The Female Gothic: New Directions

June 3, 2010

An uncanny sense of critical recuperation filled my thoughts as I scanned the contents page and digested the introduction of this edited volume. Here, once again, Ellen Moers' concept of the "female Gothic" - explored fleetingly in her 1976 text Literary Women: The Great Writers - was being dug up and interrogated. As the editor of a collection of essays on postfeminist Gothic - which drove more nails into the coffin of the female Gothic - I was both fascinated and slightly perplexed by the publication.

What more could be made of Moers' seemingly all too simple definition of the female Gothic as "the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called Gothic"? How might we critically renovate the concept - with its strong associations with second-wave feminism - in the light of third-wave and postfeminist approaches? In short, what are the new directions this collection promises? With these questions in mind, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the essays in this volume show that there is still life left in Moers' term.

Two essays stand out: Anya Heise-von der Lippe's reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Love (2003), and Kirsti Bohata's exploration of the under-researched area of Welsh female Gothic. Heise-von der Lippe's essay provides a compelling analysis of Morrison's texts, revealing how the female African-American identities represented in her work find common ground in the configuration of the female Gothic. Her analysis of Love as a Gothic text is insightful, suggesting that the perennial themes of female economic ownership and agency that are associated with the female Gothic are "remembered" through the mysterious narrative voice of "L" and the Gothic villain Bill Cosey. The detailed examination of Cosey as the voiceless patriarchal threat within the text and the recovery of his spectral body "by assembling the different roles he performed in his life" is representative of the rewarding critical work done within this essay.

Bohata's contribution, "'Unhomely moments': Reading and writing nation in Welsh female Gothic" is also of note. The ghostly presence of the Welsh language and the "linguistic fracture" explored in the Welsh female Gothic form of Hilda Vaughan's The Soldier and the Gentlewoman (1932) and Mary Jones' Resistance reveal intriguing responses to cultural crisis. Within this context, Bohata's reading of Jones' novel - published just after the failed 1979 referendum - offers a persuasive account of the cancer at the heart of the text as a Gothic metaphor that eats away at the Welsh language and culture. Here, the critical lens of the female Gothic is used to expose the double dispossession of the Welsh women represented in the text as they respond to a phallocentric society under threat.

While I do not necessarily concur with Wallace and Smith's contention that the fluidity of the female Gothic as a category allows it to be responsive and resistant to newer critical concepts such as lesbian Gothic and postfeminist Gothic, the above essays demonstrate that good work can still be done in this area. My own fears about the ghosts of essentialism that the female Gothic invokes - combined with the way that Gothic criticism continues to respond to the changing face of feminism - remain nonetheless, but the contribution this collection makes to the interrogation of Moers' concept is scholarly and significant. In short, the debate rumbles on.

The Female Gothic: New Directions

Edited by Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith. Palgrave Macmillan, 240pp, £50.00. ISBN 97802302217. Published 12 November 2009

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