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E. J. Clery, Women’s Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley

Monday, April 19, 2004 - 06:33
E. J. Clery, Women's Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley. Devon, U.K.: Northcote House, 2000 viii + 168 pp.  $21.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-7463-0872-8).

Reviewed by
Harriet Kramer Linkin
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces

The explosion of interest in Gothic literature during the past twenty-five years has resulted in a tremendous group of books, especially among scholars working on women's Gothic literature or the female Gothic (notably Bette Roberts's 1980 The Gothic Romance, Julian Fleenor's 1983 collection The Female Gothic, Kate Ferguson Ellis's 1989 The Contested Castle, Eugenia DeLamotte's 1990 Perils of the Night, Michelle Massé's 1992 In the Name of Love, Terry Castle's 1995 The Female Thermometer, Anne Williams's 1995 Art of Darkness, and Diane Hoeveler's 1998 Gothic Feminism). Emma Clery's Women's Gothic makes a rich contribution to the field that is both distinctive and innovative in looking exclusively at women's Gothic literature to argue against the simplicity of a separatist tradition that differentiates the male Gothic from the female Gothic. Rather than read women's Gothic works as "parables of patriarchy involving the heroine's danger from wicked father figures, and her search for the absent mother," the classic approach that positions the "'Female Gothic'" within the "notion of a distinctive women's tradition" (as Ellen Moers usefully defined "Female Gothic" in her 1977 opus Literary Women), Clery productively turns the issue of valuation upside down to ask "what happens if we lay aside our assumptions about women's writing and look again at women's Gothic? What we find there suggests the need for another story: wild passions, the sublime, supernatural phenomena, violent conflict, murder and torture, sexual excess and perversion, outlandish settings, strange minglings of history and fantasy" (2). That is the story Clery seeks to tell in Women's Gothic as she offers lucid, concise, and finely researched overviews of the works of Clara Reeve, Sophia Lee, Ann Radcliffe, Joanna Baillie, Charlotte Dacre, and Mary Shelley for Isobel Armstrong's "Writers and Their Work" series (which currently includes over one hundred brief studies of authors and literary movements).

For Clery, "Gothic literature sees women writers at their most pushy and argumentative" as they turn to a new field of literary endeavor with "excitement, audacity and opportunism," and she wonders "what gave women the confidence to experiment, attempt large effects, fly in the face of critical opinion, openly rival and emulate the achievements of their male peers?" (11). For the what she turns to a who, following Ann Radcliffe's lead in "On the Supernatural in Poetry" (written in 1802, published in 1826) to focus on the figure of the great tragic actress Sarah Siddons, whose most famous role as Lady Macbeth enacted a figure of possibility to women writers because she presented Lady Macbeth "as a woman of imagination as well as passion" (11). Siddons invoked infernal spirits to possess her body just as poets asked to be "possessed by divine spirits" (12) when she proclaimed Lady MacBeth's infamous lines: "Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" (Macbeth 1.5.39-40). Thus in Clery's formulation "a link was made between objects of fear or terror--natural and supernatural--and high literary ambition" (12). Furthermore, Siddons broke through the culturally problematized expression of passion in women by combining her ability to play the passions with her interest in money: in other words, she could safely represent the passions--even frenzy and madness--because audiences were safe in their knowledge of her ruling passion: the love of lucre. As Clery puts it, "the violent and irrational passions she manifested were offset--in the public's eyes--by another, countervailing passion: the love of gain" (19).

Against critical expectations that a woman out to express the passions and make money might be doubly damned, Clery persuasively argues that "Siddons was a test-case for women wishing to traffic in the passions, and earn lots of money in the process. She showed that, in spite of the fact that neither a flair for representing sublime emotion nor sharp business-sense were considered feminine attributes, taken together they could result in a respectable vocation" (21-23). Here she notes as well that some of the initial shock that accompanied reception of Gothic literature by Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis was the awareness that as men of rank and privilege they did not need to write for money, inviting readers to wonder what other motives underwrote their portrayal of sensational scenes and unbridled lust. The women writers who indicated their pecuniary interest (through appeals to patrons or dedications) were thereby more acceptable through their apparent professionalism (23).

In the four chapters that follow the introduction, Clery packs an impressive amount of analysis into 120 pages of such beautifully written and crisp prose that the clarity of presentation belies the density of information offered in her readings, which explore a cohesive set of concerns: how women writers legitimate their claim to visionary imagination, genius, and the sublime; how they represent the passions; how they seek to arouse the passions of their readers; and how they pursue or present the profit motive. Chapter one looks first at Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron as particularly interesting in considering what provides pleasure to the reader and what Reeve seeks to accomplish as she stirs up affective response from her readers, but always within carefully modulated narrative framings that contain or distance violence so as to mitigate the passions. Clery then contrasts Reeve's "kid gloves" approach to the sublime with the "almost continuously histrionic" register of Sophia Lee's The Recess (37), where the passions cannot be contained by any carefully didactic framework. While it is not quite clear what Clery wants her readers to get from her analysis of The Recess beyond the expressive excess Lee conveys, what the chapter accomplishes in its exploration of these early Gothic works by women writers is to establish two polar approaches to the expression of passion: passion safely contained within a didactic framework or passion unrestrained.

Chapter two on Ann Radcliffe offers compelling attention to Radcliffe's use of epigraphs to situate herself within the then emerging canon of the sublime. In terms of situating Radcliffe within the dynamic of passion contained or unrestrained, Clery likens Radcliffe to Reeve versus Lee through her habitual narrative encrypting of the unleashing of uncontrolled passion within the past: the uncontrolled passions unleashed in a past crime that is righted through reason in the narrative present. Most intriguing in the analysis of Radcliffe is her presentation of the heroine as original genius, thus foregrounding herself as a producer of original genius among all those heroines who so self-reflexively respond to the sublime with lyric poetry (at least in A Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, and The Mysteries of Udolpho).

Chapter three begins with Joanna Baillie to argue that Baillie inverts "Reeve and Radcliffe's technique of encrypting homicidal passion in the distant past" by refusing to "buffer the tortured scenes she represents," presenting the drama of the passions as mental theater or "the externalized spectacle of inner passions" (89), with attention, here, to De Montfort and Orra. The chapter turns from Baillie to Charlotte Dacre without much explanation, but eventually indicates, in discussion of Zofloya, how Dacre further's Baillie's work on the passions via her decidedly unconventional protagonist Victoria, whose extreme passions, Clery rightly asserts, "are unlike anything else in women's Gothic writing of the period" (110).

In the fourth and final chapter Clery turns to Mary Shelley, and takes a refreshing tack as she invites readers to consider that Shelley not only contends with the legacy of her parents (and the emerging legacies of her companions) but struggles to say something original in the face of a well-developed Gothic tradition. For Clery, Shelley takes Dacre's depiction of Victoria as a moral monster one step further in Frankenstein by representing "a 'real' monster," Victor's creation of a non-human, as the actualization of criminal desire (128), and thus expands the parameters of women's Gothic literature. Similarly, Clery reads Matilda as a Gothic tale which Shelley overtly situates within the Gothic tradition that celebrates women's originality rather than as a psychological curiosity that positions Matilda as a victim of incest: instead the emphasis is on Matilda's "will and control, her conscious management of the situation" (141) and ultimately her authorial control.

Throughout Women's Gothic Clery provides excellent biographical data on each author as well as helpful attention to relevant historical conditions and contemporary theoretical positions. There is a fair amount of plot summary, likely necessitated by the aims of the series and the knowledge that some of these Gothic works by women writers are better known than others (Clery ends the introduction by realistically stating that "the best result of a book of this kind would be to help create a market for early women's writing through 'critical mass,' and keep these enjoyable and historically important texts alive and circulating," 24). One wishes there had been more room to provide a rationale for selecting the authors covered in the study; more opportunity to provide connections between the authors selected or transitions from one author to the next; and a place to present a conclusion after the four chapters focused on the authors. That said, Emma Clery's Women's Gothic provides numerous insights for scholars as well as students, and makes for excellent reading.