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Women’s Authorship and the Early Gothic review – shedding a critical light on the women who helped shape the gothic

There’s often a temptation, with the gothic, to believe that it all began with the paragons: with the first stirrings of Victor Frankenstein’s monster or the tapping of the raven at Poe’s window. But a vast and significant portion of its history lies with a different group of authors, many of whose works have been largely lost to time, whose names are no longer known and who have been commonly represented as unoriginal, unimaginative authors dealing as much in melodrama as in moralism.

It is these authors upon whom Women’s Authorship and the Early Gothic attempts to shed a new critical light. The essays contained within this book, introduced by editor Kathleen Hudson, work to examine the social and economic statuses of women writing gothic novels during the late Enlightenment period and to interrogate the explorations of selfhood, autonomy, and individuality within these novels. Focusing primarily on works published by Minerva Press, this collection works towards cultivating a greater understanding of the impact such writers truly had on both women’s writing and gothic writing, particularly in light of their dismissal at large from literary discussions spanning across decades.

Throughout each chapter, the discussed works are consistently grounded firmly within the context of their writers’ personal histories, as well as within the broader literary landscape. Hannah Doherty Hudson’s chapter “Gothic Before Gothic: Minerva Press Reviews, Gender and the Evolution of Genre” charts the reception of female-authored gothic novels by male reviewers. In noting the common criticisms and presumptions directed at Minerva Press authors – such as the presumed ignorance of female authors in matters of history and politics and the similarities between female authors and their subjects – Hudson is able to illustrate how generic development is inevitably shaped by readers’ expectations. In the case of the early gothic, she demonstrates how the narrow view of female writing ability during the late eighteenth century shaped the genre into a markedly transgressive mode in which they could explore and challenge, to quote Hudson, “cultural expectations for female behaviour and knowledge”. Reading this chapter, it’s hard not to ruminate on the degree to which the despotic, hyper-masculine gothic villains that feature in these novels collectively represent the mass of scornful male critics who endeavoured to reduce their work down to autobiography or farce.

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Yet Hudson’s analysis also functions best when considered alongside subsequent chapters. For instance, during the chapter “What ‘Poor Mrs Kelly’ Saw: Isabella Kelly Reads The Monk“, Yael Shapira discusses the transmutation of plot points and themes between the works of Matthew Lewis and his acquaintance Isabella Kelly, concluding that despite their correspondence, Kelly’s work ought not be considered as derivative of Lewis’s but as its own unique entity. Shapira manages to formulate a reading of Kelly’s The Ruins of Avondale Priory that revolves around key aspects of The Monk without reducing the former to being a pale imitation of the latter. There are moments in other chapters in which works used for comparison sometimes threaten to overshadow the main texts at hand, which can be exacerbated by the considerable obscurity of many of these early gothic novels. Yet overall, the degree to which these lesser known novels are explored reveals their complexity, as well as their significance for both the gothic genre and for female authors writing today.

Chapters such as these truly bring the collection together, uniting historical and theoretical approaches to cover new critical ground and bring to light texts that have been previously marginalised compared to mainstream gothic works. In this regard chapters such as “Self-Haunted Heroines” written by Elizabeth Neiman are particular standouts for the way in which they unite the works of female Romantic authors across the span of several decades in order to delineate the evolution of a uniquely female discourse of self within the gothic genre. Adding details of her own personal experiences during her research, though unexpected, is a touch that gives Neiman’s chapter a particular poignancy, speaking back to her subject matter in a way that perfectly wraps up the collection.

In general, the authors of Women’s Authorship and the Early Gothic posit that the gothic genre functioned, for the time, as a new kind of discourse that gave women writers a new framework in which to explore the conditions of their own internal and external lives. Gothic works have, and are, often decried as melodramatic, garish, and sensationalist – but in light of this collection it is well worth considering how female contributions to this genre have historically informed the prejudices against it, due to the critical reception it received during the days of Mary Robinson and Sarah Wilkinson. Yet where Women’s Authorship and the Early Gothic succeeds is in reminding us of these authors and their influence over the modern cultural landscape, and how even today, we remain in many ways haunted by their presence.

Women’s Authorship and the Early Gothic edited by Kathleen Hudson is published by University of Wales Press.

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