Women have been pivotal influencers of the gothic genre from the very beginning. At a time when women’s opinions were largely dismissed and many doors were barred to them in other literary pursuits, writing Gothic novels was one of the few ways in which women could become prolific and popular writers. One reason for this was that the original Gothic genre was closely associated with women, as women made up the majority of its readers. Gothic novels were often regarded much like “chick lit” is today—as sentimental fluff good for entertaining women’s simple minds but completely lacking in literary value. Despite being devalued by critics (and by the members of the general public not yet under the genre’s sway), the works of these female authors have had a profound influence on our perception of the gothic today. Let’s take a moment to celebrate some of these awesome queens of terror!
1) Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)
Ann Radcliffe is the definitive queen of the genre, as I mentioned in an earlier post on the roots of Gothic literature. One of the earliest and most prolific writers of Gothic novels, she is most famous for The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest. Little is known about Radcliffe’s life, but the six novels she published have had a tremendous influence on the formation of the Gothic genre.
2) Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
You’ve all heard of Frankenstein, and hopefully many of you have read it in school, if not for fun. But did you know that Mary Shelley wrote it when she was only 21 while vacationing with her friends near Lake Geneva in Switzerland? I don’t know about you, but my Spring Breaks were never that productive. Shelley initially conceived of her novel during a ghost story contest instigated by Lord Byron. (The only other published story to come out of that evening was John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” which has since found its place in the vampire literary canon). Her writing prowess and philosophical depth came as no surprise, since Shelley was the daughter of a famous feminist, Mary Wollsonecraft, well known in her time as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Shelley wrote a number of other novels after Frankenstein, many of them with gothic elements, but none reached nearly the level of fame as her first.
3) Charlotte Brontë (1816-1865)
The eldest of the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte is the author of Jane Eyre which blended elements of the Gothic with a more realistic style that was coming into fashion. While the novel maintains tropes such as gothic manors and family secrets, in addition to popularizing the trope of the madwoman in the attic, it also provides rational explanations for the things which initially terrify and focuses more on the interior action of Jane’s mind than on exterior elements of the supernatural. In fact, Jane Eyre has come to be lauded as one of the pioneer works of internalized action that has profoundly influenced modern literature. Like her sisters, Charlotte Brontë wrote under a pseudonym (Currer Bell) that left her gender ambiguous. Charlotte outlived each of her younger siblings but died at the young age of thirty-eight while pregnant with her first child.
4) Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989)
This British author and playwright wrote a number of celebrated works, perhaps most popular of which are her novel Rebecca and her short story “The Birds,” each made into a popular film by the father of cinematic horror, Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca is a Gothic novel which follows the story of an anonymous narrator haunted by her new husband’s late wife. The novel is best known for the character of the creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and for the gothic estate evoked in its opening line:
“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderly again.”
In writing Rebecca, du Maurier was strongly influenced by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
“The Birds” is a classic horror story in which a town finds itself under attack by mysteriously aggressive birds who swarm and peck many of the townspeople to death. The story plays with the gothic trope of animals behaving erratically in response to the supernatural. While critics’ responses to du Maurier were mixed, among her fans was Queen Elizabeth II who honored her with the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to the arts.
5) Anne Rice (1941-)
And last but not least, we have Anne Rice, whose literary repertoire includes everything from the gothic to Christian literature to erotica. Of course, Rice’s main claim to fame is her famous series, The Vampire Chronicles. As I mentioned in my post on the vampire canon, Rice’s novels led the transition of vampire stories from the classic Gothic and horror into the more romanticized versions we see in many young adult paranormal romances today. Beginning with Interview with a Vampire, these books give first person accounts of the lives of a handful of vampires serving as sympathetic anti-heroes. Lestat, Louis, Claudia, and others struggle with the morality of their existence, the difficulty of forming interpersonal relationships, and the struggle to find meaning in an immortal life. Throughout her career, Rice as undergone a number of philosophical shifts which are reflected in her writings. She returned to the limelight recently with her publication of Prince Lestat just last year—an unexpected addition to The Vampire Chronicles, and apparently not the last. The reign of this queen of vampires is not yet over.
Have you read any of the works of these ground-breaking women? Got suggestions for others fabulous females to add to this hall of literary fame? Share your thoughts in the comments!