British Gothic fiction emerged before the Victorian Era but was still extremely popular during the time. Themes that were popular in Gothic fiction were being interwoven into other types of stories during the time period. The Victorians may have been a little repressed, but they could still appreciate a good ghost story, as can I. Gothic fiction is one of my favorite genres, and some seriously good Gothic work came from those Victorians. In all honesty, my personal favorite Gothic novels are from the Victorian Era. Gothic fiction was also popular among female Victorian writers, perhaps as a way of representing their anxieties about the male-dominated society that they lived in through fiction. It’s not uncommon for female characters to have a little more agency in Gothic works, or for them to be seen as more curious than in other works of the time. After all, women are more likely to appear as ghosts haunting the daylights out of people for wronging them. However, women in Gothic fiction were also often seen as being punished for not following societal rules. This could have been a way for Victorian women to show others the importance of following along with what society wants of you, so that you can survive.
Two early, and extremely popular, Gothic novels of the Victorian Era are by two of the Bronte sisters. I, of course, mean Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. In my personal opinion, Wuthering Heights is more of a Gothic story, though both have aspects of the genre. Charlotte’s novel has the mysterious ancestral home, the mad woman, the gloomy setting. Emily’s novel has the gloomy setting (I dream of going to the English moors one day and screaming “Cathy!” across them), the mad characters, the ghostly haunting. Charlotte’s story ends happily, with a marriage. On the other hand, Emily’s story ends terribly for almost everyone involved. Catherine and Heathcliff are often seen as one of literatures most tragic love affairs. Depending on how you read the novel, it can seem either as if Catherine is being punished for falling in love with the dark foreigner, or perhaps for not being true enough to herself to stand by the dark foreigner. If you are new to Gothic fiction, I recommend starting with these two. They’re classics for a reason. There is also a third Bronte sister, Anne, though I have shamefully gotten around to her works yet.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story seems to me to be heavily Bronte-inspired. It’s got the ancestral home, the ghostly haunting, the mad woman, the gloomy setting. All hallmarks of a good Bronte novel and a good Gothic story. It’s no wonder that Gaskell was approached by Charlotte Bronte’s father to write her biography. Like in Wuthering Heights, a woman is punished for falling in love with a dark foreigner and comes back as a spirit. In the end it’s implied that the spirits of the woman and her daughter find peace, a relatively happy ending for Gothic fiction.
Amelia Edwards’ short story The Phantom Coach is written by a woman, but quite different from the stories mentioned above. Unlike most other female-authored Gothic stories, the main character of this one is a man. There is only one woman in the entire story, and she is only appears in the very last paragraphs. It does have the spooky old house, the ghostly appearance. But I do wonder why unlike the other authors already mentioned, Edwards did not choose to have a female main character. The only woman is only referred to as being the main characters wife. This could be representative of the role women were expected to play in the Victorian Era, that of the dutiful wife that does not get to have her own identity.
So, why was Gothic fiction so popular during the Victorian Era? As this blog points out, there was also a surge in spiritualism at the time, a seemingly frivolous interest of the often serious Victorians. There is also the fact the female madness appears so often. Were women writers using Gothic fiction as a way of getting out their anxieties about the roles they were meant to step into? In a world where women were supposed to be quiet and stay in the domestic sphere, being emotional was a luxury they often did not have. In light of this, it makes sense that women would write about female madness, almost as way of exploring extreme emotions that they themselves were not supposed to feel. Women in Gothic fiction were also more adventurous and curious than in other works of fiction of the time. They would explore, fall in love with people they shouldn’t, investigate hauntings and mad women in attics. When women were not allowed these things, of course they would write choose a genre that lent itself to them.
There’s so many reasons why Gothic fiction may have been popular with women in the Victorian Era. There’s so many reasons why Gothic fictions is still so popular with women today. Personally, I’m a slave to the aesthetic of it. I love the gloomy settings, the sense of mystery, the threat of the supernatural. There’s nothing quite like curling up with a spooky Gothic tale on a dark and stormy night.