Gothic heroines and villain-heroes…


In her essay on Gothic heroines, Kate Ferguson Ellis writes:

From its beginnings in the late eighteenth century, the Gothic genre, as seen by critics, has enjoyed a complicated relationship with women. Its feminist defenders have argued that it was practically created by women writers, who took Walpole’s one attempt to move the novel away from ‘a strict adherence to common life’ and fashioned a series of conventions that have served ever since to explore the concerns of a growing body of women readers. From this perspective, the earliest male Gothicists undertook to wrest the form from the female hands in which they saw it too firmly grasped.
But other defenders of the genre have disagreed. In 1969 David Hume argued that the defining feature of the genre was not a persecuted heroine fleeing, or trapped inside, a decaying castle, these features being simply ‘the sentimental fiction of the day fitted with outlandish trappings, but rather ‘a complex villain-hero’. The genre, thus defined, ‘offers no conclusions’, he said, but leads instead ‘into a tangle of moral ambiguity for which no meaningful answers can be found’ (Hume, 1969, 283, 287, 288). Certainly a genre that privileges moral ambiguity would fare well among critics in ways that the heroine-centred Gothic, whose ‘trappings’ invariably include the happy ending required by its marriage plot, cannot so readily achieve.
The problem, from the eighteenth century until now, is the word ‘romance’, a literary term whose meaning has changed over time but which always seems to be devalued by being paired with a more serious genre. ‘To the victors belong the epic, with its linear teleology’, David Quint has observed. ‘[To] the losers belongs the romance, with its randomly circular wanderings.’ Yet the epic, which memorialises the triumph of absolute power wielded by a heroic leader, is disappearing just as the novel is coming into being. ‘At a time when European monarchies were acquiring power in unprecedented concentrations, the epic poems that should have celebrated that power failed artistically’ (Quint, 1993, 9).” (p.257)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Kate Ferguson Ellis ‘Can you forgive her? The Gothic Heroine and her critics’ pp.257-268 Ed. David Punter (2001) A Companion to the Gothic. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, UK; Malden, Massachusetts.

Reference is to: Hume, Robert (1969). ‘Gothic versus romantic: a revaluation of the Gothic novel’. PMLA 84 (March), 282-90
Quint, David (1993), Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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