (1998) is a critical text that analyzes the portrayal of women in early English gothic texts from the late 18th through mid 19th century. It is authored by Diane Long Hoeveler , a Marquette University professor who specializes in British Romantic literature , gothic fiction , and women's literature .
In Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës, Diane Hoeveler argues that English female gothic authors were writing more than just sensational tales of dark and stormy nights. They were also portraying a new code of female behavior for the rising bourgeoisie, one that attempted to subvert the patriarchy of the time while simultaneously allowing women to enjoy the relative comforts of middle class gentility. These authors were, to quote Hoeveler, “making the world safe for the middle class” (10), and doing so involved adhering to this new code, which privileged chaste, passive heroines.
Hoeveler firmly believes that this new code of “professional femininity” must be considered within the context of its origins to understand what she calls “gothic feminism” and what others, like feminist theorist Naomi Wolf , deem “victim feminism.” She foregrounds her argument as a response to Wolf’s assertion that “victim feminism” maintains a double-standard against men. As Hoeveler explains in her preface, a masquerade of obedience to gain power for oneself is the point of professional femininity, and the “rhetoric” of victim feminism “evolved out of the discourse system we now recognize as the female gothic” (xi). Thus, an understanding of these gothic origins is vital to understanding victim feminism. Overall, Hoeveler’s text is an effective discussion of the professionalization of gender in relation to early gothic literature, with a specific focus on acknowledged classics of the genre.
Organization of The Text
Though brief, her “Preface” provides a helpful overview of some of her theoretical perspectives, as well as her intentions for the book. To trace the rise of gothic feminism, Hoeveler relies on a number of theories, primarily feminism , Freudian , and Marxism . She also uses some Foucault , Bakhtin , and structuralism .
Though she argues that her ideas can be seen in many female-authored gothic texts of the era, she has limited her focus to those considered canonical to the academic community. In the preface, she also emphasizes that, contrary to the claims of other gothic theorists, the female gothic tradition can be analyzed separate from the male tradition.
Her “Introduction” expands on the theories she uses as a basis for her argument, this time focusing more on the feminist theorists she has relied on, including Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous . She also delves into the concept of "victim feminism" a bit more, arguing that the female writers of these novels are not passive victims either, though they are actively constructing themselves in this light in their texts. Likewise, their heroines repeatedly seek out trouble and yet still elicit sympathy from the reader by constructing themselves as docile, passive ladies.
She spends some time also addressing other critical work on the gothic, including identifying some flaws in previous works, such as a tendency toward cataloguing instead of more thesis-driven works. She also notes that previous scholars have seen these novels as indicative of deep-seated anxiety about marriage among young women. Hoeveler does not necessarily dispute this claim--she too reads marital anxiety in many of the works--but she also believes that the texts convey anxieties beyond just marriage, namely in regards to the rise of the middle class. For Hoeveler, these gothic feminists texts are by middle-class women authors for middle-class women readers. The women writers are not opposed to the domesticity and stability the middle-class offers. Instead, they are offering critiques from within this framework, and these criticisms are intended for other women in the same position--women unhappy with their treatment but still content to remain a part of the bourgesie framework.
In this chapter, she also fleshes out the historical context of the novels she will be analyzing, specifically in how disadvantaged women of this time period were in regards to property rights. She sees this factor as especially significant in light of how prominently inheritance battles crop up in these gothic feminist texts. By the end, the heroine has always managed to acquire the inheritance that is rightfully hers. A significant aspect of this historical context is the emphasis these feminist gothic novels place on feminized men as heroes. According to Hoeveler, a union with a feminized man offers an idealized companionate marriage, not the traditionally repressive patriarchal institution of marriage.
Chapter 1: The Gendering of the Civilizing Process
In “Chapter 1: The Gendering the Civilizing Process,” Hoeveler introduces more theorists pertinent to her claim, including Bakhtin, Norbert Elias, Julia Kristeva , and Joan Rivière . Especially relevent to this section is Elias's argument about civilization and privatizing the body. Elias posits that traditional notions of etiquette that render natural bodily functions shameful serve as a means of effectively controlling people. Hoeveler applies this concept to the women in the novel, particularly in regards to sexuality. Unlike gothic feminist antiheroines, who are often sexually promiscuous, the heroines of these novels are chaste and modest.
Hoeveler also expands on the historical context of these works in relation to the Hardwicke Act , intended to prevent heiresses from entering into marriages with non-aristocratic men, especially bourgeois men looking to profit from their wives' fortunes. According to Hoeveler, it is useful to consider the reason this law was passed in relation to the female-authored gothic novels that followed it because these books also reflect so much anxiety about inheritance.
Hoeveler then engages in a close reading of Charlotte Smith ’s Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle. Even if the reader is unfamiliar with Smith's novel, Hoeveler nicely balances the discussion of the plot details with her analysis of the novel, which she does throughout the book. She especially emphasizes what will become central components of her analysis throughout: the presence of feminized men, the heroine’s limited options that lead her to choose a companionate marriage with a feminized man, and debate over whether women should be educated. As Hoeveler notes, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle essentially argues in favor of women controlling men--subtly--by appearing to obey then-contemporary etiquette codes. The feminized man, then, is desirable because he is easier to control and is a useful ally in a society that requires women to rely on men. In regards to education, the novel is more ambivalent. Smith seems to favor the education of women, but she also portrays well-educated women choosing undesirable men as husbands.
Chapter 2: Gendering Victimization
For "Chapter 2: Gendering Victimization," she shifts her focus to two early Ann Radcliffe novels, A Sicilian Romance and The Romance of the Forest . Hoeveler again emphasizes the presence of the feminized hero, the heroine’s limited options, and the behavioral code expected of women. However, she also expands the focus of this chapter, incorporating discussions of the role of parents and the role of religion.
She argues that Roland Barthes 's neither-norism is a useful analytical tool for these texts. Just as Barthes saw the bourgeoisie defining themselves in relation to what they were not--neither aristocrats nor peasants--the heroines of these novels define themselves by what they are not--they are not the sexually voracious antiheroine but they are also not their parents either. Indeed, she sees these novels, with their frightening and conniving parents, as representing the fears young women had about the one institution they needed to survive in this society--family. Likewise, she sees the novels' portrayals of evil priests scheming with the heroines' fathers as a further indication of this anxiety. In addition, the inclusion of priestly villains connects criticism of the patriarchal family with the patriarchal church.
Chapter 3: Gendering Vindication
“Chapter 3: Gendering Vindication” continues the discussion of recurring tropes of feminized men and evil priests in relation to later Radcliffe novels—The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. As with chapter 2, she expands her focus a bit, to include the role of aurality and more explicit discussion of female anxiety about marriage. She sees the emphasis on aurality as a direct contrast between the language of women and the language of men, which focuses more on the written text of a will or legal document. In addition, emphasizing the heroine's love for music, which Hoeveler sees as part of this aural language, indicates the heroine is cultured and upholds the feminine standards of the day. In addition, she notes that these texts often feature other female characters who explicitly warn the heroine that she needs to engage in what is essentially gothic feminism to survive the adventure.
Overall, Hoeveler does a nice job of avoiding the repetitious cataloguing of tropes that is common to scholarship on gothic fiction. The recurrence of so many of the same elements in all of the novels occasionally is noticeable, but the repetition of these points only serves to underscore Hoeveler's claim of their importance within the texts all the more. In addition, considering how prevalent the tropes are in these gothic texts, such repetition is inevitable. In any event, after she has meticulously detailed the foundational tropes for gothic feminist, Hoeveler turns her attention to the evolution of gothic feminism in later texts for the remaining two chapters. As a result, the discussion is less focused on recurring tropes and instead on how later gothic writers either parodied, subverted, or expanded on the tropes.
Chapter 4: Hyperbolic Femininity
In “Chapter 4: Hyperbolic Femininity,” Hoeveler focuses on parody of gothic feminism in Jane Austen ’s Northanger Abbey ; Charlotte Dacre Byrne ’s Zofloya, or the Moor ; and Mary Shelley ’s Mathilda , with some references also to the latter’s Frankenstein . In this chapter, she again mentions some of the recurring themes and tropes from earlier chapters, but her emphasis is on how each text addresses the role of female education, especially in relation to Mary Wollstonecraft ’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Hoeveler sees Northanger Abbey as a fictionalized version of Wollstonecraft's argument for educating women, in addition to a parody of traditional gothic tropes. Austen even comments on the shortcomings of female education and the presence of feminized heroes through her hero. Hoeveler, though, does not deem the novel successful as a parody because she feels it is unclear exactly what point the book is trying to make. To Hoeveler, the criticism of the lack of female education is odd because the heroine is able to marry well, despite her own poor education.
Charlotte Dacre Byrne's Zofloya, or the Moor is a more straightforward fictionalized form of Wollstonecraft's argument. In this text, the main character is actually the gothic antiheroine--she is not well-educated and her mother was not present to teach her to be a good woman or a good person. As such, Hoeveler sees the text as a strong argument in favor of Wollstonecraft's ideas on educating women properly.
For Mary Shelley's Mathilda, Hoeveler sees the text's response to Wollstonecraft's ideas as significantly more complex since Wollstonecraft was Shelley's mother. Indeed, Hoeveler believes this novel represents Shelley's critique of her mother's ideas and gothic feminism itself. In the tragic tale of a woman who must contend with her father's incestuous feelings for her, Shelley seems to be arguing that women are the cause of their own misfortune, an argument not made in any of the other texts that Hoeveler examines. This idea directly contradicts the gothic feminism in the other texts, which always portray the heroine as deserving of the good fortune she ultimately attains precisely because she is innocent.
Chapter 5: The Triumph of the Civilizing Process
“Chapter 5: The Triumph of the Civilizing Process” concludes the book with Emily Brontë ’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë ’s Jane Eyre and Villette . Hoeveler still addresses recurring concerns from earlier chapters. Here, however, her focus is on how these later gothic novels are reactions to or logical extensions of the gothic feminist tropes previously seen. She sees the Brontë sisters as advocating "romantic feminism" because their novels emphasize the importance of the heroines embracing their own femininity to avoid conflict with men.
Hoeveler deems Wuthering Heights a criticism of the portrayal of marriage in previous gothic texts. The works of Radcliffe and other earlier writers always ended once the heroine had married the feminized man. These texts never show the aftermath of such a marriage, but Emily Brontë does in this novel. Catherine's marriage to a feminized man is not the happily-ever-after ending implied in many other gothic texts. Instead, both parties are miserable, and she is separated from her true love, Heathcliff. The text, thus, represents a strong condemnation of the marriage advice respectable 19th century women were given. Nonetheless, Hoeveler does believe the book is arguing in favor of the civilizing effect of gothic feminism, as evidenced by Heathcliff's ultimate demise. He is not a feminized man, but he is a threat both to respectable men and women. As such, Wuthering Heights represents both a critique of and affirmation of gothic feminism.
Jane Eyre represents the ultimate gothic feminist text to Hoeveler. She argues that the novel provides excellent examples of all the hallmarks of a gothic feminist text--the passive heroine who wields that trait to acquire her own good fortune, a sexually voracious antiheroine, a wounded feminized hero, etc. Hoeveler believes the text also presents the pinnacle of gothic feminist works because Jane not only controls her marriage but also survives childbirth and becomes a content mother.
Villette, the last text that Hoeveler considers in-depth, represents a "vestige" of gothic feminism (222). In contrast with all the other texts discussed in Hoeveler's book, the heroine rejects her limited options and societal expectation to wed, instead remaining an unmarried spinster. Hoeveler, though, does not consider this book's message as triumphant and as prototypically gothic feminist as Jane Eyre. For Hoeveler, Charlotte Brontë presents this final decision so ambivalently that it is problematic to say the novel either decisively endorses or condemns the heroine's refusal to marry.
Hoeveler’s text provides a helpful discussion of professional femininity in classic gothic texts. The text is a useful resource for those interested in feminism and women's literature, especially within the 18th and 19th centuries, and the gothic.
She makes a compelling case for the origins of "victim feminism" within the early gothic novel, with ample evidence from a range of authors. Hoeveler provides a sufficient amount of summary for each text she analyzes to allow her audience to follow her reasoning, even if they are unfamiliar with the books she references, but without bogging the reader down with too many extraneous details about the plot. Similarly, she also does a good job of summarizing the basic ideas of the theorists she is using but without becoming tedious for those who already are familiar with these concepts.
It is not in the confines of Hoeveler's research project to look at male-authored gothic texts or non-gothic texts that predate the novels she analyzes. Therefore, a potentially useful venue for future scholarship might be comparing the portrayal of women in male-authored gothic texts with the ideas Hoeveler discusses in this text. Likewise, though Hoeveler briefly discusses the etiquette books intended for young women of this period, future scholarship may find it beneficial to compare the code of female behavior offered by the gothic feminist texts to the behavioral codes offered to women in previous texts, gothic or otherwise.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Print.
CONTRIBUTOR: Shirley Rash (original)