The female authors that invented Gothic literature
During the 19th century, a hungry, increasingly literate audience of Victorians consumed the novel, transforming writers into household names. But most remarkably of all, the era ushered in a wave of female pioneers, an early form of girl power which vitalised literature with rich stories, and inspired feminists of the future.
The Gothic genre which played a hand in this victory, with its frighetful form offering opportunities to explore themes and issues previously sidelined or ignored in other works. Amidst the eerie castles, striking landscapes and Medieval settings, these female writers could call into question male-dominated society, turn traditional power dynamics on their head, and use the supernatural as a vehicle for the sensual. This isn’t to say that the genre was always empowering, as texts such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula prove. With his contrasting depictions of the virtuous Mina Harker and salacious Lucy Westenra, author is perceived to have been assailing the ‘New Woman’ – a term used at the end of the century to describe the females who were trying to push against the barriers dictating what they could not (and should not) achieve.
But although female novelists led the way in breaking new ground, this was under intense scrutiny and prejudice. Many used male aliases, criticism was levelled at their deviation from ‘feminine’ matters – Mary Shelley was described as having a “masculine mind” – and some of their families felt compelled to rewrite aspects of their characters after their deaths, for example Jane Austen’s brother Henry purposefully played down her ambitions, intentions, and knack for social critique. Nevertheless, their accomplishments were many, and their books have brought joy to generations of readers. In this bicentenary year of Emily Brontë’s birthday, and the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, discover how Gothic fiction shaped the lives of ten talented women.