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Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës

Monday, May 17, 1999 - 12:15
Diane Long Hoeveler, Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. 250 pages. $40.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-271-01809-7).

Reviewed by
Deborah Kennedy
Saint Mary's University, Halifax

Dand to criticism in the field. Concentrating on gothic novels written by women, Hoeveler traces patterns within the genre, ranging from the work of Charlotte Smith in the late eighteenth century to that of the Brontës in the nineteenth century, with two chapters on Ann Radcliffe forming the core of the book. Hoeveler's phrase "gothic feminism" might sound like an oxymoron, but she uses it to define the way that women writers created fictional worlds which in some way addressed the problem of their physical and social vulnerability. For Hoeveler, gender and the body become the overriding concerns of these texts. While one may not always agree with her attempt to find one key to unlock all of these novels, Hoeveler is a gifted literary critic. Her work is informed by recent theory, and she conscientiously cites a whole range of articles and books on gothic literature. But Hoeveler always keeps the novels themselves at the center of her discussion. One can see why she was first "entranced" by Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (xvii), and her detailed and engaging commentary makes one want to read these novels again.

The book begins with an analysis of Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, showing how its plot will be mirrored in so many subsequent works that follow the virtuous young heroine as she negotiates the dangers of the patriarchal world. Although Hoeveler attempts to rescue Smith's novel from neglect, this is perhaps the least interesting section of her book. The fault is not with Emmeline: its wonderful characters—Mrs. Stafford, Godolphin, and Emmeline herself—simply deserve a more detailed treatment than they receive here.

Things immediately improve, however, with the following two chapters on Ann Radcliffe. Hoeveler presents readers with an analysis of four major works in the gothic literary tradition: A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian. All the remote castles, labyrinths, daggers, and family secrets are subjected to an analysis that demonstrates how the supposedly weak heroine triumphs at the end of each novel. Radcliffe's books were often adapted for the stage, occasionally as operas, and Hoeveler notes that "female gothic novels themselves appear to be set to music" (85), so strongly is their atmosphere rendered. Hoeveler's knowledge of the texts, her command of earlier criticism, and her keen observations make these chapters a valuable contribution to the study of Radcliffe.

The next chapter brings together three works: Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya, and Mary Shelley's Mathilda. Northanger Abbey "was written in large part to exorcise the gothic compulsion from the late eighteenth-century literary landscape" (143), and the happy ending provided for its heroine seems worlds away from the doom facing the characters in Dacre's novel and Shelley's novel. Hoeveler presents a very useful summary of the former. Those who have read Zofloya might be inclined to agree with a reviewer who remarked in 1806 that "the greatest number of the characters are so depraved as to excite no other sentiment but disgust" (quoted in Zofloya, ed. Adriana Craciun [Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997], 261). The main character, Victoria, described by Hoeveler as a "flamboyantly evil daughter" (144), is in league with the devil, who is disguised as a black servant named Zofloya. Victoria cannot be mistaken for anyone's role model: she is a female version of the licentious male villains in the story, and she fits into Hoeveler's pattern as a "demonic" "antiheroine" (123), who contrasts the good heroines of the other novels.

While Victoria literally embraces evil, the title character in Mary Shelley's Mathilda attempts to flee from it. Despite her own virtue, she feels polluted from having been the object of another's evil desires. Hoeveler's prevailing argument that "gothic feminism seeks to escape the female body" is perhaps best illustrated in the flight and death-wish of Mathilda (182). Hoeveler proposes that a different option can be seen in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, where the world is made "safe" for a new generation of women (197). The violent Heathcliff is replaced by a more acceptable male hero, just as Rochester is "tamed" in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, a book aptly described as today's "canonical female gothic text" (203). Sometimes Hoeveler strays off the mark, however, when she tries to force one of the novels into a reductive interpretation that distorts the plot. This happens, for example, when she claims that Jane Eyre "set her sights on Rochester and disposed of and replaced his inconvenient mad wife at the same time" (203). Gothic Feminism is disappointing at just those places where Hoeveler overstates her case.

The study concludes with a chapter on Charlotte Brontë's voyeuristic Villette, a work whose gothic elements have often been remarked upon. Lucy Snowe emerges out of a world of enclosures, haunted by a spectral nun, into a position foreshadowing that of the New Woman. Her fiancé, M. Paul, is a passionate and sensitive man who understands Lucy's need for independence: "he presents Lucy with her own school, an ideal embodiment of both love and work that represents the goal she struggled toward" (239). Hoeveler regards the tragic death of M. Paul as necessary to set Lucy free from "the most gothic of nightmares, the female body" (241). She echoes Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who noted that it is only in the absence of M. Paul that Lucy Snowe can fully "exercise her own powers" (The Madwoman in the Attic [New Haven: Yale University Press], 1979, 438). Yet Gilbert and Gubar also offered other interpretations, while Hoeveler regards the ending of Villette as a privileging of self-sufficiency over marriage (241). In effect, Hoeveler sees all of these novels as a version of the mind-body conflict, in which the texts reveal the problem of pursuing a life of the mind in a world where women are defined by their bodies. Whatever the limitations of this argument, in the course of making it, Hoeveler provides compelling readings of eleven important gothic novels by women.