A girl and a house: the gothic novel

There used to be a genre called “gothics” or “gothic romances.” It thrived through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and vanished sometime in the early seventies. It died at the time when women reclaimed their sexuality, because one of the things about the gothic is the virginity of the heroine, who is often abducted but never quite violated. Gothics don’t work with strong sexually active women, they need girls who scream and can’t decide who to trust. They also work best at a time period where it’s unusual for women to work. They’re about women on a class edge, often governesses. The whole context for them is gone. By the time I was old enough to read them, they were almost gone. Nevertheless, I have read half a ton of them.

The original gothic was Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). I haven’t read it, but I know all about it because the characters in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) have read it. Jane Austen didn’t write gothics—far from it, one of the things she does in Northanger Abbey is make fun of them at great length. The gothic and the regency were already opposed genres that early—they’re both romance genres in the modern sense of the word romance, but they’re very different. Regencies are all about wit and romance, gothics are all about a girl and a house.

The canonical gothic is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1850). It has everything that can be found in the mature form of the genre. Jane goes as a governess into a house that has a mysterious secret and meets a mysterious man who has a mysterious secret. That’s the essense of a gothic, as rewritten endlessly. The girl doesn’t have to be a governess, she doesn’t even have to be a girl (The Secret Garden is a gothic with a child heroine, and I have a theory that The Magus is best read as a gothic and that’s a lot of why it’s so weird), the man can be the merest token, but the house is essential and so is the mystery. The mystery can be occult, or mundane, it can be faked, but it has to be there and it has to be connected to the house. It’s the house that’s essential. It can be anywhere, but top choices are remote parts of England, France and Greece. If it’s in the US it has to be in a part of the country readers can plausibly be expected to believe is old. The essential moment every gothic must contain is the young protagonist standing alone in a strange house. The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house.

My two favourite writers of gothics are Joan Aiken and Mary Stewart.

Joan Aiken wrote millions of them, and I’ve read almost all of hers. (I was sad when I found out recently that some had different UK and US titles, so I’ve read more of them than I thought.) There’s a character in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle who writes gothics as hackwork, and I wonder whether Aiken did this for a while. In any case, she wrote tons of them, and some of them are very standard kinds of gothic and some of them are very peculiar. They’re kind of hard to find, especially as very few people read gothics these days. But she has one where both protagonists are dying (The Embroidered Sunset) and one that deconstructs the genre much better than Atwood does (Foul Matter) by being about someone who was the heroine of a gothic (The Crystal Crow aka The Ribs of Death) years before. (There’s also an interesting deconstruction in Gail Godwin’s Violet Clay, whose protagonist paints covers for gothics. She imagines how the marriage of the governess and the lord works out in the long term.) Aiken comes up with all sorts of reasons for the girl to come to the house—singers, governesses, poor relations, necklace-menders. She’s quite conscious that the whole thing is absurd, and yet she has the necessary sincerity to make it work.

Mary Stewart wrote fewer of them. I fairly recently came across Nine Coaches Waiting, which is about as gothic as gothics get. The girl is a governess, she has a secret of her own, she’s concealed the fact that she speaks French. The house is in lonely Savoy, it’s a chateau. Her pupil is the count, but his uncle manages the estate, and there are several mysteries and the governess can’t decide who to trust. It’s just perfect. Her Greek ones (especially My Brother Michael) are also great, and so is The Ivy Tree. Touch Not the Cat is even fantasy, there’s family inherited telepathy.

So why do I like these? They used to be a mainstream taste, selling in vast quantities, and then they melted away as women became more free and more enlightened. Why am I still reading them, and re-reading them? There’s a character in Atwood’s Robber Bride who says she reads cosy mysteries for the interior decor. I am very much in sympathy with that. I don’t want to read rubbishy badly written gothics, but give me one with a reasonable ability to construct sentences and I know I am at the very least going to get a moment with a girl and a house, and descriptions of the house and food and clothes. I do like the scenery, and it is frequently nifty and exotic. But that’s not enough.

I’m definitely not reading them to be swept away in the romance—the romances are generally deeply implausible, though of course the heroine ends up with the guy revealed by fiat to be the hero, the same way a Shakesperean sonnet ends with a couplet. I’m not much for romance, in books or in life. To be honest, I don’t find very many romances plausible—I think there are two of Georgette Heyer’s romances I believe in, and one of Jennifer Crusie’s.

What I really get out of them is the girl and the house. The girl is innocent in a way that isn’t possible for a more enlightened heroine. She isn’t confident, because she comes from a world where women can’t be confident. She may scream, she is alone and unprotected, and she comes from a world where that isn’t supposed to happen. Things are mysterious and frightening, she is threatened, and she’s supposed to fold up under that threat, but she doesn’t. There’s a girl and a house and the girl has more agency than expected, and she doesn’t fold in the face of intimidation, or you wouldn’t have a plot. The heroine of a gothic comes from a world that expects women to be spineless, but she isn’t spineless. She solves the mystery of her house. She has adventures. She may be abducted and rescued, she may scream, but she earns her reward and wedding and her house—the hero is her reward, she is not his. She comes from this weird place where she isn’t supposed to have agency, she isn’t even really supposed to earn her own living, and she heads off into the unknown to do so and finds a house and a mystery and adventures and she acts, and she wins through. Some heroines are born to kick ass, but some have asskicking thrust upon them. The heroines of gothics discover inner resources they did not know they had and keep going to win through.

I have no idea if that’s what the readers of gothics from 1794 until the dawn of second wave feminism were getting out of them.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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