chapter  19
9 Pages

GOTHIC FEMININITIES

ByAlison Milbank

As soon as the features of what we now call Gothic fiction began to be recognised as comprising a new genre in the 1790s, their feminine qualities were emphasised. The two most effective parodies of the new mode, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) and Eaton Barrett’s The Heroine; or, Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader (1813), reveal the centrality of the persecuted maiden, who is pursued by a rapacious tyrant or imprisoned in a mouldering castle or monastery, where she uncovers the secrets of the past before escaping to freedom and recognition as the true heir. The potency of this female protagonist is such that not even her most satirical presentation is safe from Gothic incursion, so that Catherine Morland’s comic fantasies of General Tilney’s murderous propensities are eventually justified when he behaves like a fictional tyrant in throwing her out of Northanger Abbey. Similarly, although Barrett’s Cherry Wilkinson, or ‘Cherubina’ as she calls herself, causes universal havoc by her attempts to interpret the world as a Gothic novel, having her innocent father immured as a lunatic, she does actually end up imprisoned in a libertine’s mansion, like Adeline in Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest (1791), and escapes by means of a revolving fireplace and a passing ghoul. Gothic heroines always cause the downfall of the patriarchal figures or institutions that seek to entrap them, and their fears are never merely imagined.