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(Auto) Représentation du conflit et du pouvoir au féminin

Women, Power and Conflict: The Gothic heroine and "Chocolate-box Gothic"

Avril Horner
p. 319-330


Cet article parcourt une ligne qui va du dix-huitième siècle au présent. On y soutiendra que l’un des caractères principaux des romans gothiques écrits par des auteurs féminins est l’accent qui y est placé sur la prise et la perte d’autonomie chez les femmes. On y observera la manière dont les auteurs féminins ont utilisé l’inquiétante étrangeté et l’abjection afin de soulever des problèmes concernant l’égalité des droits et d’interroger les constructions culturelles du corps de la femme et de ses désirs. Une attention particulière y sera portée aux fictions gothiques de la fin du vingtième siècle et du début du vingt-et-unième siècle écrites par des femmes. On en conclura cependant que nombre de romans gothiques à succès publiés récemment, lesquels sont principalement destinés à un public féminin (la série "Twilight" de Stephenie Meyer, par exemple), véhiculent un programme post-féministe et néo-conservateur. Ce programme est en adéquation avec les valeurs du corporatisme mondial. Il en résulte des fictions consolatrices plutôt que déstabilisantes, réactionnaires plutôt que provocatrices. Aussi les décrira-t-on le plus justement par le terme de ‘Chocolate-box Gothic’.

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1It is now generally acknowledged that, despite having plots and characters that might seem larger than life, Gothic fictions bear a fascinating and complex relation to material, cultural and political reality. In this essay I trace a trajectory from the eighteenth century to the present day, arguing that a key feature of Gothic novels by women is their focus on female empowerment and disempowerment.

2Gothic novels written by women during the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century—like those authored by male writers—frequently express fears, albeit often in displaced form, associated with the French Revolution, Catholicism and questions of nationhood. However, these early Gothic novels also reflect anxieties more obviously connected with women’s experience of disempowerment at this time. This is particularly evident in the work of Ann Radcliffe, whose most famous novels, The Mysteries of Udolopho (1794) and The Italian (1797) were best-sellers in their day. As in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first English Gothic novel, Radcliffe’s heroines are invariably persecuted by older men, or "men on the rampage" as Kate Ferguson Ellis has called them (Ellis 2000, 263-4). For male readers such as Sir Walter Scott, there was no doubt that Radcliffe’s skill in depicting landscape elevated her work above much of the Gothic fiction churned out in the 1790s. But for the woman reader, as the reactions of Jane Austen’s Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland reveal in Northanger Abbey (1818), it was the plots and characters of Radcliffe’s novels that provided the most terror and delight. The greatest anxiety for the woman reader was the Gothic heroine’s lack of agency; her plight evoked frissons of fear and her rescue tremors of joy and relief. Dependent on a chevalier or a good young nobleman to save her from danger, she is far from autonomous. And, of course, her reward in such a society is marriage to that same chevalier or nobleman.

  • 1 For more on Wollstonecraft’s novella as a Gothic work, see Diane Long Hoeveler (2004).

3Such happy endings should not obscure the fact that Gothic tropes in novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho articulate fears concerning the autonomy of contemporary women. Shaped by a feudal society, English law during Radcliffe’s time preserved the secondary status of women. Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-9) described the law as "an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry, but fitted up for a modern inhabitant" (Wright 135). At this time, as Angela Wright notes, "Women’s rights to property and legal representation remained suspended upon their marriage, and they were expected to consolidate and incorporate their "very being or legal existence" with their husband’s" (Wright 136). It is thus perhaps not surprising to find that Mary Wollstonecraft’s wronged heroine in her unfinished Gothic novella, The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798), claims that "Marriage had bastilled me for life" (Wright 136).1 Several critics have argued that Emily St. Aubert’s struggle to hold on to her inherited property is a key element of The Mysteries of Udolpho: indeed, Emma Clery suggests that the "civil death" required of women, by common law, on marriage is actualised in Mme. Montoni’s death in the novel (Clery 126). Clery also notes that in this and other Radcliffe novels:

married women, reduced to "ghosts" or the "living dead" by law, exist as supposed ghosts... The law itself engenders the supernatural; women arc the ghosts in its machine. (Clery 126)

4This is the Gothic heroine who is disadvantaged and disempowered by the workings of primogeniture and property law. Her dilemma is to be found in many popular Gothic novels of the time—for example, Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1796) and Clermont (1798), both of which deal with the usurpation of women’s property rights by men. While Jane Austen skilfully parodies such novels and their concerns in Northanger Abbey, she nevertheless provides enough dark patches in her novel to sustain a critique of power structures in late eighteenth-century society. General Tilney is, it seems, writing pamphlets on behalf of a repressive government and his brusque dismissal of Catherine from Northanger Abbey—once he discovers she is not as wealthy and well-born as he thought—comes close to Gothic cruelty. It also transpires that his heartless treatment of his wife hastened her decline. Catherine’s description of him in Chapter 23 as having "the air and attitude of a Montoni!" (Austen 190) is perhaps less fanciful than it would first appear.

5The work of Radcliffe, Regina Maria Roche and other women novelists bequeathed a powerful legacy to writers of Gothic fiction and it is not difficult to track the Gothic heroine as constrained and disempowered down the centuries. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864), for example, Maud is confined within Bertram-Haugh and in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) Laura is contained within Blackwater Park. For Kate Ferguson Ellis, writing in the late 1980s, such novels transform the Gothic castle into a house or home where ideological gender conflicts and disparities are acted out in displaced form (Ellis 1989). One of the most memorable "imprisoning" spaces of Gothic fiction is the nursery in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 tale entitled "The Yellow Wallpaper". Oilman’s nameless narrator is an intelligent married woman suffering from what we would now diagnose as postnatal depression. Infantilised and pathologised by her husband, who treats her as a child and diagnoses her as hysterical, this heroine’s changed perspective reveals in starkly Gothic terms the constraints enforced a patriarchal society that is becoming increasingly nervous about the demands of the "New Woman". We might complacently think that such Bluebeard-like strategies of containment have disappeared but Hilary Mantel’s autobiography, Giving up the Ghost, published in 2003, tells the tale of an intelligent young girl who gained a place at the London School of Economics to read law and whose continuing illness was diagnosed by a psychiatrist in the early 1970s as "stress, caused by over-ambition" (Mantel 169). It was only some years later that Mantel (awarded the Mann Booker prize in 2009 for her historical novel Wolf Hall) was properly diagnosed with endometriosis.

6In her novel The Magic Toyshop (1967) and her short story "The Bloody Chamber" (1979) Angela Carter reworked the Gothic Bluebeard tale in order to depict the vulnerability of young women but she also engaged—to some contemporary feminists’ alarm—with the possible sado-masochistic dynamic of heterosexual romance. What interested Carter was the heroine’s complicity with cultural values that threaten to subsume her. She also, however, provided closures that give her Gothic heroines a second chance; in a reworking of Jane Eyre, Aunt Margaret of The Magic Toyshop burns down the suburban London house within which she has been literally confined since her marriage and the Gothic heroine of "The Bloody Chamber" is lucky enough to have a mother who murders her murdering husband. For her second marriage partner—anticipating the advent of the 1980s "new man"—the young woman in "The Bloody Chamber" (another nameless narrator) chooses a blind piano tuner as her partner. A sensitive, musical and tender man, his blindness means that, quite literally, she cannot become an object of the male gaze. Many of Carter’s novels and stories feature heroines who transmute from victims into empowered women.

7In twentieth-century fiction, many Gothic heroines express desires that challenge traditional roles; they also embody, quite literally, the unruly and even the abject. Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), for example, gives us a tale of revenge in which the large and ugly Ruth Patched becomes a body in flux via plastic surgery, finally turning herself into a clone of her husband’s former lover—a highly successful, beautiful female author. It is, as the last words of the novel state, "A comic turn, turned serious" and it leaves readers puzzling over what really constitutes empowerment for a woman in the late twentieth century. What sort of power results from money, fame and beauty and what, if any, integrity is sacrificed through the collusions that they require? Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, published one year later in 1984, presents us with a freakish heroine who has wings and who, as Rebecca Munford notes, emerges out of previous literary creations such as Zola’s Nana and Miss Urania in J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours (Munford 2008, 120). She is, like de Sade’s Juliette in Carter’s The Sadeian Woman (1979), "a sexual (and textual) terrorist who takes on the position of vamp(ire) to ensure her own survival within the male Gothic fantasy spaces of the narrative" (Munford 2008, 123).

  • 2 For more on the Gothic and taboos surrounding menstruation, see Marie Mulvey-Roberts (1998) and Reb (...)

8Pierrette Fleutiaux’s Histoire de la chauve-souris, published in 1975, reworks the female vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, presenting us with a gothic heroine who, upon opening a window she has been warned not to open, finds that a bat has become entangled in her hair. The scene clearly reworks Lucy’s hallucinatory vision of a large bat beating its wings against a window in Stoker’s Dracula. But in Histoire, Rebecca Munford argues, the bat (with its various secretions) marks the arrival of the menarche, changing the status of the heroine irrevocably, instantly sexualising her and surrounding her with taboos in a way that recalls Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that "on the day she can produce, woman becomes impure; and rigorous taboos surround the menstruating female" (Munford 2008, 131).2 Whenever Fleutiaux’s heroine searches for a place in which she can tell her own story about the bat, "she is always returned to the Gothic castle as a codification of the structures/strictures of paternal law" (Munford 2008, 127). After various male characters attempt to pathologize her through their own professional discourses, the heroine finally claims her menstrual identity as the source of her narrative power and of her adulthood:

Je m’entends rire. Soudain ma fièvre me quitte. Mon attente tendue s’éparpille, l’évidement intérieur au bord duquel je me tenais figée dans une crampe douloureuse se rompt en poussière. Je me retrouve assise à plat, détendue. A nouveau je ris. Mon rire ne peut s’éteindre, les assistants me regardent d’un air courroucé mais mon rire les emporte tous. Eux aussi maintenant tressautent et s’agitent sur les bandes, et dans les rues où je m’éloigne je ris encore, rejetant avec chaque hoquet la sueur, la peur, la jalousie, la frénésie, je ris, je ris. (Fleutiaux 171)

9This is also the laughter of Cixous’s Medusa and of many female Gothic fictions that feature transgressive heroines, including Jeanette Winterson’s hideously entertaining seventeenth-century Dog-Woman in Sexing the Cherry (1988) (who transmutes in the modern world into an eco-warrior) and Carter’s Fevvers, whose laughter, at the end of Nights at the Circus, is described as beginning:

to twist and shudder across the entire globe, as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed, everywhere, was laughing. (Carter 295)

10It is clear, then, that Gothic texts featuring abject and/or vampiric bodies have been used very effectively by women writers to deconstruct cultural assumptions about the female body and female desire. When inflected by comedy, they are, to repeat Weldon’s words, comic turns, turned serious. They are serious because their heroines’ bodies arc abject in the Kristevan sense in that they "disturb identity, system, order", not respecting "borders, positions, rules". They are the "in-between, the ambiguous, the composite" and as such they challenge traditional boundaries and definitions of power and control (Kristeva 4). It is thus not surprising to find that the figure of the vampire is also frequently used by authors to explore same-sex desire.

11Le Fanu’s "Carmilla" (1871) can be read as an effective critique of contemporary notions of femininity and conventional desire, as can Coleridge’s poem "Christabel" (1797-1800). As Paulina Palmer has pointed out, more recent works, such as Jody Scott’s I, Vampire (1986) and Anna Livia’s Minimax (1991) continue that tradition by using the vampire as "an effective vehicle for affirming lesbian difference and exploring the transgressive dimension of lesbianism" (Palmer 124).

12However, these two types of Gothic heroines—the disempowered and the subversive—have not always been as polarised as this essay might seem to imply. An important amalgamation of the two was, of course, provided by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, published in 1847. In 1979, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert famously suggested that the novel is informed by a palimpsestic symbolic structure that dramatises Jane’s split psyche through the rage of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs. Rochester (born in the West Indies and reduced to madness by her incarceration in the attic of Thornfield), and the masochism of Helen Burns (a saintly victim and Jane’s childhood friend) who dies young. This representation of Jane as a conflicted self, Gilbert and Gubar argued, demonstrates the polarisation through which the Victorian ideal of femininity was culturally constructed. Their reading of Bronte’s famous novel influenced future readings of Gothic heroines; it became possible to read novels such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (1993) as studies of internal conflict and fragmentation—a common experience for women even after The Married Women’s Property Act was ratified in England in 1882, votes for women had been achieved in 1918 and various Equal Opportunities Acts passed during the twentieth century. This sense of a ‘split’ self, suggested many late twentieth-century century feminist theorists, arose from women’s experience of finding themselves constrained psychologically by cultural constructions of femininity, including the perpetuation of powerful myths and stereotypes, despite legal, economic and political advances—a more subtle form of disempowerment than that effected by the law or the Gothic tyrant.

  • 3 Written in 1937, Quand Prime le Spirituel was not published in France until 1979. It was published (...)

13Many women authors used the idea of ghostliness to express this sense of inner conflict and lack of agency. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) takes the unruly body of Bronte’s Bertha Mason and turns it back into that of the beautiful Antoinette Cosway before returning, finally, to the "ghost of a woman" (Rhys 153) who haunts Thornfield Hall, who has no looking glass and who does not know what she is doing there, or who she is. Born in Dominica and brought up in the West Indies, Rhys views the first Mrs Rochester through a postcolonial lens and sees her as repressed and rendered powerless not just by a husband but by a whole Empire and its cultural values. Simone de Beauvoir—not usually thought of as a Gothic writer—also used Gothic tropes in her sequence of short stories entitled Quand prime le spirituel,3 in order to explore the disempowering effects of bourgeois morality and religion on women. As Ursula Tidd has pointed out, "There is even an allusion in ‘Chantal’ (the second story) to Charlotte Perkins Oilman’s Gothic short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’..." (Tidd 56). Later, of course, Beauvoir was to explore more fully in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) the reasons why women are unable to function as fully transcendent subjects. Another philosopher novelist, Iris Murdoch, also used Gothic effects in her novel The Unicorn (1963), in order to explore how women make ghosts of themselves. Her heroine, the young and beautiful Hannah Crean-Smith, accepts the desires and romances that other characters project onto her and comes to collude with them. These finally render her insubstantial and she becomes "a figure so blurred and uncertain that it might have been a ghost" (Murdoch 244). Like Beauvoir, Murdoch here highlights the danger to women of internalising idealised and mythical constructions of woman. That way lies loss of agency and power.

14During the 1980s, at a time when second-wave feminism was beginning to come under attack, Margaret Atwood used the figure of the Gothic heroine as victim to express the fear that the rising tide of conservative values might result in a period of social regression in which the gains of Second Wave Feminism would be lost. The fate of Offred in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 Gothic dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, illustrates alarmingly how women might lose power within a fundamentalist society. Atwood has stated in interview that her inspiration for the novel came from her interest in the American Puritans, her anxiety at the rise of the Christian Right in the United States, and her concern about the fanaticism of the emerging Iranian government. Three years later, in 1988, Hilary Mantel published Eight Months on Gazzah Street, a novel which reflects clear anxieties concerning the way in which the Islamic faith can be used to constrain women’s lives. Her heroine, a professional cartographer, finds herself unable to work during her stay in Saudi Arabia. Living in a block of flats in which sinister events take place, she feels her identity slipping away: "My face is black, deeply shadowed, with empty eyes and a pale ragged aureole encircles my head. I have become a negative of myself" (Mantel 299). These two Gothic fictions, written over twenty years ago, warn how the growth of fundamentalism—whether Christian or Islamic—might result in the disempowerment of women.

15In such a world it would seem that feminism is an unfinished project. Yet on 29th June 1998 Time magazine famously declared feminism to be dead, its cover featuring against a plain black background the Medusa-like severed heads of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Ally McBeal. Women, it seemed, were no longer suffering from lack of equality in the workplace or the home. We were now all postfeminists—or, at least. Third Wave Feminists. Rejecting what it sees as the stridency of Second Wave Feminism, Third Wave Feminism steadfastly refuses definitions and, instead, embraces plurality, diversity and individual choice for women as its agenda. The downside of this, as Kristyn Gorton has pointed out, is that "the personal apparently has triumphed over the political" (Gorton 213) and we see what Jane Spencer describes as "proliferation of identities (rather) than a deconstruction of identity itself" (Spencer 298). As Munford suggests, we seem to have embraced a politics—at least in the West—that construes "women as consumers, for whom feminism is reduced from a political movement to a certain style that can be bought" (Munford 2007, 274). This translation of autonomy into consumerist self-styling has coincided, Diane Negra claims, with a return to neoconservative traditional values in the USA and parts of Europe in which marriage, home-making and becoming a mother arc glorified and sentimentalised. Whereas many Third Wave Feminists celebrate this "retreatism" from the workplace and from politics as an individual choice, Negra sees it as resulting from globalisation and corporate practice:

It is... likely that patriarchal culture exhibits a greater need to fantasize homebound women as global capital becomes ever more peripatetic. Redomesticated women are matched in current popular culture with a set of images of globally itinerant, transnational men. These images range in their emotional tone from an emphasis on the exhilarations of the new global economy to a stress on the need of such diligent road warriors for emotional succor at home... For Jeffords the "new global man" transcends local, regional and national affiliations. By contrast, women are regularly exhorted to re-secure local, communal, regional and in some cases even national meanings through their rejection of global cosmopolitanism. (Negra 16)

16If Negra is right, then it is not surprising that heterosexual romance narratives proliferated during the 1990s and 2000s, especially in popular culture. One aspect of this is the emergence of novels best described as "Chocolate-box" Gothic. Such novels, targeted at women readers, illustrate very clearly the contradictions and tensions within Third Wave Feminism itself. Take, for example, Diane Setterfield’s 2006 best-seller, The Thirteenth Tale. Clearly drawing on Jane Eyre, Rebecca and The Woman in White, this novel offers the reader a complex framed narrative in which a famous writer relates the events of her life in a rather misleading manner to a young female biographer. It is a self-conscious novel that both draws on the craft of creating mystery while foregrounding its fictional status. The novelist’s name is Vida Winter (an echo of du Maurier’s Rebecca perhaps, in which the nameless narrator becomes the second "Mrs de Winter") and the young biographer’s excavations into the Angelfield family prove unsettling in more ways than one. In spite of its playful evocation of other texts, however, this novel does not display other characteristics of postmodern fiction and insists on complete closure, including the reward of a doctor husband for the biographer. Kate Morton’s hugely popular The Forgotten Garden, published in 2008, similarly situates itself in relation to a tradition of reading which includes Jane Eyre, Jamaica Inn and The Secret Garden. Once again, the focus is a woman writer and the plot concerns the secrets of three generations in one family. The Gothic heroine, born and raised in Australia, finds herself travelling to Cornwall in order to uncover the real identity of her grandmother who had been packed off in 1913, alone and only four years old, on a ship bound for Australia. In discovering her grandmother’s true identity, the heroine discovers her "authentic" self. She is also rewarded by "true love" at the novel’s end. Featuring independent female characters, both novels nevertheless embrace neoconservative values in their recuperation of the heroine’s energy into heterosexual love and marriage.

17Finally, let us consider the phenomenon of Stephenie Meyer’s "Twilight" series, the first of which was published in 2005. In Twilight, a high school romance crossed with vampire fiction, the seventeen-year-old heroine, Bella Swan, falls in love with Edward, a stunningly good looking vampire with a luminescent complexion. He is from the Cullen family, a group of "good" vampires, who have renounced human flesh and who live off the blood of animals—vegetarian vampires of sorts. The Cullens are extraordinarily glamorous: they live in a state of the art house, wear designer clothes and drive Mercedes cars. They represent, in short, all that an adolescent girl might find enticing and glamorous. Different, dangerous and seductive, Edward Cullen is every adolescent girl’s dream—especially if that girl is rather ordinary, addicted to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and prone to accident, as is Bella Swan. Edward Cullen is Heathcliff reborn in vampire-leopard form (he can run supernaturally fast). The three subsequent novels see Bella involved with Jacob Black, a were-wolf, but finally (after several battles with other vampire groups) marrying Edward and producing (albeit very painfully) a daughter who is half-human and half-vampire. Bella becomes defined by her relationship with Edward, abandoning career plans, other interests and female friends. There are several reasons why these novels have become required reading for teenage girls. These include Meyer’s use of the vampire to communicate effectively the sudden and dangerous strangeness of the opposite sex as experienced by young heterosexual adolescents; an emphasis on the importance of choice for young women; and a penchant for designer glamour. However, Bella’s reasons for wishing to be transformed into a vampire herself include not only the desire to be with Edward for ever but a terrible fear of ageing: her worst nightmare, described in the opening pages of New Moon, published in 2006, is that she might see "some sign of impending wrinkles in my ivory skin" (Meyer 2006, 7). As Diane Negra has commented: "Postfeminism thrives on anxiety about ageing and redistributes this anxiety among a variety of generational clusters while also always extending the promise/possibility of age evasion" (Negra 12). Meyer’s vampire novels (the third novel in the series, Eclipse, draws even more strongly on Wuthering Heights) had sold "more than 85 million copies worldwide" by November 2009 (The Guardian 14.11.2009), including over 25 million in France, where it has apparently sparked a fresh craze for Emily Brontë’s novel.

18These Gothic fictions, like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), recuperate an independent heroine into a traditional role and affirm heterosexual romance as her goal in life. They also seem to reflect a broader cultural indifference to ideological manipulation whilst simultaneously celebrating "girl power". But is "girl power"—so easily commodified—real power? Moreover, consumerism and style-identity (for those who can afford it) can deflect analyses of corporate power and its consequences. Accordingly, "Chocolate-box" Gothic is consoling, rather than frightening or challenging. However, women need challenging fictions because we still live in a world in of contradictions and inequalities. For example, in England we famously had our first woman prime minister in Margaret Thatcher and now have a good number of women in the law, education, politics and the city; yet the Fawcett Society report, entitled "Sexism and the City", published in April 2008, revealed that two-thirds of low-paid workers in England are women and that women working fulltime are paid on average 17 per cent less than men (

19Such contradictions are reflected in the tensions between current analyses of women in relation to power. Sylvia Walby, for example, argues that most feminist activity has become absorbed within issues of equal rights. According to this line of argument, feminism has metamorphosed into gender mainstreaming, a strategy more compatible with new forms of liberal democracy and global citizenship (Walby 2002 and 2005). The EU, for example, has "adopted gender mainstreaming as an official policy in line with its ‘strategic engagement with globalisation’" (McRobbie 153). For Walby, the dismantling of active feminism is a measure of its own success. Angela McRobbie, however, strongly disagrees with such optimism, claiming that young women today frequently mistake "aggressive individualism... hedonistic female phallicism in the field of sexuality, and (an) obsession with consumer culture" for political freedom (McRobbie 5). Such "faux feminism", as she calls it, has led to the disturbing spectacle of "pole-dancing being promoted as yet another form of women’s empowerment" (McRobbie 3). Furthermore, she is deeply suspicious of "gender mainstreaming", seeing it a strategy that has some equalising potential but that keeps intact notions of feminine and masculine capacities—which then can be easily deployed within a capitalised global economy. For McRobbie, "Gender mainstreaming in the UK is... a technocratic-managerial strategy" (McRobbie 155) that has helped to undo feminism but which has not corrected imbalances of power. In her book Transpositions, published in 2006, Rose Braidotti expresses similar reservations:

gender mainstreaming turned out to be an anti-feminist mechanism that increased differences in status, access and entitlement among women. Post-feminist neo-liberalism is pro-capitalist and hence it considers financial success in the world as the sole indicator of status of women... social democratic principles of solidarity are misconstrued as old-fashioned welfare support, and dismissed accordingly... The pernicious part of this syndrome is that it fosters a new sense of isolation among women and hence new forms of vulnerability. (McRobbie 159, citing Braidotti 45)

20Braidotti, however, goes on to argue for a Deleuzian strategy for becoming woman, rooted not in party politics or movements but which is instead "roaming, nomadic and rhizomatic" (Mc Robbie 163). As McRobbie points out, however, such optimism does not take sufficient account of the rise of the "new right" in politics, institutions and large corporations.

21Such tensions and conflicts are healthy. Intellectual disagreements about what constitutes power and freedom for women are crucial, for they keep us alert to the workings of ideology, reminding us that gender is not the simple matter that those in charge of the media, large corporations and government policies would sometimes have us believe. They remind us, too, that women are often disempowered by the very societies that assure them of their value and of their equality with men. That issue has frequently been the focus of Gothic novels by women in which the uncanny and the abject have been used to address questions of power, conflict and disempowerment. We need to remain sceptical, however, about current "Chocolate-box" Gothic novels that carry a subtext celebrating traditional female roles at the expense of powers and freedoms won only relatively recently in the history of women.

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1 For more on Wollstonecraft’s novella as a Gothic work, see Diane Long Hoeveler (2004).

2 For more on the Gothic and taboos surrounding menstruation, see Marie Mulvey-Roberts (1998) and Rebecca Munford (2005).

3 Written in 1937, Quand Prime le Spirituel was not published in France until 1979. It was published in English in 1983 under the title When Things of the Spirit Come First.

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Bibliographical reference

Avril Horner, Women, Power and Conflict: The Gothic heroine and "Chocolate-box Gothic"Caliban, 27 | 2010, 319-330.

Electronic reference

Avril Horner, Women, Power and Conflict: The Gothic heroine and "Chocolate-box Gothic"Caliban [Online], 27 | 2010, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 07 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Avril Horner

Kingston University, London

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